VIENNA – Bolivian President Evo Morales told Efe on Thursday that his government had started the formal process of removing coca leaf from the list of substances banned under the 1961 U.N. anti-narcotics convention.
“We are sending this request to the United Nations secretary-general, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, so it will follow the corresponding procedure,” Morales said in Vienna.
“In accordance with the procedures, I have information that (the process) will take a year and a half,” the leftist president said.
Bolivia will try to modify two subsections of Article 49 of the 1961 U.N. convention on drugs that prohibit the chewing of coca leaf, Morales said.
While the leaf is the raw material for making cocaine, unadulterated coca is a mild stimulant that eases hunger pangs and alleviates altitude sickness. It has been used in the Andean region for millennia in cooking, folk remedies and religious rites.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose to prominence as the leader of a coca-growers union, said he was optimistic about the chances for making the changes due to the positive reaction Wednesday to his address to the U.N. drug commission in Vienna.
“The ECOSOC (U.N. Economic and Social Council) has to consult the member countries and, if there is no rejection, I say it will be automatically approved. And with yesterday’s speech, I see it approved, with applause,” Morales said before leaving Austria for home.
Morales’s decision to hold up coca leaf and chew it in front of the U.N. panel to show it has no harmful effects was welcomed with several rounds of applause.
“I was surprised,” the president said, referring to his audience’s reaction, “there was applause four times, there is usually no applause at United Nations commission meetings.”
“I feel they are going to repair damage done, an error, a mistake by the United Nations in the year 1961,” Morales said.
The president said the World Health Organization would also evaluate the situation since it was “a scientific, medical, technical matter.”
Bolivian law permits the cultivation of 12,000 hectares (29,629 acres) of coca bushes for traditional uses, and a similar arrangement prevails in neighboring Peru.
Currently, Bolivia has 27,000 hectares planted with coca, making it the third-largest producer after Colombia and Peru.
Last November, the U.S. government suspended Bolivia’s participation in a tariff-exemption program for Andean nations, claiming that La Paz was not cooperating sufficiently in the war on drugs.
Morales categorically rejected that assertion and cited U.N. statistics that showed his government had done better than Washington allies Colombia and Peru both in reducing coca crops and seizing cocaine.
The Bolivian president came to office in January 2006 promising to end forced eradication of coca, a program that had led to violent protests. EFE