[New Statesman (UK)
11 March 2008
By: Hugh O’Shaughnessy
Calls to grub up every last coca bush in the Andes are not matched by
calls to annihilate the vineyards in Champagne or flatten the tobacco
fields of Virginia
When you’re next in La Paz, Bolivia’s chief city, take the road up the
steep hill from Plaza San Francisco, its handsome colonial church and
its beautiful flower market to the narrow cobbled street called
Sagárnaga. There you’ll find sellers of charqui, dried beef and llama
meat. Aymara ladies in bowler hats will sell you fresh fruit and a
bewildering variety of newly dug potatoes and naturally dried ones
called chuño which Bolivians adore. Bolivian food is nothing if not exotic.
Beside them on the pavement are sacks of pale greenish leaves which give
off a sweet-sour, vegetable-like smell of the coca bush. A pound of coca
leaves will cost you up to £1.50 or three or four US dollars. If you
want to buy wholesale go up to the spanking new warehouse at Villa
Fátima, across town whither the lorries toil up from the forested slopes
of the Yungas every day loaded with their 50 kilo packages of leaves.
The cocaleros or growers each have their own section and the best
quality leaf, most people agree, comes form around the town of Caranavi.
But wherever it comes from, the leaf will in my experience, give you
rather less of a bang than you’ll get out of a nice cup of tea or one of
those expensive lattes from Starbucks.
Coca leaves have been chewed by the inhabitants of the High Andes in
what is now Bolivia, Peru and parts of Argentina for many millennia:
they offer a temporary relief from cold and fatigue that is the lot of
those who live and work at 13,000 feet.
Under the new reforming constitution being introduced by President Evo
Morales to counter the long-standing prejudices against the majority of
Bolivians who are indigenes, the leaf is to be declared a national
heritage to be prized and appreciated alongside their customs, their
systems of justice and their languages.
The chewing of coca, all evidence suggests, has never done anyone any
harm. It is not to be compared to the concentrations of coca alkaloids
which are present in the drug cocaine, a narcotic manufactured to
satisfy the demands of US and European users. Cocaine is banned in Bolivia.
It was therefore with justified fury that the Bolivian and Peruvian
governments received the news last week that the International Narcotics
Control Board had had the brass neck to call on them to outlaw the
growing of coca bushes and criminalise of the chewing of the leaves or
the preparation of coca tea.
Morales has sent a stinging missive to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
and a high level delegation to the INCB meeting this week at its Vienna
headquarters as member states start their ten-year review of the
operation of the drug control system agreed by the UN General Assembly
Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in 1998. In his letter – lest the
Korean secretary-general had forgotten – Morales pointed to the UN’s
declaration last year the about indigenous rights, adopted in great part
after the protests of indigenous peoples from the Andes and Central
America to Australia about their treatment over the centuries.
The matter is of great concern to the Bolivian president who rose to
fame and a smashing victory in the 2005 elections as a leader of the
cocaleros. While maintaining the ban of the production of cocaine in
Bolivia, he has guaranteed that any peasant can maintain a quarter of a
hectare (a plot 25 paces by 25) to a coca bush or three for the leaves.
This month’s INCB outburst will in the long term be even greater concern
to the supporters of the spectacularly ineffective “war on drugs” which
is faltering for two main reasons. Firstly it is seen to be impossible
of achievement either in Aberdeen, Afghanistan or Atlanta, except as a
way of filling prisons with young people on the fringes of society – the
really rich heads of state and drug traders have the cash to escape
prison with highly paid lawyers or direct cash bribes.
Secondly because it conveniently ignores the really serious drugs,
alcohol and tobacco, which cause much more human ill-health and misery
than narcotics. Eventually it will dawn on opinion-formers and voters
that, while a committed group of politically active governments is
calling for the grubbing up of every last coca bush in the Andes, there
is, bizarrely, no similar call for the annihilation of the vineyards in
Champagne, Burgundy and the Napa Valley in California or the flattening
of the tobacco fields of Virginia. Likewise the destruction of Polish
potato fields or Irish fields of barley which supply the distillers of
vodka and the brewers of Guinness is not on the international agenda.
Is that because those who would be affected by such measures are
businessmen and finance ministers and not mere indigenes or peasants?