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.

David Mercado/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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