U.S. Renews Anachronistic Campaign to Stamp Out Coca Leaf Chewing

Foreign Policy in Focus
Friday, January 14, 2011

evo-morales-cocaJust one month after President Obama announced that the U.S. would finally sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, U.S. officials are already violating the spirit – and the letter – of the agreement. U.S. officials are playing a lead role in maintaining an out-dated provision in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which attempts to abolish the centuries-old indigenous practice of chewing coca leaves. The 1961 Convention also mistakenly classified coca as a narcotic, along with cocaine.

In 2009, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, sent a letter to Ban Ki Moon requesting a minor amendment to the Single Convention by removing its demand that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished” within a 25 year period (which ended in 1989). Bolivia asked that the ban on coca leaf chewing be removed in countries where the tradition is still widely practiced, while maintaining the international prohibition on cocaine. The 18 month period for countries to register formal objections to Bolivia’s requested amendment ends on January 31, 2011. Without objections, Bolivia’s request would have been immediately granted.

Coca is an integral part of indigenous cultures in the Andes. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea help alleviate the symptoms of high altitudes, cold and hunger, and they function as a mild stimulant. The coca leaf is also used in traditional and religious ceremonies such as weddings. Coca chewing is also becoming increasingly popular in urban areas of Bolivia and in northern Argentina. Indeed, for years I was regularly served coca tea when visiting the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. But ironically, the U.S. also says drinking coca tea is an international crime.

The inclusion of a ban on coca leaf chewing in the Single Convention was, to be perfectly blunt, racist. It was based on a 1950 Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf, which was later sharply criticized for its poor methodology, racist connotations, and cultural insensitivity.  All subsequent studies have concluded that the traditional consumption of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.

Article 31 of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.” The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a UN advisory body, endorsed the Bolivian proposal in April 2010.  Previously, in May 2009, it had recognized “the cultural and medical importance of coca in the Andean region and other indigenous regions of South America” and recommended “the amendment or abolishment of the sections of the Convention relating to the custom of chewing coca leaf that are inconsistent with indigenous people´s rights to maintain their traditional practices in health and culture...”

Although Bolivia is the only county whose constitution recognizes the coca leaf as an integral part of its cultural heritage, Peru, Colombia (for its indigenous peoples), and Argentina also legally recognize the right to use coca. The Presidential Declaration of Quito signed in August 2009 by all of the South American presidents expresses support for the Bolivian proposal, asking the international community to respect the ancestral cultural manifestation of coca leaf chewing. In short, Bolivia is not the only country that cares about this issue. Moreover, the flagrant disregard for indigenous rights should be cause for consternation by indigenous communities around the world, and the international community more broadly.

The need to correct this blatant historical error to ban consumption of the coca leaf in its natural form is long overdue. Yet U.S. officials – fearful that even a modest change to the 1961 convention could call into the question the prevailing international drug control regime – are leading the charge against a widely accepted indigenous practice in Bolivia, and they have rallied numerous other countries to also formally oppose Bolivia’s proposed amendment. In the process, the U.S. is undermining respect for indigenous rights, torpedoing the ongoing negotiations for a new framework agreement for U.S.-Bolivian relations, and potentially straining relations with other South American countries. Such behavior is downright shameful.