Bolivia: A Serious Bid to Lift UN Ban on the Coca Leaf?

Demonstrations and public acts, led by both coca growers and traders, took place on Monday, March 12, 2012, in many cities in Bolivia demanding the international depenalisation of the coca leaf.

Local media informed [es] that 40 thousand people were due to join “coca-chewing day” [referred to in Bolivia as acullicu or pijcheo].

These public events are part of the Bolivian government's international strategy for depenalising the coca leaf, and took place at the same time that President Evo Morales, himself a former coca grower and union leader, was addressing the Commission on Narcotic Drugs at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, Austria three years after his last visit.

Coca leaves on a table at a coca-growers' meeting. Photo by Jusada (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coca leaves on a table at a coca-growers' meeting. Photo by Jusada (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coca is a native plant to the Andes. It has been cultivated and consumed for centuries in the region. It is used for medicinal and ritual purposes, and is also well known as a natural energy supplier. Popular tradition, particularly in the Western part of Bolivia, considers coca a “sacred” leaf.

In spite of its nutrients and the traditional consumption, coca leaves are also the raw material for cocaine production, a fact that the Bolivian government acknowledges and pledges to deal with.

Eduardo Bowles, a blogger based in La Paz, commented on his blog [es]:

En las últimas semanas se ha estado hablando hasta el cansancio sobre los preparativos del viaje del presidente, pero además de la noticia de que Evo Morales masticará coca frente todos en Viena, que viajará acompañado de algunos dirigentes cocaleros y que llevará consigo algunas “hojas sagradas” cultivadas en los Yungas, es poco lo que se conoce sobre el contenido de la posición boliviana ante la JIFE [Junta Internacional de Fiscalización de Estupefacientes]. Debemos recordar que no es la primera vez que el mandatario boliviano cumplirá con el ritual del acullico en la ONU, hecho que no redundó en beneficios palpables para la imagen de la coca en el mundo.

There as been endless talk in the last weeks about the travel arrangements of the president, but apart from the announcement that Evo Morales will chew coca in front of everyone in Vienna, will be accompanied by some coca growers, and that he will bring with him some “sacred leaves” grown in Yungas, little is known about the contents of the Bolivian position before the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). We must remember this is not the first time the Bolivian president will deliver the ritual of acullico [coca-chewing] at the UN, which has not resulted in tangible benefits for the image of coca in the world.

The goal of coca-grower unions and Bolivia's government is to depenalise not only coca production but also its consumption, which is banned by the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, something President Morales has called a “historic mistake”.

In June 2011 the Bolivian government decided to withdraw from the 1961 UN Convention. According to the government's current strategy, the country would join the convention again after a reverse on the coca ban. I have written a more in-depth analysis on the 1961 UN Convention and the coca leaf on my personal blog [es].

During his speech in Vienna President Morales emphasized that there is no evidence that the coca leaf, in its natural state, is harmful to human health (the speech is available on this external podcast). Nevertheless, Mario Duran Chuquimia, a blogger based in El Alto, comments [es]:

Al respecto, son interesantes algunos datos, el presidente Morales utiliza las hojas de coca producidas en los Yungas ya que las del Chapare tienen otras características, tampoco se menciona los destinos de la coca prensada y que en Bolivia 6 de cada 10 habitantes no acostumbra acullicar.

In this regard, there is some interesting data, president Morales consumes the coca leaves produced in Yungas [traditional region] as the coca produced in Chapare have other characteristics [not for traditional purposes], he has not mentioned the final destination of pressed coca, nor the fact that in Bolivia 6 out of 10 people do not usually chew coca.

The issue of coca leaf production in Bolivia is frequently addressed on mainstream international media from a narcotics standpoint. However, in Bolivia the situation is more complex.

On Twitter, civil society expressed its support for traditional coca consumption but also stressed the fact that coca is part of cocaine production.

As anonymous Twitter user @LaMarielle, while sharing a video of a popular song against American intervention and for coca traditional consumption, said [es]:

Y me uno a la jornada de acullicu en protesta por la falta de una política nacional de dignificación de la hoja de coca

and I join the coca-chewing day as a protest for the lack of national policy of dignity of the coca leaf

Also, Tuffi Aré (@tuffiare), a journalist based in Santa Cruz, commented on Twitter [es]:

Un estudio del Celin establece que el acullico tiende a bajar. Identifica al sector minero como el que mas pijchea coca

A Celin research [a well-reputed institution on the coca issue] said that coca-chewing is decreasing. It identifies miners as those who chew coca the most

Another journalist, Andrés Gómez (@AndrsGomezV), director of community radio network Erbol, also commented on Twitter [es]:

Buenos días en el día destinado a recordar que el acullicu está prohibido injustamente en Bolivia por la Convención de 1961

Good morning on the day to remember that coca-chewing is unfairly banned in Bolivia by the 1961 Convention

In reply to Andrés Gómez, Carlos Salas (@carlos_rs131) wrote on Twitter [es]:

es parte de nuestra CULTURA el acullicu, pero no dejemos que lo sea el narcotrafico

coca-chewing is part of our culture, but let's not allow drug trafficking to be part of it too

Eduardo Bowles, concludes on his blog-post [es]:

Hubiera sido plausible que el Gobierno lleve ante un foro tan importante, el estudio sobre la coca que tanto le ha prometido al país, los resultados de la política de industrialización y por supuesto, logros más alentadores en materia de lucha contra el narcotráfico. Nadie va a discutir que la coca merece un estatus especial en Bolivia y sería iluso pensar en que debe ser erradicada por completo o considerada una droga, pero lamentablemente su defensa luce poco seria.

It would have been plausible for the Government to present to such an important forum, the study on coca he has promised the country, the results of the industrialization policy, and of course, the promising achievements in the fight against drug trafficking. Nobody would disagree that coca deserves a special status in Bolivia and it would be naive to think that it must be eradicated completely or considered a drug, but unfortunately their defense strategy doesn't look too serious.


  • When I visited Bolivia in 1986 I was given Mate de Coca (sp) a tea made from coca leaves to help me deal with the altitude sickness. I was surprised when I was given it but it was very effective, and mild, and I was then under the impression that is was used in mainstream society in that way. It wasn’t a big deal or thought of as a drug, more like a ginger tea in the U.S.A would be used for soothing your stomach.

  • […] Bolivia: A Serious Bid to Lift UN Ban on the Coca Leaf?, Pablo Andres Rivero: Bolivia’s government is seeking the international depenalisation of the coca leaf with the support of coca growers and others within the country, but faces both internal and foreign challenges. […]

  • Math Bear

    Why is the use of coca equated with chewing coca? chewing coca is a lot of trouble and not very appealing. I think most people drink coca leaf tea instead and I suspect that probably a majority of Bolivians do this at least on occasion. Chewing coca id mainly popular (as in the mines) where making the tea is not very practical.

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