The never ending battle over the coca leaf


Storm in an Andean tea cup. (Photo: Internet)

If you visit Cusco, the former Inca capital, or Bolivia’s capital La Paz, you will be 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, 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.