Bolivia fights objections to coca-leaf chewing

The Associated Press
Friday, January 28, 2011

Bolivia will ask the United Nations to organize a conference on coca leaf-chewing if the U.S., Britain and Sweden don't withdraw their objections to the country's efforts to drop the ban on the age-old practice in an international treaty, Bolivia's U.N. ambassador said Friday.

Underscoring his point by wearing a silver lapel pin shaped like a coca leaf, Ambassador Pablo Solon told reporters that six countries had filed formal objections to Bolivia's move to lift the ban on leaf-chewing but three — Colombia, Macedonia and Egypt — withdrew them.

Monday is the deadline for countries to raise objections to Bolivia's proposed amendment to the United Nations' 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The proposal would remove language that obligates those countries that have signed it to ban the chewing of coca leaves. "This does not end Monday," Solon said.

Without objections, Bolivia's amendment would automatically take effect. Only one objection is needed to block it.

Solon said if the objections are not withdrawn, his country will appeal to the U.N. Economic and Social Council when it meets in mid-February and ask for an international conference on coca leaf-chewing. The council is the central U.N. forum for global economic and social issues, and has the power to organize international conferences in those areas.

Some regional interest groups, including the Washington Office on Latin America and the Andean Information Network, wrote U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week asking the Obama administration to drop its objection to lifting the ban before it's too late.

Thousands of Bolivians took to the streets on Wednesday in favour of ending the prohibition, chewing coca leaves outside the U.S. Embassy. Coca is a mild stimulant with high religious and social value in the Andean region. While it fights hunger and alleviates altitude sickness, it is also the raw material of cocaine.

U.S. officials say they are concerned that Bolivia's proposal would weaken the integrity of the U.N. convention.

Solon said that Bolivia does not seek to remove coca from a list of controlled substances. "This does not mean there would be free cultivation of coca leaves," said Solon, adding that Bolivia would continue to crack down on cultivation of the plant for use in manufacturing cocaine.

The convention's stipulation that coca-chewing be phased out within 25 years after it took effect in 1964 is based on a "colonial mindset" that the practice was a bad habit, Solon said.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader, launched a global campaign after his 2005 election seeking to declare coca-chewing legal, chewing it at international forums and presenting coca leaf-embossed art works to foreign officials.

Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2008, accusing them of inciting the political opposition in the country.

Solon said that no matter what happens, Bolivia will continue to protect coca leaf-chewing in its constitution. "It will never be banned in Bolivia," he said.