Several governments led by the United States are mobilising to block a request by the Bolivian government to remove an international ban on the centuries-old practice of chewing coca leaves. The 18-month period to contest Bolivia’s requested amendment ends January 31, 2011.

In 2009, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales Ayma, sent a request to the United Nations to remove the unjustified ban on coca leaf chewing. This would amend the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and bring it in line with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Mr Morales sought to correct a historical error. He stated in his letter to the Secretary General: "Coca leaf chewing is one of the socio-cultural practices and rituals of the Andean indigenous peoples. It is closely linked to our history and cultural identity.” This ancestral practice "cannot and should not be prohibited.”

In the 1990s, a study conducted by the World Health Organisation concluded that chewing coca causes none of the harmful health or social consequences as cocaine use.  The US blocked the publication of this evidence. 

The US and a number of other governments including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the Russian Federation, Japan and Colombia are now planning to stop the right of Bolivians to express their own culture. They are planning to lodge formal objections to the amendment prior to the deadline on the January 31, 2011 which would result in the UN rejecting the Bolivian request.

Jeremy Corbyn, a UK Member of Parliament and the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bolivia, said, “At a time when drug prohibition has enriched and emboldened criminal cartels to such an extent that they are attempting to violently annex the state in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, the US is expending considerable effort in blocking the Bolivian government’s legitimate and democratic right to protect and preserve a harmless indigenous practice. The international community needs to get its priorities right and resist this culturally ignorant attempt to dictate to indigenous people in Bolivia.”

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) calls on countries not to oppose the amendment. Ann Fordham, the Coordinator of IDPC, stated, “Bolivia has made a reasonable and democratic request to the international community. The fact that predominantly western countries are unwilling to allow even the slightest amendments to the drug control regime, even where they conflict with the cultural and indigenous rights, is a very worrying development.”