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In recent decades, cocaine traffcking and the U.S.-promoted War on Drugs in the Andes have stigmatized the coca leaf in public awareness. But in the hilly, subtropical Yungas region of La Paz, the cultivation of coca is an age-old activity with deep cultural roots. The ethnographic work of the British-Bolivian anthropologist Alison Spedding, herself a coca grower, helps to elucidate its meaning in everyday life for Yungas residents. One of her fascinating findings is that the plant is symbolically equated with a woman, in the various phases of her life cycle. A new coca plant is known as wawa kuka (baby coca), which has to be looked after closely. After five or six years of harvests, the plant is pruned and becomes a mature mit’ani, that is, the equivalent of an adult married woman who serves the owner of the land she grows on. After some forty years, the field may be renewed, but the surviving old and knotted plants known as awicha (grandmother) are left standing. When coca leaves are harvested three times a year, they go through a drying process that likens them to the dead, who are converted from foul-smelling corpses into beneficial ancestors, like the sacred mummified bodies of preconquest Andean tradition.

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