Bolivia’s Conflicting Stance With the USA on Coca Chewing

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

While Bolivia was reported to be the world’s third largest producer of coca by the UN 2010 World Drug report, US agents working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will not be returning there anytime soon. The Latin Americanist blogs:

In 2008 Morales expelled the Drug Enforcement Agency from operating in Bolivia after the U.S. ambassador was accused of plotting to oust him. More recently the U.S. and Bolivian government have been at odds over Morales’ push to overturn a global ban on coca chewing.

The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was a militant coca grower prior to his Presidency and passionately defends coca growing and chewing.

Coca Market in Bolivia. Image by Flickr user orianomada (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coca chewing acts as a mild stimulant and has largely been used to treat altitude sickness. Using the coca leaf for chewing or brewing tea has been a traditional indigenous practice in the Andes region. A study (publication of this study was banned, but is partially available on the Transnational Institute’s website) in 1995 by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that no negative effects appear through the use of coca leaves; rather, the indigenous Andean population experienced positive effects in their therapeutic, sacred, and social functions. Blogging by boz summaries:

There is no particularly good reason to prohibit coca leaf chewing, tea or transportation. Banning the coca leaf isn't helping the fight against transnational organized crime or drug trafficking in the hemisphere. Coca chewing is not a public health issue nor does it threaten to become one if it is legalized.

After a questionable, brief stint by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf in Bolivia and Peru (1949), the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ordered the elimination of chewing coca leaves within 25 years of the treaty going into effect. Bolivia has again resurfaced as a proponent to eliminate this UN ban.

The US moved to block Bolivia’s request, further citing that an amendment to the article shows Bolivia’s lack of cooperation in the fight against the drug trade. Bolivians held demonstrations, ‘chew-ins’ (see a slideshow of the chew-ins by the Andean Information Netowork), in support of their government’s push for an amendment. Hemispheric Brief adds:

Cocalero and governing MAS party leader Leonilda Zurita contends the US position is out-of-touch with the much of the world. “The countries support us so that we can de-penalize (coca chewing); the only one opposing us is the United States,” Zurita tells AFP.

The concerns are what would reduce the amount of illegal drugs entering the US, and if the elimination of coca chewing would play a strong role in this. US officials are encouraging Mexico to look at a US sponsored ‘Plan Colombia’ as a model in the drug war, despite critics of the policy calling it a failure. The strategy of breaking up larger cartels in order to disrupt their operations results in the immediate filling of the gap by smaller groups which are harder to track, monitor, and infiltrate. The case was observed to be true in Bolivia. Stephen N. DeWitt in A Franciscan Abroad shares:

During my time there a groups from my language school visited one of Bolivia’s big coca growing regions and talked to the anti-drug police there. They told us that the majority of drug operations in the area are family affairs. These are small family groups that process small amounts of raw coca for export to Columbia [sic] and other places to be further refined into cocaine. These groups use relatively cheap, portable equipment that can be moved or abandoned if discovered. It is nearly impossible to reduce these groups; when you arrest or shut down one, there are ten more ready to pick up the slack.

The move by the US to block the amendment has some skeptics –Blogging by boz writes:

Rather than taking an easy policy win on this issue and letting Bolivia's amendment pass, the Obama administration is choosing to waste political capital defending an ineffective and rather worthless policy written 50 years ago.

The allowance of coca chewing is a matter of being culturally sensitive and supportive of the rights of indigenous people. Still, further issues such as policies to combat drug trafficking are connected with this practice. While the US and Bolivia are standing on opposite sides here, a consideration of both pleas could be the way to arrive at a more acceptable compromise.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

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