Bolivia: The U.N. Verdict

Shortly after winning the presidency in 2005, Evo Morales went on a whirlwind world tour and brought a few small coca leaves with him to New York. It is illegal to travel with coca leaves, so it's been said that the president stuck them inside a book he was reading at the time, to conceal them from the customs officials. During his landmark speech at the United Nations Security Council, he brought out the leaves Cocaslide1_25_4 and held them with his right hand, as he tried to make his case about coca in front of hundreds of dignitaries.

"The penalization of the coca leaf has been a historic injustice. I'm talking about the green coca leaf, not the white one that is cocaine," he said, to rousing applause. "This leaf represents Andean culture, nature, and the hope of our people."

More than two years have passed since Evo Morales made the pronouncement that made him famous and earned him his rebellious reputation.

Since then, coca leaf consumption for the akulliku, or chewing, is believed to have gone up among Bolivians. And abroad, there is growing curiosity about the benefits of coca and its continued status as an illegal substance. Even though international law prohibits the trading and sale of coca leaves, there are new coca-based products that are becoming increasingly available in other Latin American countries and in Europe. Some of these, like the coca liquor "Akullico" are popular and in demand specifically because of coca's rarity abroad. Its slogan, which was created for an international market, cashes in on this idea by advertising the drink as "The taste of forbidden freedom."

Cocaslide1_28But despite its commercialization and industrialization coca remains illegal.
This month, the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board called on Bolivia -- as it has other times in the past -- to ban coca chewing, and the use of the plant in products such as tea and liquor.

The report was based on the assumption that the majority of Bolivia's coca harvest goes into cocaine, making it the world's third-largest producer, after Colombia and Peru.

The Bolivian government called the document "anachronistic and ignorant". "We won't accept it because coca is our culture, our tradition," said Geronimo Meneses, Bolivia's Vice-Minister of Coca. "We will defend it because coca for us is also food."

And president Morales quickly dismissed the U.N. report and called for three new amendments to his "Coca Si, Cocaina No" policy. The legal limit for coca plantations would increase from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares; 4,000 tons of coca leaves would be earmarked for the manufacture of teas, medicines and flours over the next two years; and Law 1008, known as the anti-drug trafficking law, would be reviewed for the first time since it was passed two decades ago.