Women display coca leaves at a peaceful protest in front of the US Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia on January 26. Photo by Sara Shahriari.

Bolivia’s President Says Chewing Coca Is an Indigenous Right

Sara Shahriari
2/16/11

Bolivian President Evo Morales has vowed that his country will continue to fight for international recognition of Bolivians' right to chew the coca leaf.

The United Nations is still considering his proposed amendment to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: that the sections stating that countries should abolish the practice of chewing the coca leaf be deleted.

"Due to lack of information, in some countries they confuse the coca leaf with cocaine, coca leaf producers with drug-traffickers and people who use coca in its natural state with addicts," said Morales, the nation’s first-ever indigenous president.

The objection of any party to the convention prevents Bolivia's proposed amendment from taking effect, and the United States and several other countries filed objections. They had until the end of January to change their minds and withdraw their objections, but that did not happen. Morales said his government will continue to push for international recognition of the leaf.

The coca leaf has been used by indigenous people in the Andean region for thousands of years to curb hunger and thirst, as well as in religious ceremonies. Miners and farmers often chew the leaf, while drinking coca leaf tea is common throughout the country. Bolivia permits a controlled quantity of coca to be cultivated legally.

When chewed, the coca leaf produces a mild stimulant effect. When the leaves are processed, small amounts of the alkaloid used to produce cocaine can be extracted from the leaf.

In late January more than a thousand marchers gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz to protest the United States' objection to the amendment. The marchers, the majority of them indigenous Quechua and Aymara Indians who had traveled through the night from rural areas to reach La Paz, gave coca leaves to passersby and displayed coca-based products such as shampoo, soda, cakes and salves to treat arthritis.

"In this country we live from the coca leaf," said marcher Maria Barra. "For us it's sacred, and it's medicine."

The United States respects the culture of indigenous peoples and recognizes chewing coca as a traditional Bolivian custom, according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. However, the integrity of the 1961 convention must be maintained because of its importance in the worldwide fight against the drug trade, the statement said.

"It is an enormous contradiction that the United States announces its respect for Bolivia's cultural traditions with respect to coca, but doesn’t support the amendment for international decriminalization of chewing, despite the existence of studies that show it doesn't have harmful health effects," Morales said today.

Bolivia's proposed amendment states that prohibition of coca leaf chewing is "a violation of the rights of indigenous peoples" set forth in The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recently endorsed by the United States. The Declaration states "indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions."

It remains to be seen whether the United Nation's Economic and Social Council will call a conference to consider an amendment to the 1961 Convention. Meanwhile, coca chewing remains a deeply rooted part of indigenous Bolivian culture.

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