Coca leaves
Coca leaves

Despite a legal setback, Bolivia says it will continue to press for the elimination in an international treaty of a ban on chewing coca leaves.

Bolivia?s representative at the United Nations, Pablo Solon, told reporters his country is seeking to end an international ban on chewing leaves from the coca plant. The practice is widespread among the indigenous people in Bolivia and other Andean countries.

A 1961 international treaty on narcotics bans the practice of chewing coca leaves. The same leaves, after processing, are also used for the production of cocaine, an illegal narcotic.

Bolivia had hoped to eliminate the treaty?s language banning the chewing of coca leaves. However, the amendment process can be blocked by the objection of one nation, and the United States has done that.

The United States says the proposed change would have removed all reference to coca leaf chewing and introduced ambiguity to the scope of controls on coca leaf. Bolivia is one of the world?s largest growers of coca leaves.

Solon said that despite Bolivia?s inability to directly amend the 1961 narcotics treaty to allow coca leaf chewing, Bolivia will take the issue to the United Nations Economic and Social Council that he said can call an international conference to change the treaty.

"The international community has to recognize a big mistake that was committed in 1961. If we want to recognize indigenous people?s rights, we have to correct our mistake and that is what the Plurinational State of Bolivia is asking in relation to coca leaf chewing," he said.

Earlier this week, protesters chewing coca leaves appeared outside the United States embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, and in other Bolivian cities to support the Bolivian government?s effort to change the narcotics treaty.

The U.S. embassy issued a statement saying that the U.S. respects the culture of indigenous peoples and recognizes that chewing coca leaves is a traditional custom in Bolivian culture. The statement expresses the U.S. intention of working with Bolivia in the framework of respect for these ancient practices.

Bolivian ambassador Solon said there is a contradiction between the U.S. statement and the U.S. refusal to change the narcotics treaty banning coca chewing. A U.S. State Department spokesman says there is no contradiction.