Foreign policies designed with the intention of protecting domestic interests often have unintended consequences for foreign countries or groups of people. Since the early 1980s the United States has been waging a War on Drugs in Latin America that has not only failed to diminish the production and flow of drugs but has also resulted in a variety of unintended negative consequences for Latin Americans. In South America, indigenous groups in the Andes have been growing coca leaves, the plant from which cocaine is derived, for cultural and religious purposes for centuries. The leaves are chewed together by friends and family members in a symbolic gesture of community and reciprocity. When consumed in their raw form, coca leaves are not a harmful narcotic and do not cause health problems. Only when processed with certain chemicals does coca become an addictive and dangerous drug. Indigenous South Americans have historically been impoverished, largely as a result of ethnic discrimination. But when the tin mining industry, where most indigenous people in the Andes had worked since colonization, collapsed in the 1970s, this poverty became more extreme. Many reacted by increasing their coca cultivation and selling the leaves to drug traffickers, and today many indigenous South Americans are dependent on the drug trade for their livelihoods. The United States' War on Drugs has focused its efforts on destroying the coca crops of South Americans. This study contends that this policy decision has negatively and disproportionately affected indigenous South Americans in three ways. First, it has disproportionately decreased the economic status of indigenous people by threatening their only available source of income. Additionally, it has made public perceptions of the coca leaf more negative and exacerbated discrimination against indigenous people who grow it. Lastly, it has forced many indigenous South Americans to abandon growing and chewing a plant that is central to their culture and identity, thereby contributing to the erosion of ancient indigenous cultures.


Krain, Matthew


International Relations


International Relations


indigenous, coca, cocaine, drugs, war on drugs, aymara, quechua

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



© Copyright 2011 Sarah Burpee