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Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves

A giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves built during January 2011 protest in support of global legalization of coca chewing

Update, January 11: It’s official. Bolivia’s stance has been accepted. Thirteen nations filed objections, far fewer than were needed to block Bolivia’s readmission: the United States, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and Sweden.

The Bolivian government campaign to alter the international legal status of chewing coca leaves (a practice known locally as acullicu) is expected to take its first major step forward later this week. On that day, unless 63 other countries step forward to block the move, the country’s objection to including the practice as a form of narcotic drug use under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs will be accepted as a reservation to the treaty. In effect, the country will stand relieved of a treaty obligation to criminalize coca chewing (which theoretically was required by 1989). Coca chewing remains a widely accepted and legal practice in Bolivia, and coca growers are an important constituency, organized into two regional unions.

The logical and more consequential step would be to remove coca chewing from the convention altogether, but this requires a consensus of parties to the convention. (Removing coca chewing from the convention would not have resulted in its global legalization, but rather left in place national laws on the substance.) A Bolivian effort to do just that failed in 2011 when the United States and 17 other countries filed objections. Anthropologists in the United States, along with drug policy and Latin American policy advocates, had urged the Obama administration to avoid taking this stance, signing on to a letter that argued, “Coca chewing is central to the cultural identity of millions of indigenous Andean people, and has been for many centuries. Rejecting Bolivia’s amendment conflicts with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This effort at persuasion fell on deaf ears.

Stymied in the broader effort, Bolivian diplomats began a new approach in June 2011. They moved to temporarily leave the convention—while promising to uphold its other requirements—and rejoin with a reservation concerning coca chewing. Their re-adherence was formalized in January 2012, and other parties had twelve months to file objections. That period runs out Thursday, January 10, 2013. Again, the Obama administration has raised a complaint, so far joined only by the United Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden. For Bolivia to not be accepted, this total must rise to 62 by Thursday.

So, a small diplomatic victory over the criminalization of coca chewing seems likely this week. Evo Morales announced that Peru, among other countries, may follow in Bolivia’s footsteps. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa called the criminalization “a genuine attack on collective rights and an insult to the ancestral peoples of Bolivia. un verdadero atentado a los derechos colectivos, insulto a los pueblos ancestrales bolivianos.” In Bolivia, a public celebration is planned for late this week.

In the coming weeks, Bolivia’s indigenous movement is organizing a new national march. For the eighth time, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB; the acronym reflects its origins in the Oriente, or East of the country) is preparing a national march on La Paz. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an organization of traditionally organized highland communities has pledged to join CIDOB in this effort. Unlike CIDOB’s past marches, this one brings a single, local struggle to the national spotlight: the planned building of a major inter-departmental highway through an indigenous territory called Isiboro-Sécure.

The Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (known by the Spanish acronym TIPNIS) is supposed to be a new kind of territory. Combining indigenous self-government and environmental protection, TIPNIS is both a protected natural area and a self-governing indigenous territory. These lands lie on the undemarcated frontier between Cochabamba and Beni departments in Bolivia around the Isiboro and Sécure Rivers. They are home to members of the Yuki, Yuracaré, and Trinitario Mojeño peoples, who govern the territory through indigenous community organizations which are federated into the Subcentral of TIPNIS. This novel arrangement was made possible by the first CIDOB march, back in 1990, which put indigenous autonomy on Bolivia’s national radar.

Twenty years later, Bolivia is also supposed to be carrying forward a radical redefinition of its political life around a new agenda. Three pillars of that agenda are indigenous rights, autonomy, and care for the natural world. The government of Evo Morales backed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to its passage by the UN General Assemby in 2007, and was the first government to incorporate its text into domestic legislation. The country’s new constitution, approved by a 2009 referendum, defines the a “Unitary Social State of Plurinational, Community-Based Law, … intercultural, decentralized, and with autonomies,” probably the strongest acknowledgment of decentralization in any national constitution. The Bolivian government’s support for environmental protection on the world stage—at Copenhagen and Cancun, in hosting the Cochabamba climate summit, and at the United Nations—has become almost legendary. The passage of a non-binding “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth” last December attracted enthusiastic praise from outside observers.

On the drawing board for decades, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway started to become a reality over the past few years thanks to funding from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). The highway has provoked a string of environmental controversies. At last April’s Cochabamba Climate Summit, the planned road was one of several dozen “megaprojects” discussed by local activists at Mesa 18, the so-called Eighteenth Table of the meeting and the only one devoted to environmental problems within Bolivia itself. In May, a summit of local and regional leaders met in the community of San Miguelito inside TIPNIS. Attending organizations declared:

We are tired of sending letters and resolutions stating our position of rejection against the initiative to construct a highway uniting Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, which have never been heard and attended to by the current or previous governments; …

We resolve … To overwhelmingly and non-negotiably reject the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway and of any highway segment that would affect our territory, our [collective] big house (full text in English)

Several months later, Vice Minister of the Environment Juan Pablo Ramos resigned rather than approve an environmental license for the highway. Yet, even as President Evo Morales inaugurated the project on June 5 of this year, no consultation has taken place with the peoples living in Isiboro-Sécure.

