Statement of Evo Morales

25 February 1998

Executive Secretary of the Five Federations of Lowland Peasants in Bolivia and President of the Andean Confederation of Coca Leaf Producers.
Meant to be presented to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) New York, June 8-10, 1998


Mr. President of this Extraordinary United Nations Assembly, Delegates.

I think this will not be the last international conference concerning drugs. As is often the case, the conclusions and recommendations are already prepared, and I know that you have invested a great deal of time in their elaboration. I understand that for this reason you wilt try to ensure they are not changed. None the less, I want to express my thanks for the opportunity to address you, humbly and sincerely, but also firmly and clearly, as one more peasant among many who cultivate the coca leaf in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

The Coca Leaf

Cultivation of the coca leaf was never a crime. Rather, in the Andean world it was a privilege. The climate makes cultivation hard, but rewarding as well, given that coca has many advantages agriculturally and positive uses for consumers. As you know, coca is a perennial shrub that can flourish in even the poorest soils, has less of an environmental impact than other plants; is resistant to pests and plagues; and the leaf is easier to store and transport than other agricultural products. And you should know as well that traditional medicine in the Andes has used coca for centuries to alleviate stomach problems, stop haemorrhaging, close wounds, and alleviate pain. With coca, laborers, maximize use of their energies and travellers counteract the problems associated with high attitude. Andean families express an affection for and solidarity with coca. How could producing such a beneficial plant not be a dignified activity?

But cultural prejudice has always gotten in the way of understanding this. From the beginnings of our colonial history, those who condemned the Indians as savage and ignorant also condemned coca along with a culture different from their own. Our music was not music, it was folklore, our language only a dialect, our religion, idolatry, our coca a vice. And they tried to impose their music, their language, their religion and their vices.

With the passing of time the prejudices took the form of "studies" that were the basis for the unjust Convention of 1961, which proposed to eradicate cultivation and eliminate consumption of coca. This condemnation of coca, based on false "proofs", has never been rectified, though much has been learned about coca in the past 37 years. And now the abusive use of coca has attached a new blame to the leaf: that of being the raw material for an illegalized stimulant.

When a person trips over a stone and then blames the stone, we call that person immature, one who avoids responsibility. What can we say, then, of the states and societies which blame drugs for social problems?

And just as the person who blames stones for tripping, will never walk peacefully, always considering stones to be a threat, neither will we be able to resolve our social problems if we blame them on drugs.

The War on Drugs

International conferences on drugs have not resolved the problem of drug production and consumption. Moreover, it might be said they have been an aggravation, by adding new dimensions to the problem. Today more resources, more police, more judges, prosecutors, and prisons are dedicated to the problem than at any time in human history. Today more people than ever are in jail accused of producing, trafficking or selling drugs. Thus, more families than ever suffer the abandonment and difficulties of a judicial and law enforcement system that grows and grows, but does not solve problems. Today the production, use and consumption of more and more substances is prohibited or regulated. Nonetheless, in the world today there are more and more producers and consumers of drugs than at any previous time in history.

Let us recognize that this war is a failure. Today we are farther than ever from reaching this goal, so ambitious and unrealistic, of a "world free of drugs".

I am not content. The peasants are not content. No one should be happy when humanity's resources are wasted in this way.

This discontent makes suspicious. When failure is so complete and so often repeated it suggests only one thing: it is deliberate. It suggests that no one is interested in solving the real underlying problems, that this is a hypocritical war, which deliberately diverts and distracts peoples' attention.

In the "war on drugs" something very strange happens. Whether the battles in this war are won or lost, the bureaucracies always find arguments to secure support for their work. When battles are won, they receive support because they have proven they are on the right path, thus justifying more. When they lose, they receive support because they haven't done enough and therefore need more. In this war failure has become a huge business. a business that nurtures bureaucracies, and nurtures them well. They always need more, to keep on failing.

We have to ask ourselves: Are we willing to persist in this failure?

Correct Answers to the Wrong Questions

How to address the drug problem has been and will be discussed here. Many of the answers will undoubtedly be good, sincere ones. But the policies will continue to be bad if we keep providing answers to the wrong questions.

