Tradition Trumps the Treaty: Bolivia Repeals its Ban on Coca

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On June 29, 2011, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Aymara Indian president, withdrew his country from the United Nation’s (UN) 1961 Vienna Convention on Narcotic Drugs. His decision was based on the fact that the Convention contradicted Bolivia´s 2009 Constitution, which aims to repeal the current ban on coca chewing, a long held tradition in Bolivia. This bold move puts indigenous rights in the limelight and underlines the anachronistic and discriminatory nature of the 1961 Convention, as well as the need to revisit this treaty in order to create a more appropriate international law directed towards coca chewing.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

The UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs based its views on coca leaf prohibition on the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf prepared by ECOSOC (United Nation’s Economic and Social Council) in 1950. This report was “sharply criticized for its poor methodology, racist connotations, and cultural insensitivity.”[1] For example, it claims that coca chewing leads to a lack of productivity in the work environment because indigenous coca chewing communities in Lucre had a poorer job “performance” when compared with non-coca chewing regions.[2] The report did not exactly specify how performance was measured, or even whether coca chewing was actually the cause of this lack of productivity. The document simply assumed that coca chewing was the cause for the decline in performance. Although Bolivia did not originally ratify the Convention, it later did so under the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer in 1976. The Convention merely went on to urge countries to prohibit the use of “Schedule IV” drugs—a category reserved for the most dangerous drugs, such as cannabis and heroin. Meanwhile, coca leaves were only designated to the supposedly less dangerous “Schedule I” category, although it is believed that they would eventually become prohibited. This designation, due to the traditional classification of coca leaf chewing under Article 49 allowed coca to be decriminalized in restricted areas for a maximum of 25 years after the convention was ratified.[3] Bolivia signed the convention in 1976, thus making coca leaf chewing legal until 2001.

Convention and Constitution in Conflict

Despite the limitations put in place by the Convention, President Morales pushed forward a new Constitution that legalized the chewing of coca leaves in 2009. Under Article 384 of this new Constitution, the coca leaf is considered to be “a cultural heritage, a natural and renewable resource of biodiversity in Bolivia, and a factor of social cohesion.”

As stipulated in Morales’ 2009 Constitution, Bolivia had only four years to renegotiate or withdraw from all international treaties that were in conflict with the new Constitution.[4] Therefore, Morales quickly sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, asking to reform Article 49. In this, he affirmed that, “coca leaf chewing is a one-thousand-year-old ancestral practice of the Andean indigenous peoples that cannot and should not be prohibited.”[5] The following day, an Op-Ed by Morales appeared in The New York Times, in which he stated: “for the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the Convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean peoples.”[6] Then, on March 15, 2009, Morales presented his proposal for amendments to the UN in Vienna, asking:

(a) That Article 49, paragraph 1 (c), of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 be deleted, because the sociocultural practice of coca leaf chewing cannot be permitted temporarily as if it were doomed to disappear some day and as if it were an evil that should be permitted only for a transitional period; and

(b) That Article 49, paragraph 2 (e), be deleted because it is a serious mistake to seek to abolish coca leaf chewing within 25 years.

In response to the proposed amendment, all 54 parties of the Convention were given 18 months to elaborate objections, which would subsequently factor into whether the amendment was ultimately accepted. If no objections were filed, the amendment would be automatically accepted after the 18-month period.

What is Behind Coca Leaves?

Early arguments advocating the ban of coca were undeniably rooted in racism towards indigenous Andeans. At the inception of the 1961 Convention, coca was regularly identified by Latin American psychiatrists as a representation of poverty, illiteracy, and backwardness. However, in the second part of the 20th century, indigenous communities have reclaimed coca chewing as a symbol of their culture and not as a detrimental drain on society.  This campaign is best illustrated by their slogan, “Coca is not Cocaine.”

The coca chewing tradition has varied benefits to consumers. Coca leaves “alleviate the symptoms of high altitudes, cold and hunger, and they function as a mild stimulant. The coca leaf is also used in traditional and religious ceremonies such as weddings.”[7] In addition, they contain more nutrients than the average food plant and were used in order to supplement diets and control hunger. In fact, theories were proposed to promote the consumption of coca leaves as a solution to hinder world hunger.[8] Furthermore, although most coca plants are used in the elaboration of cocaine, coca has recently re-emerged globally in the form of harmless coca derivatives, such as coca liquor, coca tea, handicrafts made from coca leaves and even art pieces. These products are not necessarily espoused only by indigenous tradition, but underline the fact that coca leaves, in their natural state, contain a variety of properties that are have not been proven harmful.

