Bolivia, Peru resist international pressure on coca

In its 2007 Annual Report, released March 5, the International Narcotics Control Board called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to ban coca chewing, as well as its sale or export. The indigenous people of the Andes have chewed coca for thousands of years, and the call is likely to fall on deaf ears in the Andes.

The INCB is a 23-member independent commission that works with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and other international organizations to monitor implementation of the series of international treaties that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime. While its remit includes ensuring adequate supplies of drugs are available for medical and scientific uses, it spends much of its resources trying to prevent any deviations from the global prohibitionist drug policy status quo. For instance, this year, the INCB once again criticized Canada for allowing harm reduction measures such as the Vancouver safe injection site and the distribution of “safe crack use kits.”

In its review of coca and cocaine production in South America, the board noted that despite multi-billion dollar eradication efforts in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—responsible for 50%, 33%, and 17% of coca production, respectively—cocaine production had remained stable at between 800 and 1,000 tons a year for the past decade. The way to get at cocaine production is to eliminate coca production, the board suggested.

“The Board requests the Government of Bolivia and Peru to take measures to prohibit the sale, use and attempts to export coca leaf for purposes which are not in line with the international drug control treaties,” the group said. “The Board is concerned by the negative impact of increased coca leaf production and cocaine manufacture in the region.”

It urged governments “to establish as a criminal offense” using coca leaf to make tea, flour, or other products. That would undercut efforts in all three countries to develop and expand markets for coca products.

Reaction from Bolivia, where former coca leader President Evo Morales has called for the removal of the coca plant from the list of substances banned by the international drug treaties, was swift and negative. “In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca,” said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. “To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity,” he told Bloomberg News Service March 7.

Treating coca as if it were a dangerous drug was “absurd,” said Wade Davis, an author and botanist who studied coca in Colombia. “Coca is as vital to the Andes as the Eucharist is to Catholics,” he told the news service. “There is no evidence of toxicity or addiction in 4,000 years of use.”

The INCB call to ban coca use was also met by a sharp attack from the Transnational Institute, whose Drugs and Democracy Project seeks to develop and implement pragmatic, harm reduction approaches to global drug issues. “The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures,” said Pien Metaal, a TNI researcher specializing in coca issues. “Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?”

Not only does the INCB proposal violate the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, it “would mean the prosecution of several million people in the Andean-Amazon region,” TNI said. “It targets not just consumers, but also peasants who grow coca.”

“The Board’s position makes no sense,” said Metaal. “It would criminalize entire peoples for a popular tradition and custom that has no harm and is even beneficial.”

From Drug War Chronicle, March 7

See our last posts on Bolivia and Peru.

  1. Peru: coca advocates protest suggested UN ban
    On March 19th, a group of protestors and various indigenous activist groups gathered near the central square in Lima to raise awareness about the spiritual and cultural uses of the coca leaf, roughly two weeks after the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations urged the Peruvian government to consider banning the use and sale of the leaf.

    The protest, lead by Peruvian congresswoman Hilaria Supa, called for the government and the world to consider the medicinal, cultural, and traditional uses of the leaf and urged the population to continue the fight for awareness and defense of the plant.

    “For our people it is nourishment,” Supa said. “It gives us nourishment of peace, nourishment of tranquility, of wisdom, of conscience, and of culture.”

    The protest was planned to take place in the Plaza de Armas, the central square of Lima, at noon, but at around 12:15 p.m., police blocked all entrances to the plaza, prohibiting the roughly 100 protesters from getting closer to the government palace. The protest was relocated to a square a half a block away.

    A line of 12 police officers formed a barrier between protestors and the path to the central square. Four women in traditional dress passed out coca leaves to passersby while Supa declared the reason for the protest and condemned the recommendations of the UN. The protest lasted roughly a half an hour and there were no conflicts between police and protestors.

    The INCB demanded that Peru and Bolivia “initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing” in recommendation seven of the 2007 Annual Report published on March 4. The report implies a connection between the coca leaf and the manufacture and traffic of cocaine.

    ImageHowever, protestors argued that the chewing of “mother coca” is not associated with the cocaine trade and that it is an essential part of the indigenous culture of Peru.

    “To the United States [and the UN], I say to you, why don´t you educate your people about the culture behind the coca leaf,” Supa said. “White people have transformed it into a drug…but the coca leaf is not guilty of narcotraffic.”

    The coca leaf has been chewed in spiritual ceremonies for thousands of years, and is still used today by the indigenous population as well as the general public.

    In recent years the leaf has been industrialized. It has been made into soaps, candies, crackers, and sold in packages for chewing. Some tourists who hike various trails to Machu Picchu chew the leaf to combat altitude sickness as well.

    Australian tourist Lee Horsford chewed coca leaves during his four day hike in the Peruvian highlands and found that the leaf helped combat effects caused by the high elevation.

    “I started chewing it as a novelty, really, but as soon as I stopped chewing it, I started feeling a really severe headache and it was hard to breathe,” Horsford said. “Really, I think you are stupid if you don´t chew it on the hike.”

    Many Peruvians also believe that chewing the coca leaf brings physical as well as spiritual benefits. Manuel Seminario, a 72 year-old engineer and lawyer, believes that coca leaves are the reason for his youthful appearance.

    “It gives me strength, energy, and youthfulness,” Seminario said.

    He also believes that the UN only wishes to ban the use of coca leaf chewing because chemical pharmaceutical companies want the monopoly on the industrialization of coca.

    “Almost every medicine you take has a base in coca,” Seminario said. “That is why they want to take it away from us.”

    Though the Peruvian government has not taken any official action to ban coca chewing, groups are worried that the government will ban the industrialization of the leaf.

    Congresswoman Supa reiterated the importance of defending the coca leaf as she became emotional toward the end of the speech.

    “If they take away the coca leaf, they will continue taking away pieces of our culture until we are no longer Peruvians…they will kill us,” Supa said.

    The group, made up of various smaller groups including YACHAY, Concejo Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas Originarios, and congresswoman Supa´s dispatch, has planned protests throughout the country in the coming months and weeks.

    Jenessa Stark for Upside Down World, March 20