January 27, 2011

Bolivians Chew Coca Leaves In Protest Of U.N. Ban

Bolivians chewed coca leaves on Wednesday as a protest to change a 1961 U.N. convention to remove a ban on a practice that has been part of indigenous cultures in the country for millennia.

Protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in La Paz to chew the leaf as part of a day of demonstrations around the country celebrating the coca plant and demanding that the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs be amended.

The U.S. said it would oppose the Bolivian proposal, calling for the 50 year old convention "an important tool in the global struggle against narcotics trafficking."

The agreement designates the coca leaf as a narcotic, and it is calling on countries to eradicate coca leaf chewing.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has visited European capitals to seek support for the amendment.  The U.N. has until January 31 to decide whether to change the treaty.

"The countries support us so that we can de-penalize (coca chewing); the only one opposing us is the United States," said Leonilda Zurita, a coca grower and a leader of the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party.

Marches in La Paz, Santa Cruz and other cities drew coca growers, peasants, Indians, miners, makers of coca-based products, activists and lawmakers from the ruling party.

Participants chewed coca leaves in city plazas, which is a practice known as "acullico" in the Aymara language, or "pijcheo" in Quechua.

The coca leaf is part of everyday life for people in the Andean region.  About seven million people in the region stretching from southern Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina chew coca leaves, as did their ancestors going back many generations.

The little green leaf, which is known for its stimulating and blood oxygenation properties, is loaded with vitamins and 14 alkaloids.

Chewed coca releases a mild narcotic that serves to combat altitude sickness, hunger and fatigue.

President Evo Morales rose to power as the leader of a coca growers' union.

Bolivia's constitution describes coca as a "cultural heritage, a renewable natural resource" and a key biodiversity element that helps maintain "Bolivian social cohesion" since 2009.

The U.S. embassy said in a statement that it was willing to work with the Bolivian government "out of respect for these millennial practices."

Image Courtesy Marcello Casal Jr./ABr/Wikipedia