Coca was considered a sacred plant in Andean civilizations from very early on. Known as the divine leaf of immortality by the Incas, the plant, according to Cabieses, became one of the first cultural conflicts that the Spanish faced. “The persecution of the so-called idolatries included the coca leaf, the sacred plant used in practically all native religious rites.” (1)
During the 16th century, while enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish died at the heights of the Potosí mines due to drastic changes in altitude and forced labor, Spanish haciendas were established in different areas of what we know today as Bolivia to consolidate coca crops that would distribute the leaf to the other areas of mining work. The religious colonial veto had to give way to the imperative need to exploit the minerals of the newly colonized fields. The African workforce settled in the Yungas areas to adapt to the colonial economy. For centuries, they have maintained and appropriated an Andean culture that views coca as sacred.
Currently, the Yungas area continues to produce coca leaves legally for consumption in Bolivia. Afro-Bolivian communities maintain a close relationship with the cultivation, management, and work of the coca leaf, being one of the areas with the most significant Andean prestige for its cultivation and one with the highest production in the country. Family dynamics take over the different tasks of germination, cultivation, care, and cleaning: in turn, groups of Afro-Bolivian women work in crews, providing their services as harvesters, touring the Yungas territory daily, and collecting the leaves carefully.
1. Cabieses, Fernando. (nineteen ninety six). The coca leaf and its crossroads. Agrarian debate. 25: 149-164. p. 150.