Secrets of the sacred leaf revealed and defended by a Peruvian pilgrim

Earlier this year we got tipped off that José Manuel Seminario Bisso and his ´Coca Mobil´ were in town. Around the world, there are thousands of people defending the rights of those who cannot speak and José Manuel represents one of them. He is defending the rights of a product native to countries like Peru, Bolivia and Colombia: Erythroxylum coca, better known as the coca plant. José Manuel may be called a pilgrim and with his Coca Mobil he is completing his pilgrimage in order to get the sacred coca leaf legalised around the world. We met him for an interview so he could explain his reasons for commercialising all types of products related to and made of coca leaf.

Fifty-nine-year-old, Manuel Seminario was born in Lima and is a psychologist by profession and he also practices journalism but describes himself as an entrepreneur. For the past 25 years, he has been making mis own wholemeal products and is a vegetarian, not eating not even fish. During this time, he discovered that there was an increasing demand for wholemeal products and the sumak kawsay (in its original Quechua meaning, sumak refers to the realisation of an ideal and beautiful planet, while kawsay means life; a dignified life in fullness). Manuel’s interpretation of the meaning of sumak kawsay is complying things such as good nutrition, good thinking, good sex life, good clothes etc. We asked him how his interest in the coca leaf was sparked. This is his story.

Roughly 25 years ago, I started making wholemeal cookies. Interestingly, 11 years later I was looking for a way to improve my biscuits when I found out about the coca in powder form (flour). I offer all sorts of cookies made of quinoa, kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus), cañahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua), maka and linaza (linseed).  Obviously, I had heard of the coca leaf, but when I found out that there existed also coca flour, you should have seen me. It was like I had found green gold. The first product I created was an energy bar based on the coca leaf; however, I needed to go to the Regional Health Directorate in Lima to get the product approved. The Health Directorate normally only declares presented products as innocuous. They don´t qualify products as good or bad, just innocuous or not. Normally it takes around five to seven days to get the certificate but this time it took a lot longer, it was about 18 months before my energy bar could be sold to the public. Eighteen months! Now wonder why that would be? I am pretty sure that they waited so long on purpose to see if I would lose interest.

What´s behind all this is that all people and entrepreneurs that work with coca-based products we are labelled as drug smugglers. It appears to be a defamation campaign. And not casually because I wouldn’t be able to say that the people we´re dealing with don´t know what the product is about. They know exactly what the function of the coca leaf is about. What about the pharmaceutical industry?  What do you think the pharmaceutical industry thinks about someone that sells natural products based on the coca leaf and additionally tells people that with this natural product diseases will be a thing of the past? Bear in mind that the coca leaf has been consumed for over 5,000 years now and that spectacular civilizations have constructed the most incredible structures such as Machu Picchu, Chan Chan, Chavín and Caral. These places are still appreciated and people wonder how they were built. So like I said before, it seems more like a defamation campaign against people willing to promote the use of the coca leaf. I am a merchant but also nothing more than a messenger. What I am trying to do is simply say what is the purpose and benefits of the coca leaf. For me coca is the panacea, it will cure everything (in Greek mythology, Panacea [Greek, Πανάκεια] was a goddess of universal remedy). Understand that I have travelled to many places and been to many fairs around the country but what´s really interesting is selling in the street, like I am doing here in Huaraz with my Coca Mobil. People will tell me during a quick chat what the benefits are of using the coca leaf. I am not making this up, or trying to convince them, no, the people buying my products tell me what the benefits are. People consider it a miracle cure and I have been told stories that, for example, a diabetic can stop to injecting insulin. (The Huaraz Telegraph does not advise diabetics stop using insulin. Please take advice from your doctor before making and changes to your medication.)

If we look back in history there are some interesting changes that have happened in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, which are, according to my point of view, related to the coca leaf. During the Second World War, Dr. Josef Mengele, a German Schutzstaffel (SS) Nazi officer and physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp practised thousands of human experiments. Most of these terrible experiments led to the development of new medications. And then shortly after WWII there was the American dominance of the markets, which is still happening today because Americans believe they are the ´owners´ of the modern world.  No one criticised the two atom bombs dropped in Japan, even though this was a massive abuse of power. What is the problem with the coca leaf? Aren’t there many other and much bigger problems in the world such as having sufficient tap water, mining, and destruction of the planet etcetera? Anyway, referring to the American domination of the world, on the 30th of March in 1961, the use of the coca leaf was banned worldwide at the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in New York. Terrible things were said about the function of the coca leaf, which finally led to a very negative campaign to get the leaf destroyed. Much propaganda was spread by pseudo journalists with the only objective to demolish the coca leaf. In Peru the coca leave has been consumed since the earliest civilization in Caral a mere 5,000 years ago until 500 years ago when the Spaniards set foot on our soil. Explorer Christopher Columbus even mentioned in his chronicles that on the fourth day while exploring Peru, the locals had some strange leaves in their mouths and that they were chewing them all day long. What else can this have been? Coca leaves obviously. Why do the Americans have to decide what product we can or cannot consume? The coca plant has never been manipulated. Let me explain that it´s all about energy!