The objections to the highway, put forward by TIPNIS residents themselves through their Subcentral, should be familiar to anyone who follows the continent-wide story of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Across South America, large “primary actors” like road builders or oil drilling installations have had a disproportionate impact in opening new regions to systematic deforestation. The pattern is simple: one a route is cleared into a region, colonists follow with short-term cropping on cleared forest. Since the rainforest lives atop paradoxically poor soils (heavy rainfall washes the nutrients out of the soil, so the complex, multi-tier ecosystem has evolved mechanisms for preserving as much useful matter above the surface as possible). Often, such colonial agriculture depletes what is left after burning in a decade or two and colonists move on to repeat the cycle. For people who depend instead on the resources and wildlife of the forest for survival, this process is disastrous.  The indigenous peoples of TIPNIS are no exception: they too maintain a livelihood that is built around local self-sufficiency and depends on the forests for food and rivers for transportation. Deforestation is not a hypothetical threat in TIPNIS either. Where dirt and gravel roads have been cleared along the southern part of the proposed highway route, thousands of acres within the Park have been cleared for coca cultivation. New coca farms inside of TIPNIS violate understandings between the the Chapare coca farmers on one side and the international community on the other, and the Morales government has pledged to remove them. However, TIPNIS representatives have signaled that both land for cultivation and concessions for logging are being offered for speculative sale as road construction nears.

In short, the highway has become a key point in the battle over Bolivia’s future, and over the extent to which dreams of ecological sustainability and indigenous self-governance will become a reality. Deforestation, cultural survival, the indigenous right to self determination, and the protection of indigenous territories are all at issue. These broader concerns explain why both CIDOB and CONAMAQ are preparing to march alongside indigenous community representatives from Isiboro-Sécure, in late July or early August. For those around the world who have put hopes in the Morales government for the same reasons, now is a good time to let it know you’re watching.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime issued its annual World Drug Report this week. Despite its fluffy image in the United States, the UN and this office in particular are committed to the global drug war. However, the office is also one of the most important factual sources on the production, circulation, and use of drugs.

Participation in the drug war is a vital metric on which the richest countries rate the progress/goodness/aid-worthiness of countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia, this has meant American drug enforcers, military trainers, and herbicidal chemicals on the ground for over a decade now. However, the United States’ annual evaluation of countries’ cooperation in the drug war often has more to do with access for these arms of the American state, and rewarding loyal allies while punishing governments that question US foreign policy, than with actual results. In recent years, this has meant annual certification of Peru as effectively carrying out the drug war, while decertifying Bolivia. The main cost of decertification is cutting off drug aid funds and market supports for alternative products grown in coca-producing regions.

Let’s look at some facts provided by the UN to put this in perspective:

  • Coca leaf cultivation by country (p. 99): Back in 1999, coca eradication efforts had peaked in Bolivia, due to the militarization of the Chapare coca-growing region. Lethal clashes had accompanied eradication, but the area of Bolivia where coca is grown reached its low point: 14,600 hectares.  Colombia then dominated coca growing: 163 thousand hectares out of the global total of 221 thousand. In the past decade, coca growing in Bolivia bounced back (to 25,400 hectares in the years before Evo Morales, and since then more slowly to around 31,000 hectares). Meanwhile Peruvian cultivation has shown steady growth (two small annual declines vs. eight years of annual growth), moving from under 39 thousand hectares to around 61 thousand. The big squeeze in Colombia through eradication (including aerial spraying of pesticides and burning of fields) got production there down to about 62,000 hectares.
  • Overall, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia now have a 40-40-20 split of coca production, but only Bolivia is decertified by the United States. Peru, which is open to DEA agents and has been welcoming to US corporations, seems to have gotten a free pass on its doubling coca cultivation.
  • The global burden of cocaine seizures has shifted to police in South America (p. 99-100): Who’s fighting the drug war on cocaine? Measuring by seizures of the drug, it’s primarily South Americans, who accounted for 60% of the 732 metric tons of cocaine captured by drug enforces in 2009. This is a dramatic shift from 30-40% around the turn of the century.
  • Most cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia: US authorities trace 90% of the US supply to Colombia. European drug seizures with a country of origin are 25% from Colombia, but another 44% comes from primarily Colombian transit markets in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. “Cocaine produced in Peru and the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in contrast, is used more within South America, notably in countries of the Southern Cone.”
  • All of these seizures are failing to put any economic squeeze on cocaine use: The cocaine industry is the deadliest in terms of trafficking related violence, but this death and the drug war have not diminished overall use. As with production, we see a move in the centers of use. In this case, however, there’s no overall reduction. US consumption has slumped over the past twelve years, but European usage doubled from 1998 to 2006 and stayed steady since. (by the way: Despite these shifts, US users are still more common and consume more total cocaine than European users.)

Events in all three producer countries are linked to increased questioning of the role of coca eradication in the drug war. While Bolivia’s case is the most dramatic—the current president leads a union of coca-growing farmers—the traditional importance of coca leaves to Andean cultures is a shared factor in all three countries. The Plurinational State of Bolivia is committed to a formal expansion of the legal area for cultivation to include part of the Chapare. It has invested in the commercialization of products other than the ancient uses of coca leaves for chewing and brewing mate, such as coca candies, liquor, and foods. It also is interested in exporting leaves for traditional use by the 1-2 million Bolivians living in Argentina.

In Peru, President-Elect Ollanta Humala has expressed support for greater freedom for traditional cultivation and concerns about Peru’s eradication policy. And Colombia withdrew its initial objections and backed the removal of coca chewing as a penalized activity under the 1961 Vienna drug convention. And Colombia’s high court ruled Thursday that indigenous peoples must be consulted about coca eradication on their lands.

It’s important to note that none of these policies constitute a general open growing policy. In Bolivia, “social control” of coca cultivation which limits acreage per family and continues eradication outside authorized regions is the policy of the day. Social control policies are backed by the European Union, and Brazil has stepped in to replace US funds for drug control measures.

Finally, Ollanta Humala’s election offers a new test of the politicization of US drug war certification. Will the new government take the blame for Peru’s rising coca production, while friendlier governments have gotten a pass for the past decade? If the US moves to decertify Peru this year, blaming Humala for Alan Garcías failed policies, it will be a clear case of making drug aid a political stick to attack critics of American economic policies.

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves

On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves

Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away

Marchers with coca plants

Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves

TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.

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