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Bocuse d'Or Social Commitment Award

Colombia: the other coca leaf

Le 28 September 2022

Mara Izquierdo is part of the Arhuaco community established in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Together with the Bocuse d’Or team of Colombia, she fights to restore the reputation of the coca leaf that is still associated with narcotrafficking.  

Mara Izquierdo is part of the Arhuaco community established in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Together with the Bocuse d’Or team of Colombia, she fights to restore the reputation of the coca leaf that is still associated with narcotrafficking.  

Interview suivante

In 2021, the Colombian team taking part in the Bocuse d’Or won the Bocuse d’Or Social Commitment Award, which rewards a strong commitment for a country. The judges were impressed by the Coca no Cocaina programme that endeavours to restore this staple plant of Colombia whilst also combatting the devastation caused by narcotraffic. Mara is the daughter of a spiritual guide in her community.
The Arhuaco population is approximately 27,000. They live in the Andes, to the north of the country. They have a very strong relationship with nature and the land they live on and have taken on the mission of protecting all the resources. Narcotrafficking is still present in Colombia and indirectly it has a negative impact on the pacific actions of the community in the region. Maria Izquierdo, who is deeply committed to the programme, received 7,000 euros from the team, which enables her to finance studies at UWC Tanzania (United World College) and further reinforce her commitments for future projects. 

What is the Coca no Cocaina programme in a nutshell?

The project aims to change the perception people have of our country, our communities. Everyone sees Colombia as the country of narcotraffic and jokes about this. This new programme promotes the use of coca leaves in cooking in an effort to change this negative image. 

Why did you become involved in the project?

I became involved two years ago. My community has a strong relationship with coca as a plant. Our connection is spiritual and very important to us: it is a living being, and we must continue to keep it alive in our culture, in our own traditional way. When the team approached us to present the project, we appreciated the fact that they wanted to change the perception the world has of this plant due to narcotrafficking. 

What are the uses for coca leaves and flour for cooking?

We have adapted coca to many different cooking styles and recipes. Colombia is a very diverse country, so it is important to show that coca can be used by everyone, for all styles and tastes, not just for one community. Ice-cream, pasta, soups, cookies… This will promote the use of the plant to society as a whole. Today, there is also a real trend in the restaurants in our country, from the simple to more gourmet cuisine. Cooking is part of our culture. It is in our DNA. I love to cook 'zounu’, a dish made with rice and beans with no salt. This recipe is also prepared for our different ceremonies. 

Do you think the programme is changing the way people perceive coca leaves?

It is difficult to change things that are so deeply ingrained in our history. Everyone has that impression, but it’s not impossible. I am beginning to see some changes. For instance, I was talking to a friend from another indigenous community where the situation is quite bad, and she agreed that it would be interesting to start working on similar actions. Several communities are joining our programme and it makes me happy to have initiated a sort of model in this respect.

Cooking, coca, spirituality, it is all interconnected?

Yes, and we have our rituals. Coca is mainly consumed by the men, but women play an essential role and also have some power. Women have a spiritual power as they are in charge of collecting, selecting the aillo (coca leaves) and taking part in the preparations for the ceremonies. As part of the Mambeo ritual, we use a device called the ‘poporo’, which symbolises the balance of opposites. The larger part represents the female aspect, the Pacha Mama, goddess of Earth, while the neck symbolises the masculine side. A metal pin is used to extract lime powder that is then chewed with coca leaves, symbolising the coming together of the sky and the Earth that gives life. We believe that humans have balanced lives thanks to the harmony between the feminine and masculine aspects, as well as family. 

Interview by Catherine Guérin
Photos: Giselle Cucunaba Manes and Julien Bouvier
Article: Sirha Food

Bocuse d'or Social Commitment Award

What does it mean to you that Colombia won this award?

‘It is helpful to me personally, but also for my community. I am currently studying in Tanzania, which is expensive. My philosophy is that when you receive help, you must endeavour to return the favour. There are several ways to do this. Helping people. This award has enabled me to study at the United World College. My responsibility is to work and study harder. I must learn things that will enable me to help my community, my region, my country. And why not, also beyond its borders.’