Fighting For The Right To Chew Coca

Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have avoided war, but now two other Andean nations are gearing up for battle. This time the foe is the United Nations, and the cause is the right to chew coca, the raw material of cocaine.

It may not sound as important as the diplomatic row that shook the region earlier this month. But the dispute is momentous for millions of people in Bolivia and Peru — where the coca leaf is sacred to indigenous culture and a tonic of modern life — and for anti-drug officials in the U.S. and other countries who are desperate to stem the relentless flow of cocaine. Says Silvia Rivera, a sociology professor at San Andres University in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, “This is the most aggressive attack [Bolivians] have faced” since the U.N. designated coca a drug in 1961.

The latest affront, they say, is a recommendation this month from the UN’s drug enforcement watchdog, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), that Bolivia and Peru criminalize the practice of chewing coca and drinking its tea. The move has provoked widespread anger and street protests in the two countries, especially among the majority indigenous populations. For them, coca has been a cultural cornerstone for 3,000 years, as much a part of daily life as coffee in the U.S. (La Paz is home to perhaps the world’s only coca museum).

From the countryside to swanky urban hotels, it is chewed or brewed to stave off hunger or exhaustion or to ease the often debilitating effects of high-altitude life in the Andes. It is also “used by healers and in ceremonial offerings to the gods,” says Ana Maria Chavez, a coca seller in La Paz, who refers to her product as “the sacred leaf.” Pope John Paul II even drank coca tea on a 1988 visit to Bolivia. It is, says Chavez, “part of who we are.”

The problem is, it’s also considered the building block of broken lives in the rest of the world, where cocaine consumption and addiction remain rampant in developed regions like North America and Europe. The U.S. has spent more than $5 billion this decade aiding Colombia’s largely failed efforts to eradicate coca cultivation.

{Further reading – www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1722893,00,html}

See our article – Drug Cartels Running Rampant

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