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UN Convention to stem coca leaf use remains deeply rooted

30 March 2011

January 31 2011 marked the end of the 18 month period during which UN member states could object to a Bolivian proposal to eliminate the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which characterizes the leaf of the coca plant as a narcotic and calls for the abolition of the practice of cultivation and chewing of coca leaf within 25 years.

Since 2009, Bolivia’s constitution has described coca as a ‘cultural heritage, a renewable natural resource’ and a key biodiversity element that helps maintain ‘Bolivian social cohesion’. Bolivia’s international campaign for the elimination of the ban included a five country European tour by the Foreign Minister, intended to convince member states to refrain from presenting any objections.

However, to critics in the United States – where the ‘War on Drugs’ has largely failed to stop either the large scale importation or consumption of processed cocaine – the coca leaf is regarded as the source for illegal drug production, obtained by treating very large quantities of coca leaves with pre-cursor chemicals,  many of which are exported by the US.

Nevertheless the United States spearheaded efforts to oppose the Bolivian proposal, and called the 50 year-old convention ‘an important tool in the global struggle against narcotics trafficking’.

In February the United States and seventeen other countries notified the UN secretary general they could not accept the proposed amendment. The opposing states – which included the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, France, Slovakia, Estonia, Italy, Bulgaria, Latvia, Ukraine, and the Federation of Russia, – argued that any change would be seen as a weakening of the ‘integrity’ of the treaty and its principle, which limits the trade and use of narcotics exclusively to medical and scientific ends.

Ancient roots

The coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca) is an integral part of everyday life for an estimated seven million mostly indigenous people in the Andean region, stretching from southern Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina, and is considered a sacred part of traditional indigenous Andean culture.

As has been done ancestrally for thousands of years, natural unprocessed coca leaf is chewed to combat altitude sickness, reduce the feelings of hunger and fatigue and to alleviate headaches, toothaches and intestinal cramps. It is also brewed as a tea, burned in religious ceremonies and used externally for arthritis and broken bones.

According to the book Cocaine the Legend the cultivation of coca leaves in the Andes region dates back to 2500-1800 B.C, and use of the leaf has been traced back 4000 years to the Lake Titicaca-based indigenous Tiawanaco empire.

Jorge Hurtado, a coca expert and La Paz-based doctor, in an interview with the newspaper The Independent, indicated that in addition to 14 alkaloids the coca leaf contains ‘more vitamin A than any fruit, and two times more calcium than milk’. It is sold legally in Bolivia, but cannot be exported without special permission.

Bolivia maintains, as do all the other South American member states, that the coca leaf is an integral part of the country’s culture and indigenous identity and that the 1961 move to abolish use of the natural coca leaf violates international agreements and contradicts principles and dispositions of treaties and later declarations such as Convention ILO 169 and the UN declaration of Rights of Indigenous peoples. In addition the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, in its capacity as advisor to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), has recommended supporting the amendment.

Branching off

In 1988, Bolivia passed laws that set strict limits on coca farming and worked with the United States to eradicate illegal cultivation, however when he took office in 2006 President Evo Morales a former coca farmer, indicated that he planned to industrialize the production of the plant.

He called off the United States sponsored military eradication of plantations and built state-run factories to produce legitimate coca products. His policies were immediately condemned by the United States. Relations were not helped by the 2008 expulsion of the U.S. ambassador and all U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency workers, following accusations of espionage.

In 2009 Morales travelled to an ECOSOC meeting where he chewed the leaf in public and asked for the removal of the plant from its banned drugs list.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of coca leaf after Colombia and Peru, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2008 Bolivian growers devoted some 30,500 hectares (75,370 acres) to the crop – far beyond the 12,000 hectares the state set aside for ‘legal’ coca use and an increase of six percent over the previous year.

Meanwhile the Bolivian government has gone to great effort to create a distinction, with slogans such as ‘Coca yes, cocaine no!, aimed to show that while the administration wants to commercialize the traditional plant, it is also serious about eliminating the illegal manufacture and trade of the derived drug. In the first two months of 2009, the government reported that Bolivian narcotics operations seized three times more cocaine than during the first two months of 2008.

Coca ‘Colla’ flowers

Despite supporting the ban, the United States Department of Justice allows coca to be exported to U.S.-based company Stepan Chemicals, which removes the addictive chemicals and sells it to Coca Cola to be used as flavoring.

Coca is also currently being used in Bolivia as an ingredient in Bolivian soft drinks, tea, flour, toothpaste and liquor.  In January 2011 the government launched a fizzy soft drink called ‘Coca Brynco’, which is made from the coca leaf. The intention was to compete with the world famous US beverage. This follows an earlier launch in 2010 of another local coca-based drink called ‘Coca Colla’.

While this name appears to risk copyright litigation from the Coca Cola Corporation, it is actually a generic title of the country’s indigenous Aymara inhabitants, and not related to the West African kola nut, which initially was another key ingredient of the US beverage.

Constructive dialogue

Following the rejection of the Bolivian amendment, ECOSOC will now have to decide how to proceed.  This is most likely to occur during their upcoming sessions to be held in Geneva in July.

According to MRG the total rejection of Bolivia’s amendment proposal will not make the issue disappear. It has to be acknowledged that this is a very ancient indigenous traditional practice and is still important to contemporary Bolivian culture and economy. What is required is a constructive dialogue to solve the legal ambiguities, while at the same time respecting the rights and practices of the country’s indigenous population.