The drug war has been guided by the wrong preoccupations, such as: Which is the most heavily consumed drug? How much of that drug is consumed? How and where is it trafficked? These questions have brought us failure because they have impeded us from asking more important questions, the questions that would take us to the bottom of things because they obligate us to look at ourselves. No drug policy will be adequate as long as these questions remain unanswered: Why are drums being consumed? Why do people consume some drugs, and not others? And most importantly, why are there people who need drugs?

It will not be easy to provide answers. The Americans will have te explain the hopelessness in the African-American and Hispanic neighbourhoods, the voids in the lives of elites, the cult of chemicals among the middle classes. And we, the Bolivians, Peruvians and Colombians will have to explain the poverty of our majorities, the lack of opportunities for those of us who want to live better, the ambitions of these who imitate the rich and famous. It will be difficult to answer these questions, but when we do, we will be able te confront these problems. And it doesn't matter if coca is cocaine or not, if cocaine is better or worse than amphetamine, if tobacco and alcohol should be legal or not. The war on drugs will have been transformed in what it should be: a struggle to humanize life itself.

We aren't the Problem, We don't want to be the Victims

Drug policies, though they may be incapable of resolving underlying problems, affect fundamental aspects of out lives. All of us are hurt when resources are diverted or laws are modified to limit our rights. But the Indians and peasants of Latin America suffer more. Our coca plants are declared illegal, we are characterized and treated as delinquents, we are harassed and abused constantly. They say they use the carrot and the stick on us. rewards and punishment. And they call it the "Plan for Dignity".

They say the carrot, the reward, is alternative development and the war on poverty. They make promises to invest even that which they don't have. But their development model is based on the reduction of coca prices. That is, it is based on the impoverishment of the peasants. And then they expect the impoverished peasant to risk cultivation of new products that have not been adapted to the context and don't have markets.

The governments are using poverty as a weapon in the war on drugs. Is this just? Is this morally correct? The reduction of coca prices, moreover, not only hurts the peasant but helps the buyer, both legal and illegal. These are the ones who take advantage of the carrot.

What to say about the use of the stick? This year alone in Bolivia government forces have provoked the death of 12 people in the their attempts to impose the forced eradication of coca crops. This rnortality rate is many times greater than the mortality rate caused by cocaine abuse in the United States. Studies show that of every 100,000 cocaine consumers, 4 die from abuse or intoxication. Based on what we have lived this year alone, the war on drugs is producing the death of 12 of every 15,000 peasants (or 80 of every 100,000), The remedy is worse than the disease. Governments feel obligated and are pressured remember the certification process- to increase the dosage. And they have ever lesser capacity to dialogue and seek alternative solutions.

We, the peasants, have mobilized to defend our livelihoods, and we have sought agreement on policies, putting forward formulas for mediation and negotiation. We asked help to industrialize coca to avoid its illegal use. We requested markets for our other crops. We want development in our farms, not in governmental offices. The government rejects us with the argument that its policies must meet international commitments. This means that Assemblies such as this one, which formulate and approve conventions and international treaties, are complicit in and co-responsible for the repression. Who here is ready to answer for the deaths of my brothers and sisters, for the painful failures of this hypocritical war, and for the enormous profits that from it accrue to a minority?

I am a peasant, a South American Indian, from the Aymara group, inheritor of the culture of millennia, and also the oppression of centuries. I am a citizen of a small, poor country, and I am part of a global world. That is why I feel I have the right to ask you to be honest in your refections, and cautious in your decisions. Don't blame your stumble on the stones, and seek ways to reserve people's problems, the problems of marginality that lead some to abuse drugs, and others to survive cultivating the raw materials to produce them.

We are not the problem; we want to be part of the solution. For this reason I ask you: don't continue to push us, cease to pressure us, don't convert us into illegals just because you don't want to or can't admit to the true dimension of your problems. We hope for, we ask, we demand that you respect us as human beings, that vou give us opportunities as peasants, that you listen to us as citizens. We are not the problem. Help us be part of the solution.