However, although coca leaves differ significantly from cocaine, coca leaves are classified under the convention’s “Schedule I” umbrella, along with its chemically-processed derivative. The assumption behind this classification is that not only do coca leaves contain cocaine, but the narcotic is “easily extracted” from the leaves, leading both to be equally harmful. Yet, a closer analysis shows otherwise. In reality, the cocaine alkaloid only comprises about 10 percent of each coca leaf; the leaf also contains numerous nutrients and essential oils, including large amounts of calcium, iron, phosphor and vitamin B1.[9],[10] In addition, coca leaves have not been scientifically proven to be addictive or responsible for producing deleterious effects on humans, as they have been widely consumed without documented negative health consequences.[11] In fact, preliminary scientific results suggest that coca leaves may actually be therapeutic in the rehabilitation process for recovering cocaine and crack addicts.[12]

Objections and Withdrawal from the Convention

Morales’ proposed modifications were explicitly supported by Spain, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Venezuela; meanwhile, Egypt, Colombia, and Macedonia, who had originally opposed the amendment, later removed their objections.  However, even with the support of these limited number of countries, 18 out of the 54 signatories registered objections. The United States publicly opposed the amendment in an attempt to maintain control and stabilize the prolonged international drug war, despite having signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples just a month before. Other countries expressed objections as well. Latvia, for instance, elaborated on its objection against the amendment, claiming that maintaining a socio-cultural habit is not an excuse and should not warrant the same status as using coca leaves for medical purposes. Other countries, including Sweden, argued that the amendment sets up a negative political precedent in the field of international law.

Surprisingly, no objecting country challenged the blatant contradictions between the Convention and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the latter of which states in Article 31 that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions.”[13] In addition, there was no mention of the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988), which claims that nations “shall take due account of traditional licit uses, where there is historic evidence of such use.”[14]

Although ECOSOC did not formally reject the amendment, the numerous objections filed, mainly stemming from G8 countries, effectively led to its defeat.  Thus, on June 28, 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the Convention.

Before Bolivia’s withdrawal, other countries, such as Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, indicated that they were willing to follow Bolivia’s path; however, none have taken action thus far.[15] This may be due to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which expressed its regrets for Bolivia’s withdrawal, but warned other countries not to follow Bolivia’s lead.  It claimed that this action “would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system.”[16] The fact that a country already left underlines the urgent need for the Convention to actually be altered in order to prevent further countries from dropping out from its provisioning. Some protagonists were known to believe that instead of defending a convention that clearly does not work, a new Convention must be drafted.

Bolivia’s withdrawal will effectively take place on January 1 of next year, when that nation will be called upon to re-adhere to the Convention with a documented reservation applicable to the terms of Article 49.  During the following year, parties may then register objections to Bolivia’s reservation.  If at least one-third of the parties object, the reservation will be rejected; if not, the “reservation shall be deemed admitted.”[17] However, Martin Jelsma, Director of the Transnational Institute, claims that the reservation is unlikely to fail, as countries will have to explain why they accepted a similar reservation from Bolivia to the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.[18]

Furthermore, the Morales administration states that although it withdrew from the 1961 Convention, it would continue its tripartite drug-control efforts with Brazil and the U.S., which plans to establish a “South American center for anti-narcotics training.”[19] Although the UN and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have supported this effort, it is unclear whether this strategy will outweigh Bolivia’s international alienation which is bound to be caused by its abandoning the Convention.  Given Morales expulsion of both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. ambassador in 2008, Washington’s role will likely be limited to funding equipment and monitoring the results of La Paz’s new policy.[20] Even with a weakened role, Morales continues to manifest animosity towards the U.S., often alleging that Washington is plotting to accuse him of facilitating drug-trafficking.[21]

There is mixed evidence whether these actions will further alienate Bolivia in the international arena, but Bolivia’s bold withdrawal from the Convention actually may prove beneficial in raising awareness both regarding coca chewing and indigenous rights. Nevertheless, by re-adhering to the Convention with reservations next year, Bolivia will emphasize the contradictions between the tenets of various international treaties and the injustice of following an anachronistic Convention that is insensitive to cultural differences. However, Morales’ boosters maintain that the withdrawal from the convention should be understood as an error of the convention, not so much as a subversive and wayward act on Bolivia’s part. Morales’ allies claim that the convention alienates countries defending fundamental indigenous rights. In any event, the Convention deserves to be further vetted for its weaknesses, as well as its strengths.

References for this article can be found here.