Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jan 2011
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2011 The Economist Newspaper Limited


Storm in an Andean Teacup

A Battle Over Mastication

TOURISTS who visit Bolivia's capital, La Paz, or Cusco, Peru's former 
Inca seat, are routinely given welcome cups of coca tea to mitigate 
soroche (altitude sickness). For centuries, people who live in the 
high Andes have chewed coca leaves, whose alkaloids act as a mild 
stimulant and help to ward off cold and hunger. The Spanish 
conquistadors declared coca a tool of the devil, until they saw how 
it improved the work rate of the Indians they sent down the mines.

But refine the alkaloids in coca, and you get cocaine. In 1961 a 
United Nations convention on narcotics banned the leaves, giving 
countries 25 years to outlaw this ancestral practice. Half a century 
on, consuming coca remains legal in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and some 
parts of Colombia, in defiance of the convention. In Bolivia and 
Peru, some cultivation is legal too. In 2009 Bolivia, where a new 
constitution protects coca as part of the country's cultural 
heritage, proposed an amendment to the convention that would remove 
the obligation to prohibit traditional uses of coca. Other South 
American countries agree.

The amendment would have passed if no objections were raised by the 
end of this month. But this week the United States spoke up, probably 
scuppering the change. The European Union (at Britain's behest) may 
follow. They argue that tolerating the use of coca harms efforts to 
suppress cocaine. Bolivia insists it would continue to fight cocaine 
and limit coca cultivation. But cultivation in Bolivia and Peru has 
long outstripped traditional use, and is rising sharply.

Yet this smacks of hypocrisy. The United States' State Department's 
website recommends coca tea for altitude sickness, and its La Paz 
embassy has been known to serve it to visitors. The UN's declaration 
on indigenous peoples, which the United States endorsed last month, 
guarantees the protection of "cultural heritage, traditional 
knowledge and traditional cultural expressions".

"It's clear to me that some people there [in the State Department] 
realise it's senseless to continue the war on drugs," says Fernando 
Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil who wants marijuana 
decriminalised and is chairing a commission on drug policy worldwide.

But the drug warriors in the American administration seem to have 
prevailed over the diplomats. Bolivia is considering pulling out of 
the convention if its modest proposal is struck down. The State 
Department has been trying to repair ties with Bolivia's socialist 
government since a spat in 2008 in which ambassadors were expelled. 
But all too often American policy towards Latin America has been 
dominated by drugs.  
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