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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.

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Forced eradication pitted US policy against some regional Bolivian organizations and created animosity that is still alive today. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s Aymara Indian president, rose into Bolivia’s political scene as director of a highly organized federation of coca growers.

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The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that in 2009, about 76,355 acres of coca were cultivated in Bolivia. Of those acres, about 49,420 are legally grown under Bolivian law and considered destined for local, licit use. Production that exceeds local demand is often processed into cocaine – but despite this producer status, annual cocaine consumption in Bolivia remains lower than in the United States, according to a 2011 UN Office on Drug and Crime study. Instead of being consumed in the country, most of Bolivia's cocaine makes its way through isolated regions across the porous borders to Brazil, Chile, or Argentina for consumption, and a small amount eventually reaches Europe.

Bolivia and Brazil are poised to sign an agreement within days that is designed to monitor coca crops in Bolivia, along with a third partner: the United States. The US role in the agreement will likely be limited to contributing funds for equipment used in monitoring. Even this limited role may seem surprising considering the fiery rhetoric often directed at the US by the Bolivian government and the fact that President Morales expelled both the US's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US ambassador to Bolivia in 2008, saying that they worked to undermine his administration. However, Bolivia and the US have continued cooperation through the US Narcotics Affairs Section, which funds equipment used by Bolivian counternarcotics forces, since the expulsion of the DEA.

The Andean Information Network (AIN), a nongovernment organization that tracks drug policy in Bolivia, says that the current trilateral draft agreement overlooks productive existing multilateral collaboration on crop monitoring. According to Kathryn Ledebur, director of AIN, the US and Bolivia have been unable to form a foundation of trust after the expulsion of the US ambassador and the DEA. The trilateral accord could improve relations with the US, or extend Bolivia’s lack of trust to its Brazilian partners.

The outcome of Bolivia’s gamble to legalize chewing the coca leaf under the convention while partnering with powerhouses Brazil and the US to control cultivation will take time to play out. Bolivia could find itself increasingly isolated from the international community, or the repercussions for Bolivia could be minimal while drawing attention to the key issue of coca chewing.


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