History of Erythroxylum novogranatense in Java


The Dutch Colonial Coca Boom, 1905-1930

From: The Rise and Demise of Coca and Cocaine: As Licit Global 'Commodity Chains', 1860-1960

by Paul Gootenberg (SUNY-Stony Brook, October 2001)



The spread of the Dutch rise to predominance in world coca and cocaine trades took the world by surprise, especially the Peruvians, who in 1900 still felt they enjoyed a natural (Incan) birthright to the global coca market. In 1904 Dutch Java (now of Indonesia) exported only 26 tons of coca leaf; this soared to 800 in 1912 and a mass industrial supply of 1,700 tons in 1920, to a glutted world market. The Dutch built an especially productive and integrated industrial cocaine regime, yet it was also dismantled by decree almost as quickly as it arose.

Dutch scientific-commercial interest in coca dates to the 1850s, but plantings began in the mid- 1880s when such botanical experiments spread among the European colonial powers. One advantage was accidental: the abnormally high-alkaloid coca-bush Javan planters got from the colonial botanical gardens at Buitenzorg descended from one strand of Peruvian Erythroxylon novogranatense, originally from Kew. It contained twice (up to 1.5%) the cocaine content of quality Huanuco leaf but in a tricky to refine ecgonine crystallized form, practically useless for herbal coca products. Given Peru's rapid move into crude cocaine in the 1885-1900 era, not much interest was evinced in Javan coca, though small lots reached European markets.

After 1900, several factors suddenly focused Dutch interest in coca/cocaine, spurred on by national botanical specialists like de Jong and Reens. One was establishment in 1900 of Amsterdam's large state-bank subsidized "Nederlandsch Cocainefabrieck (NCF), based on copying advanced German patents for ecgonine-cocaine extraction. The second were steady investments in plantation productivity and quality. Cheap Chinese field labor, four-crops yearly, economies of scale and technical rationalization, inter-cropping with colonial rubber and tea projects, all made Javan plantation efficiency dwarf the haphazard peasant-style coca culture of the Andes. By 1911 they captured a capture of the world market, filtered through Amsterdam into a high-margin fully-integrated cocaine industry. World War I spurred further European reliance on this coca corridor. Dutch industrial-grade coca also made it to Japan, Belgium, France and even to United States; in the 1920s, impressed by its reliable quantity, New Jersey Merck acquired its own Javan plantation, which performed well into the 1930s. Three world "cores" of cocaine now existed: Darmstadt, northern New Jersey and Amsterdam, with an enlarged NCF the biggest single producer. Together, they dramatically reduced prospects for Peruvian coca (wiped off of European markets from 1908-15) and crude cocaine (confined to a now struggling German sector). Peruvian coca/cocaine export values dropped by some 95% by the 1920s. Peruvians watched these developments helplessly, without the time, capital or technical expertise to respond.



Paradoxically, almost as quickly as it arose the Dutch cocaine network receded. By 1920, Java coca could basically satisfy full world cocaine demand of 12 tons; prices plummeted and profits zigzagged throughout the 1920s. The NCF even began making Novocaine, cocaine's latest synthetic substitute. Price controls emerged to manage the surplus. Assisted by the League of Nations itself (interested mainly in drug-control formulas) a new formal European cocaine syndicate (no puns on Colombian "cartels") was formed in 1924 with eight firms: "The European Convention of Cocaine Producers." It included the NCF and the three largest German makers (only domestic French, British, German and Russian firms stayed apart). At first, this meant more directed purchases from Java but also steadily declining cocaine quotas. A Dutch national "Association of Coca Producers" also formed, which soon worked to downsize itself and diversify into alternative crops. In the late 1920s, Dutch production shrunk systematically. From 1929-31, the Netherlands, in contradictory political moves, opted to comply fully with the coca-cocaine export controls of the League's Geneva Manufacturing limitation agreements (dispite disagreements with U.S. anti-drug strategies and with a fiscal favoritism for colonial opium farmers). With a tiny home market, NCF output withered to 250-300 kilos annually. Japan's World War II invasion of Java mortally disrupted the corridor and the subsequent U.S. occupation led to the (mandated) destruction of remaining coca plantings in Java. It had been a brief but spectacular political marriage of colonialist state, industry and planter. (And a reminder today that coca could easily escape the Andes for other tropical realms if enough pressure is applied).