Peru, Bolivia defend chewing coca
March 5, 2008 - Mercury News (Associated Press)

By LESLIE JOSEPHS Associated Press Writer

LIMA, Peru—Peru and Bolivia brushed off calls from a U.N.-affiliated drug watchdog to criminalize the chewing of coca leaves, a tradition among indigenous populations in the Andes.

The International Narcotics Control Board released an annual report Wednesday that reminded the two governments that use and possession of coca leaves, the main ingredient in cocaine, are limited to medical and scientific purposes.

The report said that "coca leaf chewing should have been abolished" in those countries 25 years ago.

Representatives from Peru and Bolivia called the board's report disrespectful of indigenous traditions.

Coca leaves are still used in indigenous medicine and religious ceremonies. Andean people have chewed coca for thousands of years to stave off hunger and as a remedy for ailments from altitude sickness to stomach aches. Coca tea is served in offices in the Bolivian capital instead of coffee.

"One of the principles of humanitarian law is the respect of traditional customs, recognized by the national constitution," Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said in a statement.

The coca leaf contains only trace amounts—generally less than 1 percent—of the alkaloid used to make cocaine. Peru and Bolivia are the world's second- and third-largest cocaine producers behind Colombia.

The narcotics control board enforces the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which lists both
natural coca and cocaine alongside heroin and opium as Schedule I narcotics.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and former coca grower, has repeatedly defended the use of coca leaves and has lobbied to remove coca from the 1961 convention. The narcotics board enforces the convention.

Felipe Caceres, another former coca farmer and Morales' deputy social defense minister, plans to argue Bolivia's position before the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in its meeting in Vienna next week.


Associated Press writer Dan Keane in La Paz, Bolivia contributed to this story.