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Bolivia drops out of UN drug pact to protect its coca chewers

Bolivia intends to reapply to the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but with a reservation that it does not recognize the ban on chewing the coca leaf, a practice with a long national tradition.

By Sara ShahriariCorrespondent / July 18, 2011

A Bolivian woman gives her baby coca leaves in La Paz, in January. Bolivia has announced that it will withdraw from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because it bars the chewing of coca leaves, a traditional Bolivian activity.

David Mercado/Reuters

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The Bolivian government's policy of "Coca Yes, Cocaine No" is unfolding in surprising ways, as the Andean nation is withdrawing from a United Nations convention that bans chewing the coca leaf and simultaneously planning a new deal with the United States and Brazil to monitor coca cultivation.

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Bolivia has presented a denunciation to the UN that seals its resignation from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans chewing the coca leaf. The denunciation responds to “the need to guarantee respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples, and all who chew coca as a traditional cultural practice,” said Bolivia’s foreign minister David Choquehuanca of the country’s unprecedented resignation from the convention.

The small, thick coca leaf, which can be processed into cocaine, is also an everyday part of Bolivian life. Sodas made using the leaf, packets of coca tea, and salves to treat arthritis can be purchased in shops and supermarkets around the country. Laborers including farmers and miners chew the leaf because it staves off hunger and thirst, and upper-class urban dwellers drink coca-leaf tea to calm upset stomachs. But the coca leaf is more than a pick-me-up and a natural remedy in Bolivia, where it also plays a key role in the religious ceremonies of many of the country's indigenous people, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population.

Bolivia’s resignation from the convention becomes effective Jan. 1, 2012. Government officials say the country will apply to rejoin the convention even before the resignation becomes effective with the reservation that it does not recognize language that bans chewing the coca leaf. A month after applying to rejoin Bolivia will again be a party to the convention, but all parties have until the end of 2012 to object to the reservation. If less than one-third of the parties object to Bolivia’s reservation regarding chewing the leaf, the reservation is accepted.

The International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors government compliance with drug treaties, released a statement expressing regret at Bolivia’s denunciation of the convention. The Control Board encouraged the international community to reject moves by any country to leave the convention and return with reservations, saying this “would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system.”

The modern history of coca control efforts in Bolivia is complex. During the 1990s, successive US administrations tried to eradicate coca totally in the Chapare region of Bolivia but accepted growth of almost 30,000 acres in other areas.

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