Ancient Andean Tradition or Dangerous Narcotic? A Tale of Two Documents

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A diplomatic battle is raging over whether the United Nations should reverse its ban on coca leaf chewing, with the United States maintaining that such a repeal would strengthen drug-trafficking organizations and Bolivia contending that the practice is a harmless indigenous tradition. 

InSight Crime examines both sides of the argument, which centers around two United Nations documents: the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

This week, Bolivian President Evo Morales launched a controversial international campaign to raise awareness of coca leaf usage, in support of his own requested amendment to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that would remove the leaf from its banned substances list.  If no countries had objected, the amendment would pass automatically on January 31. However, the Associated Press reports that the U.S. has filed an official objection with the U.N. Secretary General, thus halting the amendment’s progress.

In the past, the U.S. has backed its rejection of coca leaf chewing with the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which calls for the uprooting of all wild coca plants and declares that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention.”

Recently, an anonymous State Department official told the Washington Post that removing the coca leaf from the treaty “over the long term is not good for the planet’s efforts to control and eventually solve the problem of drug abuse,” adding that it could create legal challenges to drug crimes committed in the United States.

In his letter to the Secretary General, Morales concedes that the 25-year period mentioned in the Covenant has expired, but argues that any attempt to ban coca chewing conflicts with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As the Declaration states, “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional  knowledge and traditional cultural expressions…They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.”

As such, Morales contends that use of the leaf began thousands of years ago by the country’s indigenous majority to combat hunger, fatigue and altitude sickness, so therefore cannot can not be classified as an illicit substance by the U.N.

On a policy level, the two arguments highlight an increasingly important contradiction between global cultural rights and drug laws, as governments around the world seek a balance between a respect for the traditional practices of minorities with the need to control illicit drug trafficking.

Pragmatically, however, the conflict is an example of international realpolitik at its finest.  Because Morales came to power at the head of Bolivia’s largest coca-growers’ union, he is often caught in an awkward balancing act, having to placate his domestic constituents’ attitudes towards coca while simultaneously appearing “tough” on cocaine trafficking to foreign governments.

By invoking the language of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and carefully distinguishing coca from cocaine, Morales is able to both appease the trade interests of coca growers and commit himself in principle to combating drug trafficking. Additionally, it allows him to capitalize on his status as the country’s first fully-indigenous president, a core element of his political identity.

From the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs:

Article 26 – The Coca Bush and Coca Leaves
– 1. If a Party permits the cultivation of the coca bush, it shall apply thereto and to coca leaves the system of controls as provided in article 23 respecting the control of the opium poppy, but as regards paragraph 2d of that article, the requirements imposed on the Agency therein referred to shall be only to take physical possession of the crops as soon as possible after the end of the harvest.
– 2. The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated.

Article 27 – Additional Provisions Relating to Coca Leaves
-1. The Parties may permit the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavoring agent, which shall not contain any alkaloids, and, to the extent necessary for such use, may permit the production, import, export, trade in and possession of such leaves.
– 2. The Parties shall furnish separately estimates (article 19) and statistical information (article 20) in respect of coca leaves for preparation of the flavoring agent, except to the extent that the same coca leaves are used for the extraction of alkaloids and the flavoring agent, and so explained in the estimates and statistical information.

Article 49, Paragraph 2 (e): Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention as provided in paragraph 1 of article 41.

From the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

Article 11
– 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.
-2. States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

Article 12
-1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.
-2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

Article 31
-1. 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, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

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