Like I said before I have travelled a lot and I have seen how many people have had positive experiences with the coca leaf. And I believe that the coca leaf should benefit every human being; however, this is not possible unfortunately but does it matter the leaf is native to Peru? Many people around the world are suffering from universal chronic fatigue, which is caused by bad nutrition, employment and family stress, and bad politics making people feel dejected. Who wakes up nowadays and looks at the sun and says, what a beautiful day it is today? No, people start the day by saying, not again! So this natural tiredness of people around the world has created brands like Red Bull, and even the Coca-Cola Company has expanded distribution in the global energy drink category. This means there is much money involved in the energy drink market. However, all these dinks are in reality drugs because all drinks contain caffeine and taurine. This compound is not based on plants but on alkaloids, which have important physiological effects on humans and animals and are a group of naturally occurring chemical compounds that contain mostly basic nitrogen atoms. Now a green plant that finds its origin in the Andes, nourished by mother earth and strengthened by the sun that is not manipulated becomes forbidden, strange no? People selling products based on plants have more difficulties than businesses selling chemicals for human consumption. Remember that I can only sell my coca products in Peru and Bolivia. This is one of the reasons that a couple of intelligent businessmen united in Lima one day and founded the Asociación Peruana de la Hoja de Coca (Peruvian Association of the Coca Leaf). There are also three associations of coca producers in Peru. But the purpose of our association is to promote the use of the coca leaf. We have held speeches and expositions in different countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina and the next one will be in Colombia where we will share our knowledge and concerns. Colombia has prohibited the use of the coca leaf with the exception of indicated indigenous reservations. I have sold coca leaf-based products around the world, even though this is prohibited. Do you know Mahatma Gandhi? He employed civil disobedience, believing that an unjust law should be disobeyed. I follow the same practice and have always got away with it.

So what you are saying is that you just cross the border into other countries risking getting jailed or worse?

Well, logically I have to hide my products. Of course! I have many secret compartments in my van, which work like crates. I have to admit that when I cross the border I am not taking that many products with me as I have at the moment in my van. Let me tell your readers that in 2012 in Colombia, I didn’t have any merchandise. But a friend of mine in Colombia had a company called Coca Nasa (an economic project generated by an indigenous community) and he helped me out with some products, which I tried to sell. In Pamplona, close to the Venezuelan border I was held up by a policeman in an area outside of the so-called indigenous reservations. The police told me that I could not sell those products and that I had to follow him to the police station. They impounded my Coca Mobil, my products and even threw me in jail. I was travelling with a Norwegian girl at the time and lucky me the day before my arrest, the leaders of the FARC (the guerrilla movement of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) united with the Colombian Government to discuss a ceasefire and peace negotiations with help of the Norwegian Government. I have to admit that at the time of the arrest, I knew that the police were doing the right thing and that there was nothing to complain about. What happened was that pretty quickly some friends of mine heard about the arrest and tried to provide me a lawyer. I might have tried to bribe the police but I didn’t because it was more a case of respect. They were doing their job, and I was doing mine. When the ombudsman showed up he started to talk to the police and reminded him of the fact that Norway had led the peace talks and that they were about to send a 20-year-old from Norway to prison, it made them change their mind. We were released and I got all my products, including the van back.

You don’t consider coca a drug?

Nowadays, in schools children are told that coca is a drug. A smart pupil, however, will ask their teacher how on earth did the Incas construct Machu Picchu if they were drugged all the time, right? This would be a smart question, wouldn’t it? Should we feel ashamed of the fact that our ancestors consumed coca leaves? Imagine a young smartass that tells his grandfather that he shouldn’t chew coca leaves because at school they told him that these are drugs. It´s the world upside down. The result is that the elderly will feel embarrassed that they are using coca leaves. Another worrying thing is that Quechua language, the traditional colourful cloths and many other old traditions in our country are held contempt by our own society. The key word here is domination, or better said control. The world is globalising and it´s not good that a European, an Asian and an African child thinks and learns the same things. To let everybody think the same, people should first be disconnected from what they once were. Anyway.

The coca plant is a very generous plant as it lasts over 25 years and offers four harvests through the year. In many Andean places where nothing grows, people only have this plant and that´s how they make a bit of money. The government of Ollanta Humala and the United Nations only try to destroy the coca plant and this is, sadly, applauded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who seems to offer ´something´ in return. Let me paint the following picture: imagine the world packed with tanks, police and army with masks and machine guns killing plants? This is how I see the world; ridiculous, like something out of a comic. Many people in the Andes that have a small little farm often have to run for their lives when army helicopter circles above their small houses when they are about to destroy another hectare of coca plants.

So returning to the pilgrimage you’re completing, what is exactly your mission and when will it end?

