Bolivian President takes 'coca is not cocaine' plea to UN

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The Independent US

Bolivia stepped up a long-running battle with Washington this week by taking its campaign to legalise coca plants to the United Nations in a bid to persuade the international community that the leaf should no longer be banned because of its links to the illegal drugs trade.

The tiny Andean nation, headed by newly elected populist President Evo Morales, is determined to prove that coca can be the source of legitimate products for export and not just the raw material for cocaine.

In Bolivia and across fellow coca-producing nations Colombia and Peru, the leaf has been grown for 3,500 years, and is used in everything from herbal tea to clothing. Its advocates say it can be used, among other things, as an aid to digestion and can provide vital nutrients and vitamins. Its function as an appetite suppressant, they point out, could also come in handy in the struggle against obesity.

Under the slogan "coca is not cocaine", they are calling for coca-based products, ranging from staples such as tea and bread to cosmetic goods such as shampoo, to be mass-produced and exported from all over South America.

But the plant, because of its close link to cocaine, is listed by the UN as a poisonous species, something which Bolivia hopes to change this week as it takes the case for legalising coca to the UN narcotics and crime agency in Vienna.

President Morales, himself a former grower and indigenous Aymara Indian who came to prominence as a spokesman for the coca farmers of the Chapare region of Bolivia, where 90 per cent of the country's coca yield is produced, has condemned his country's cocaine production. He is insistent, however, on its right to harvest more coca.

If he succeeds in changing the plant's status by 2008, Washington will not be happy. The US, which spends $1bn a year on its so-called "war on drugs" across South America, says it would be impossible to legalise coca growing in Bolivia without sending cocaine production soaring.

US officials express serious concerns that the new wave of leftist Latin American leaders - from Bolivia's President Morales to the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez - are acting in the interests of cocaine barons.

In most of the Andean states there are already small quotas of legalised coca cultivation supplying traditional products. Washington has argued that any expansion of those quotas would be cocaine production by another name.