Coca plants grow in the Chapare region in central Bolivia, where attempts to eradicate the coca plant led to decades of sporadic violent confrontations between government forces and coca farmers.

Bolivia Celebrates Coca Gamble Success in the UN

Sara Shahriari
January 16, 2013


Thousands of coca farmers rallied in Bolivia Monday, January 14 to celebrate the country's recent victory in the United Nations, the latest chapter in the Andean nation's quest to change how the world views the coca leaf.

The coca leaf, the base ingredient needed to produce cocaine, has been cultivated in parts of Andean South America for thousands of years. In Bolivia it is widely chewed, especially by indigenous people in rural areas, to ward off thirst and fatigue, and as part of social gatherings. A mild stimulant in its natural form, coca also treats a myriad of ills including altitude sickness and stomach aches, and is a crucial offering to the Pachamama, or Earth Mother, during religious celebrations.

President Evo Morales withdrew Bolivia from the United Nations' 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which lists the coca leaf as a controlled substance and requires participating countries abolish the practice of chewing the leaf, after attempts to amend the Convention failed. The Andean nation then took an unprecedented step and moved to rejoin the Convention with one reservation: Bolivians' right to chew the coca leaf in their territory is protected. That move was accepted late last week.

"The coca leaf has been penalized, satanized and criminalized at the international level. Consumers were labeled drug addicts, and producers as drug traffickers," said President Evo Morales, according to State newswire ABI, after the U.N. made the news public late on January 11. "This is great recognition from the international community of our identity, our coca leaf and chewing it."

The United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, Israel, Finland, Portugal, Ireland, Japan and Mexico rejected Bolivia's request. But that total of 15 countries fell short, as objections from at least one-third of the 183 States participating in the Convention were needed to end Bolivia's gamble. Bolivia now rejoins the Convention as the only participating country with a reservation in place that protects the age-old practice of chewing coca.

"This is an achievement for Bolivia, and an important international precedent," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of Bolivia-based policy watchdog the Andean Information Network. "The definition of the coca leaf as a dangerous narcotic alongside heroin, cocaine and opium in the Convention text is a glaring error without any scientific basis, and in this case Bolivia followed U.N. guidelines to successfully separate the two."

In contrast to the coca leaf's traditional uses in Bolivia is the cocaine trade, and Bolivia, Colombia and Peru are the world's primary cocaine producers. During the last three decades the United States, the world's largest cocaine consumer, was heavily involved in Bolivian drug policy, attempting to cut cocaine production through a combination of counter-narcotics operations, aid and divisive coca eradication policies whose bitter legacy is still alive in Bolivia today. In 2008 Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and ushered in a new era of drug policy.

In the formal reservation submitted to the U.N., Bolivia said it will continue to "take all necessary legal measures" to control excess coca cultivation and drug production. However, The United States' objection says the country is concerned Bolivia's reservation will lead to expanded supplies of coca and cocaine. 

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