Because of tiredness, we will win! That´s how I call it. Maybe Colorado is a good example, I believe that there are four states in the US that are selling marijuana at the moment for recreational or medical use, although the federal law dictates that the use, possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of cannabis is illegal. I believe that someone who wants to use cocaine, heroin or marijuana, uses it because he or she wants to. Not because it´s forbidden or illegal! It´s like saying, let´s forbid it because the people are not consuming it. Now if heroin were legal, would I be an addict? There must be another way, but this is up to more powerful people. Do you know where the most violent triangle in the world is? In Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador more people die than in Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq and those countries aren’t even at war! This is because drugs pass through those countries. In South America we suffer death while in the US and Europe people are enjoying our product. If it wasn’t a good product, people wouldn’t pay for it or use it, would they? It´s an enormous business of course but the biggest part goes to the dealers and not to the local producers. What I am trying to say is that we should find a way to make sure that cocaine isn’t causing all the violence it is doing right now. There must be a way! My pilgrimage will end when the UN take coca plant related products off their forbidden list, but I might be dead by then because this will take probably a while. Remember it took me 18 months to get my energy bar based on the coca leaf approved. Capitalism in general is falling apart and I believe we should go back to the life of our ancestors, the indigenous people who have a highly respected relationship with nature. Well, this is what I believe and if others think differently, I have no problems with that.

How do locals react when they find out you´re in town?

Very good, I always get positive reactions from the people. This is the fourth time that I have come to Huaraz. Huaraz is a nice place and I like to be here as I have many friends. However, the first time there were some people that looked surprised and I have been insulted by some in the beginning. They were asking how on earth I could sell drugs on the street, but not anymore.

So returning to the benefits of the coca leave, what does it offer according to you?

That´s very simple, it offers energy. The coca leaf powder I sell offers a lot of energy and if you were to drink just a glass of water, or orange juice, you should really consider adding a teaspoon of coca leaf powder. It will offer you enough energy that will last four hours. My market is the same as Red Bull´s market. You could say we´re competitors, this is funny isn’t it? Did you know that in Quechua the plant is called Coca Mama? Coca means plant in Quechua and mama means mother, which means that this plant is considered the mother of all plants. People often haven’t got a clue. I sell many products like coca wine, coca pisco and even apple nectar with coca flavour.  I sell basically everything and even sweet bread loaf Panettone made of coca flour. In terms of minerals, every 100 grams of coca leaves offers small quantities of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron, sodium, strontium, aluminium, barium, boron, copper, zinc and chromium. It also offers 3.68 mg of fat, 47.50 mg of carbohydrate and 19.50 mg in proteins. But that´s not all, the leaf is also full of vitamins. There is beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin in it, which can cure different diseases such as depression, gastritis, amnesia, diabetes, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, hypertension and hypotension. You now see how powerful this plant actually is?

Do you have children and what do they think about their dad?

I have a very good relationship with my three children, and they help me with the making of the products. I am a grandfather; I have two grandchildren. On my trips I am on my own normally but there are always friends that want to join me in my van. I sometimes wake up in the morning, as I sleep in the van, and then without having washed my face I have customers knocking on my door and have to attend them. I am a pilgrim 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is sometimes tiring but very satisfying as well as I can easily make a living of it. I must, however, not show that I am yawning or that I am tired because remember that I am selling energy! Haha, this is sometimes funny when I have driven over ten hours and I get to some new place, the first thing people ask is why I am tired! I have still many roads to travel through South America, and I hope to go to Europe as well.

I remember that a mere ten years ago I could easily buy coca tea in supermarkets in Lima such as Wong and Tottus, but in December last year, I couldn’t find a single package. Does this mean that in the capital the people are no longer consuming coca tea?

In our nation´s capital, coca is seen as an indigenous product; a product that belongs and belonged to the poor from the Andes. These coca teas are made by ENACO (Empresa Nacional De La Coca), which is the only company in Peru that is allowed to make coca related products. The Peruvian Constitution says that our country is protected from monopolies but sadly ENACO is an exception to the rule. If I buy coca leaves from an agriculturist I am doing something illegal, but it´s alright for ENACO. Although ENACO sells it for ten times the price compared to what the farmers get. So what I do is I buy it from the farmers but pay them the same price as ENACO charges. This is how we both win. Because the US and the UN, ENACO has a job to eliminate the coca leaf and not to commercialise it. However, one of the biggest producers of a worldwide known soda brand in the US is importing many tons of coca leaves, what a contradiction no?

Rounding up the interview, we bought a couple of his products and wished him good luck with his pilgrimage. We did, however, wonder how Patrick Bertrand (French owner of Creperie Patrick in Huaraz), producer of Licor de Coca thought about ENACO. Would he be able to sell his product across the border?

According to Patrick, ENACO is indeed the biggest supplier of coca leaves for the US. He told us that unfortunately it isn’t possible to export his coca liquor but that when tourists want to send a bottle overseas, it passes though costumes without any problems. Patrick also showed us an interesting newspaper clipping from La República. In the article published in June, on Friday the 13th, of 2003, it says that ENACO exported its first 22,680 kilos of coca leaves to the United States, worth U$ 68,000 at the time. This was only the first of 92 tons that were requested by an American company called Stepan Company based in New Jersey. Interestingly, the article also claims that 120 kilos of pure cocaine was shipped across the border to Germany and England. Apparently, for investigation, medicinal and pharmaceutical use only.

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