Ending Coca Prohibition Should Become
a Priority for UN Indigenous Forum
For years ago, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to “to discuss indigenous issues within the mandate of the Council relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights”. According to the ECOSOC the Permanent Forum shall” Provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council, as well as to programmes, funds and agencies of the United Nations, through the Council; and Raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the United Nations system."
Overwhelmed by a variety of topics that go from the environment to social justice to languages to religions, for almost four years, the debate within the Forum has not addressed coca-related issues as urgent indigenous matters. Coca leaf is a central, if not vital, element of the very life, tradition, culture, religion and economy of dozens of indigenous groups that live throughout the Andean region. The main region for this lack of focus is due to the fact that, unfortunately, coca is one of the plants that have been prohibited by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances.
Over the last decade, the international community has promoted a series of projects of "supply reduction" and "alternative development" that have proved to be unsuccessful in substituting coca bush with other licit crops. Many of these eradication programs, like the aerial fumigations in Colombia, have been carried out often through violent means, which have had a tragic impact on the health of thousands of people as well as on the environment of the concerned regions. In other eradication efforts, money has been promised to campesinos for their voluntary eradication and eventual substitution of coca. Despite some timid positive results, duly documented by the UN in Bolivia and Peru in the late 1990s, in the medium long term all those anti-coca programs have miserably failed.
Different is the story of "alternative development" projects. While in theory the idea of promoting licit crops as an alternative means for the development of those societies where the plants used for the production of narcotics are grown is a good one, in practice the substitution has never proven to be fully self-sufficient in the medium or long term. In fact, once the international community pulled out of the projects, the progress achieved disappeared in a matter of months, leaving local communities without the means provided by the "artificial" international support to sustain the alternative crops ready to go back to cultivating the "illicit plant.
Furthermore, the usual alternatives to coca bush have been coffee beans and bananas, products that, over the last years, have seen a surplus in the world production that has caused a drastic decrease in their profitability - annulling all the economic arguments in favor of the substitution. Lastly, when it comes to agricultural products, the tariff system imposed by North American and European countries places an unfair burden on developing nations de facto closing rich markets to products from the "south".
In the framework of its work towards the promotion of "alternative development", the UN should carry out a feasibility study to assess the possible alternative development of the plants that are used to produce narcotics. In fact, coca leaf can be used to produce medicines of different sorts, but also, as it has done for hundreds of years, coca can be used in the production of goods such as tea, flour, condiments, paper, fabric, gums, chewing gum as well as different dietary supplements.
If the UN is really committed to improving the socio-economic quality of life of targeted populations through "sustainable development projects", the alternative development of illicit plants should indeed be integrated in the programs not to prevent, reduce and eliminate the production of illicit drug crops, but to diminish the production of illicit narcotics.
Comprehensive alternative development projects should address the broader economic situation of farmers, who cultivate "drug crops" due not only to "rural poverty", "lack of access to markets for legal products" and "unsuitable soil for many other crops" as the UN claims, but also because the plants that have been outlawed 40 years ago are an integral part of the cultures, traditions and religious of those indigenous peoples.
If the Permanent Forum is serious about its mandate, coca-related issues need to be reflected in the Forum’s annual report that will be submitted with recommendations to the ECOSOC for its distribution to the relevant United Nations organs, funds, programs and agencies. It may be too late for this year's session, but starting to raise the issue this May, could launch a preparatory process that could indeed include coca as an item for discussion for next year.
Putting an end to prohibition on coca should become a priority for all those that genuinely struggle for freedom and human rights and that are working towards the establishment a system that functions on the rule of law, a law that does not prohibit but that facilitates the cohabitation of peaceful peculiarities including, ultimately, also indigenous issues.