Bolivian president Evo Morales ate a coca leaf in front of delegates at the UN summit on drugs in Vienna on Wednesday, to underline his demand that the raw ingredient used to make cocaine be removed from the United Nation's list of prohibited drugs.
While coca can be turned into cocaine, Bolivians prize the small green leaf in its less-potent natural form for its medicinal uses, either chewing it or brewing it as a tea to stave off hunger and fight altitude sickness.
Bolivia is the third-largest coca producer after Colombia and Peru, where the leaf was chewed by nobles in the Inca empire and is considered sacred in Andean lore.
We're for the coca leaf but against cocaine Mr Morales, a former coca famer said in Vienna. The coca leaf should no longer be vilified and criminalized!
He said the ban of the crop amounted to a ban of a culture, and was a major historical mistake.
Coca leaf consumption goes back to the year 3000 BC, Mr Morales said. How are you going to end its consumption in 25 years, knowing that it is not harmful?
Moales also called on US President Barack Obama to recognize the traditional values of the coca leaf. “We hope for support from President Obama for the decriminalization of coca he said.
The new US president has similarities to me, Morales said, adding that he hoped Obama would help his years-long coca crusade because of what they have in common.
Before, nobody believed that an Indian could be president and nobody thought that a black man could be president of the United States,” Morales said.
Morales, who has banned US anti-drug agents from working in Bolivia has said his country can fight cocaine trafficking on its own.
He ordered the US Drug Enforcement Administration to stop its work in Bolivia in November after accusing the agency of spying and conspiring to overthrow him.
A US State Department report in February said Bolivian cocaine production increased rapidly last year due to greater cultivation and more efficient manufacturing methods. It said Bolivia had failed to live up to obligations under international agreements.
The UN crime agency chief said on Wednesday a 10-year anti-drug drive had partially backfired by making drug cartels so wealthy they can bribe their way through West Africa and Central America, and undermining security and development.