'Hands off our coca'

Calls to grub up every last coca bush in the Andes are not matched by calls to annihilate the vineya

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?