EL ALTO, Bolivia — Valentin Quispe, an old Indian soothsayer in a blue knit cap and a green corduroy jacket, studied a scattering of coca leaves on the wool cloth at his knees and told a client, a young man, that his marriage was in trouble.
"You and your woman may separate," Quispe said. "You have problems. Fight too much."
The young man asked if there was another woman in his future. Quispe scattered some more coca leaves and paused. "Yes," he answered. "You will have luck with the other woman."
Reading coca leaves for a glimpse of the future is an ancient tradition in these Andean highlands of Bolivia and neighboring Peru. So is chewing the leaves, giving them as a gift, using them as medicine, bartering with them and hallowing them in sacred ceremonies.
To the outside world, the little green leaf is best known as the raw material of a lucrative and illegal drug that worries the United States and Europe. The controversy over cocaine, in turn, is a cause of deep concern for those who see coca as an essential part of traditional Indian culture and rural economy. Hundreds of thousands of Bolivians and Peruvians who are not cocaine traffickers depend on the cultivation and marketing of coca leaves for their livelihoods.
Peasant cooperatives and farmers' unions in Bolivia have vowed to disobey a new law, passed at U.S. urging, that will make coca an illegal crop in most parts of Bolivia. In both Bolivia and Peru, coca growers have staged angry pro-tests over experimental projects employing herbicides against coca bushes. At least 11 people died when Bolivian peasants clashed with anti-narcotics police in June.
Those who use coca in Bolivia are generally members of a poor majority that has its roots in the rural highlands and the pre-Hispanic past. Aymara and Quechua, the languages of the Incas, are their mother tongues. Their culture remains proudly distinct from that of the country's Spanish-speaking rulers.
The cultures meet in El Alto, a dusty city of 150,000 people on the edge of a vast highland plateau called the Altiplano. On one side is the Altiplano's flat plain, where Indian farmers till rustic patches of potatoes and quinoa, the crops of their ancestors. On the other side, spilling down a steep valley, is La Paz, the national seat of government with a population of 1.5 million. The roar of jet planes at El Alto International Airport, which serves La Paz, mingles with the din of bustling marketplaces that serve the outlying rural areas.
Near one native market on a broad, dirt street known as Avenida Panoramica, Indian women come and go in bowler hats, billowing skirts and multicolored shawls. The street opens into a concrete plaza, where a statue of Christ on a tall pedestal overlooks La Paz in the valley below. Flanking the plaza, in two perpendicular rows of sky-blue shacks made of corrugated metal, about 30 soothsayers practice their ancient art.
Called yatiris , they dispense blessings in a mixture of languages and creeds. They make appointments for house calls, to administer sacred baths and ward off evil. And they read coca leaves.
Quispe agreed to let a foreigner watch a leaf-reading. To begin the session, he recited a combined version of the Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer, mixing Spanish and Aymara. When his customer expressed agreement with a prediction, the yatiri said in broken Spanish: "Always the truth from coca comes."
Rites of Birth, Death
Indian peasants live and die with coca. Before giving birth, a woman chews the leaves to hasten labor and ease the pain. After a birth, adult relatives and friends celebrate by chewing leaves together. A young man in love offers coca to the father of the girl he wants to marry. A dying person is encouraged to chew some leaves to ensure passage to a better world. Coca is the most important refreshment at wakes, and offerings of coca leaves often are placed in coffins with the dead before burial.
In day-to-day life, chewing coca leaves is important for breaking the ice in business or social encounters, for relieving hunger or tedium, and for reinforcing physical endurance.
"To work the farm, you chew coca," said Quispe. "You cannot work without coca. Without coca, work is only sad. If you chew, the heart is nourished."
There is archeological evidence that coca was cultivated by Andean Indians as early as 2000 BC, long before the great Inca dynasty, which dates from about AD 1000. It is believed that the dynasty's early monarchs, or Incas, developed a monopoly on coca, largely restricting its use to royalty, priests, medicine men and message runners, who could travel up to 150 miles a day by chewing coca leaves.
Incas' Loyalty Inducement
Coca also was used in religious sacrifices, initiation rites, as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. As a trading commodity, it was more valuable than gold. In building their empire, the Incas are said to have supplied coca to conquered chieftains as an inducement to loyalty.