The U.S. Moves to Block Bolivia’s Request to Eliminate U.N. Ban on Coca Leaf Chewing

18 January 2011
Press release

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) have learned that the United States is moving to oppose, as soon as this week, Bolivia’s formal request to remove the obligation to ban the chewing of coca leaves— an indigenous practice dating back more than 2,000 years. TNI and WOLA strongly encourage countries to support Bolivia’s proposal, which is a legitimate request based on scientific evidence and respect for cultural and indigenous rights.  

U.S. officials have indicated their intention to send a formal notification of objection to the U.N. Secretary General, opposing Bolivia’s request to eliminate the articles that establish the phasing out of coca leaf chewing, contained in the U.N. 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In addition, the U.S. convened an informal group of ‘friends of the Convention’ to encourage other countries to do the same before the period to register formal objections to Bolivia’s request ends on January 31st, 2011. Without any country objections, Bolivia’s request to amend the U.N. 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs would be approved automatically.

Originally the U.S. reportedly intended to submit their objection end last week, but the only two countries that had recently filed an objection (Colombia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) withdrew their notifications, just as Egypt had done a year ago. Other countries, under pressure, are still considering issuing a formal objection, including European countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Denmark. “The U.S. clearly wants to avoid standing alone in this delicate matter, so pressure is high on other countries to join them,” said Martin Jelsma, TNI Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator. Bolivia's Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is visiting Europe this week to try to convince several countries to reconsider their opposition to the amendment.  “Hopefully, these countries will have the courtesy to await the outcomes of such visit,” he added.

“The ancestral habit of chewing coca leaves carries positive therapeutic, social and sacred functions for the Andean-Amazonian indigenous populations,” said Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at WOLA. “Countries opposing the elimination of the international ban on coca chewing will surely strain their relations with Bolivia.”

Correcting the historical error to ban consumption of the coca leaf in its natural form is not only relevant for Bolivia. Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina also legally recognise the right to use coca. UNASUR expressed its support for the Bolivian proposal in the Presidential Declaration of Quito signed in August 2009, which requests the international community to respect the ancestral cultural manifestation of coca leaf chewing.
The U.S. government has just recently endorsed the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 31 states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.” In April 2010, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), welcomed Bolivia’s proposal to lift the international prohibition on coca chewing.

“This amendment is long overdue, and creates an opportunity for governments to finally repair the historical mistake made by the international community of condemning coca leaf chewing as a dangerous practice that needs to be abolished,” said Pien Metaal, Latin American Drug Law Reform project coordinator at TNI. “The fact that also several European countries object to this legitimate request is shameful.”  

Background: The U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 stipulates that the chewing of coca leaves should be phased out within 25 years of its coming into force end 1964.  This verdict was based on a blatantly racist report from the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf of 1950, containing no serious evidence for the ban. In 2009, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, asking that the ban on coca leaf chewing be removed, while maintaining the world strict controls on cocaine. The 18-month period in which parties to the treaty have to register formal objections to Bolivia’s requested amendment ends on January 31, 2011.  If there were no objections, Bolivia’s request would be immediately granted.

We recommend the following materials on the issue:

•       A summary of European Union discussions on Bolivia's proposal to eliminate the ban on coca leaf chewing and the U.S. opposition to it.
•       A podcast with Coletta Youngers, WOLA's Senior Fellow, explaining the ban on coca chewing contained in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the process to amend the Convention, and the implications for U.S.-Bolivian relations.
•       A blog by Pien Metaal, TNI’s Drug Law Reform Project Coordinator, explaining why opposing Bolivia’s request undermines indigenous rights, and urging the international community to correct the historic wrong of labeling the coca leaf as a hazardous drug and further reading on the myths and reality of the coca leaf.
•      A note by the International Drug Policy Consortium calling on countries to abstain form submitting objections to the Bolivian proposal to remove the ban on the chewing of the coca leaf.
•      The Bolivian government's Aide-Memoire explaining its proposal to amend the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Kristel Mucino, Communications Coordinator, TNI/WOLA Drug Law Reform Project:; Tel: + (617) 584-1713.

The TNI/WOLA Drug Law Reform Project promotes more effective and humane drug policies through dialogue and up-to-date analysis of developments in the region

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
TNI/WOLA Press release