Bolivia's President Evo Morales announced July 7 that he has withdrawn the Andean country from a United Nations treaty that bans chewing the coca leaf.
The coca leaf can be processed to produce cocaine, but it is also an important part of Andean culture. In Bolivia, South America's most indigenous nation, the leaf has been chewed to relieve hunger and thirst and used in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. It has particular importance in western Bolivia's Aymara and Quechua indigenous communities. A limited amount of coca leaf is legally planted in the country for traditional use, while leaf grown beyond Bolivia's legal limit is often funneled to cocaine production.
Bolivia presented a denunciation which seals its resignation from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs on June 29, a move state media confirmed for the first time today.
The denunciation responds to "the need to guarantee respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples, and all who chew coca as a traditional cultural practice," said Bolivia's foreign minister David Choquehuanca of the country's unprecedented resignation from the Convention.
The International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors government compliance with drug treaties, released a statement expressing regret at Bolivia's denunciation of the Convention. The Control Board encouraged the international community to reject moves by any country to leave the Convention and return with reservations, saying this "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system, undoing the good work of Governments over many years to achieve the aims and objectives of the drug control conventions, including the prevention of drug abuse which is devastating the lives of millions of people."
Within Bolivia opinions are mixed on withdrawing from the convention. "We don't see it as a positive in any way that we, Bolivians, who have so many problems because of drug trafficking, have left the Convention," said opposition representative to congress Javier Leigue.
The move comes at a tense moment for anti-trafficking efforts in Bolivia, as a top Bolivian police official faces charges in the U.S. of cocaine trafficking following a U.S.-led sting in Panama. An internal investigation in Bolivia, the world's third-largest producer of coca leaf after Peru and Colombia, implicated several more Bolivian police officials in trafficking.
Earlier this year The United Nations considered an amendment to the Single Convention sponsored by Bolivia that proposed sections of the Convention requiring an end to chewing the coca leaf be removed.
“Due to lack of information, in some countries they confuse the coca leaf with cocaine, coca leaf producers with drug-traffickers and people who use coca in its natural state with addicts,” Morales, Bolivia's Aymara Indian President, said after the amendment was rejected by countries party to the convention.
The country's resignation from the Convention becomes effective January 1, 2012, at which time Bolivian officials say the country will immediately apply to rejoin the Convention with the reservation that it does not recognize language that bans chewing the coca leaf. In order to rejoin, two thirds of the signatories to the convention will need to approve Bolivia's reentry, according to United Nations sources in Bolivia. Government officials say Bolivia will continue to comply with all commitments to fight drug trafficking laid out in the Convention.
The outcome of Bolivia's bold move to make chewing coca legal in the country under the Convention while continuing to fight drug trafficking remains to be seen, as does the international community’s response to the situation.