Press Conference by Bolivia on Amendment to Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

Press Conference
New York, January 28, 2011

Bolivia would continue its campaign to remove from a United Nations convention a ban on coca leaf chewing and take its case to the Economic and Social Council, if necessary, Pablo Solón, the country’s Permanent Representative said today at a Headquarters press conference.

un-logo_blue_sml“Coca leaf chewing is a tradition and cultural practice that should be respected,” Mr. Solón said, sporting a green coca leaf on his lapel.

His Government, in 2009, had requested the deletion of two references in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that called for the practice to be abolished within 25 years of the treaty taking effect in December 1964.

“The international community has to recognize the big mistake that was committed in 1961.  If we want to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights, we have to correct that mistake,” he urged.

If no party to the Convention objected to the amendment by a 31 January 2011 deadline, the ban would be lifted, he explained.  In the case of one or more objections, the Economic and Social Council, under the treaty’s article 47, must decide whether to hold an international conference to discuss the matter.

While not a single country had rejected the proposal on the basis that coca leaf chewing was addictive and harmful to one’s health, the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden had formally objected to the amendment, he said.  Citing a January letter from the United States Embassy in La Paz, he said the United States position was contradictory: it expressed its willingness to work with Bolivian authorities “in the framework of respect of these ancient practices” and to support Bolivia’s struggle against drug trafficking, but, at the same time, it rejected the amendment.

The amendment would not overturn any country’s ban of the practice or encourage any nation to do so, he said.  Nor would it remove coca leaf from the Convention’s list of narcotic drugs under international control.  It would merely enable Bolivia and other Andean nations where chewing is a centuries-old tradition among indigenous populations to keep that practice legal.  Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca leaves in the world, next to Colombia and Peru.

He cited the findings of the "Cocaine Project", a 1991 joint initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, in which scientists from 19 developing and developed countries worldwide had concluded that the use of coca leaves “appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations”.

Earlier in the week, Bolivians took to the streets in many cities throughout Bolivia and gathered in front of the United States Embassy in La Paz to celebrate the coca plant and demand the ban be lifted.

Asked about global sensitivity to the coca leaf chewing tradition, he said the problem was that people often equated the age-old practice, as well as the more recent application of alkaloids found in coca leaves to produce pharmaceutical drugs, with drug addiction and drug trafficking.

Rejection of the practice — prevalent mainly in Bolivia and Peru, as well as in Ecuador, Colombia and northern parts of Argentina and Chile - was also part of a colonial mindset, he said, citing a 1950 report that argues that chewing should be eradicated because it is a bad habit that inhibits people’s socio-economic development.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Non-Aligned Movement, however, had publicly supported preservation of the indigenous practice, he said.  Spain had also voiced its support publicly for Bolivia’s proposal.

On a question about his country’s specific course of action after the 31 January deadline in the event of an objection to the amendment, he said his delegation would bring up the matter during the next Economic and Social Council meeting, scheduled for mid-February.

Asked about Bolivia’s engagement with the United States over its objection to the amendment and whether the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would be allowed back into Bolivia if it dropped that objection, he said Bolivia’s experience with that United States agency has been "very bad".  Since expelling it in 2008, Bolivia had done a better job of stamping out narcotic drug trafficking.

To a question about his Government’s steps to prevent drug traffickers from using coca leafs to produce cocaine, he said coca leaf cultivation should be controlled and limited to what was needed for traditional chewing.  Towards that end, the Government was trying to reduce the number of hectares of land used for coca leaf planting from 30,400 hectares at present to 12,000.  Last year, it had eliminated 8,000 hectares.