Colonialism in the UN

By Published On: March 5, 2008Categories: Indigenous peoples3 Comments on Colonialism in the UN

“A special
reference must be made to another well-known doctor in Cuzco who was most sincerely convinced that
coca-chewing was disastrous to the Indian…. He explained the habit in the following way: ´The Indian is racially an oligophrenic [mentally deficient]… coca leaf makes him forget his difficulties, but at the same time damages his moral personality. He becomes dirty, smelly, negligent. This closes him out of society and he is looked down upon by mestizos and whites.”
(United Nations
Commission of Enquiry on the coca leaf, 1950 )

Now you
could perhaps dismiss this quote approvingly noted in the report of the UN
commission on coca in 1950 as typical of that time. Coca as you will probably
know is chewed daily by millions of people in the Andes
and is considered a sacred leaf in indigenous cultures.

But did you know
that these quotes are still the main theoretical basis for a report by the UN’s
International Narcotics Drugs Board’s (INCB) annual report released today in which it
called on “the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay
with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf
chewing and production of coca tea”?

The fact is that the UN is still basing its posturing on coca on a document drawn up in
1950 at a time when indigenous communities could not even enter the central square of La Paz, Bolivia. Yet this report was the main foundation for a decision in 1961 to include coca in the list of illegal narcotic drugs, a list that remains on international law today.

Despite its significance, it has been a report that has been difficult to get
hold of up to now. But thanks to TNI´s new website on UNGASS ( I have just spent a disturbing hour reviewing the original UN document. It is a step back into a racist
colonialist past that has defined so much of Bolivia’s political and social development. It talks freely in a social Darwinist way of the “Andean man” and concludes that chewing “induces in the individual undesirable changes of an intellectual and moral character… It certainly hinders the chewer’s chance of obtaining a higher social standard.”

That conclusion made in 1950 entrenched racist views against indigenous communities and in the 1980s was the backdrop to the US war on drugs that labelled all coca-growers as drug traffickers. It reflected the complete blindness to non-western cultures, which never consumed cocaine, and venerated the coca leaf
for its nutritional and sacred properties. It has led to the ignorant confusion of coca, which is harmless in its original form, with cocaine which can only be made by mixing coca with other chemical substances first manufactured in the west.

What is strange as Martin Jelsma of TNI reflects is that the INCB – which has up to now chosen largely to ignore the  contradictions between the 1961’s inclusion of coca as a drug and the reality of its use without harm by millions of people – has chosen in 2008 to come down so hard on the traditional use of coca. In fact
its instruction that Bolivia “should establish as a criminal offence, when committed intentionally, the
possession and purchase of coca leaf for personal consumption” would criminalise millions of people (including myself who chews coca on many occasions) and be impossible to enforce.

I am convinced it shows the influence of the US government, which is angry at the revaluing of coca in Bolivia most significantly within the proposed constitution. It reflects their bitterness at the election of one
of their arch-enemies Evo Morales who as a leader of a coca-union led resistance against US war on drugs in the Chapare. It is also a way of attacking the Bolivian government’s exchange of repressive US-led policies of eradication with more flexible agreements based on voluntary eradication. Even the US government has had to admit officially that voluntary agreements, which they opposed for so long – have led to higher
levels of eradication and higher seizures of cocaine within Bolivia

Hidden behind the obscure façade of the INCB, however, the US was able to revert to type and push for repressive policies once again – policies that allowed them in the past to exercise military control within Andean states and which diverted from the real problems of rising demand by North-Americans determined
to stupefy themselves on the backstreets of the ‘American dream.’ Meanwhile it  should be a source of much greater international outrage that a major United Nations body should be  controlled in this way, and that it should still be basing its policies on such a racist and colonialist document.



  1. Miguel Centellas March 5, 2008 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    Yeah, what is up w/ the UN report? Even the US govt recognizes some legal “traditional” coca. I’m confused at the UN report, especially considering its usual orientations.

  2. Nick March 6, 2008 at 8:11 am - Reply

    It is a particularly hard line and strange given other pronouncements but does reflect the fact that the INCB technically has always been supposed to hold this line as enforcer of international drug conventions including the 1961 that put coca on the drugs list. In some ways I can see it backfiring and providing the necessary fuel for the campaign to remove coca from the 1961 list.

  3. Deni March 7, 2008 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    How disturbing.
    I thought I would share with your readers an experience I had the other day on a bus from La Paz to Tarija (a 21 hour ride). The bus left La Paz at 5 p.m. with about 40 passengers, among them a very young couple with their first child, a newborn. After the first half hour or so of continuous crying, it became apparent that we were all in for a long night. Several hours later, recognizing that the infant’s discomfort was far worse than our own, a fellow passenger took pity on the inexperienced couple and taught the mother to chew some coca leaves (which are always plentiful on long Bolivian bus rides), and to transfer her saliva to her baby’s mouth. Within minutes the cries subsided. For me it was a tender moment, on many levels. To consider this criminal is just, well, criminal.
    On the bright side, just as the US’ coca eradication policy backfired and helped make it possible for Evo Morales to become President, harsh international anti-Bolivian policies will continue to fan the flames of inevitable change here in Bolivia.

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