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Coca and Covid in Argentina

Border closures for Covid-19 have caused major shortages of coca leaf for traditional consumers



Closure of the border with Bolivia in response to covid-19 has exposed a legal vacuum in Argentina surrounding the consumption, importation and cultivation of coca leaves in the country’s northern provinces.

Coca leaves have been used for millennia by indigenous groups in the area, as well as in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, for medicinal and ritualistic purposes. However its usage in northern Argentina also crosses social groups, through the popular practice of el coqueo.

The person enjoying el coqueo continually adds coca leaves to the side of their mouth, forming a ball of leaves in their cheek. They usually add bicarbonate of soda or yistas which helps to release the leaf’s beneficial ingredients – alkaloids that increase feelings of energy and help to stave off hunger.

In 1989 a new Law on Narcotics (Ley 23.737) was introduced, overturning the previous blanket prohibition on the practice of chewing coca leaves imposed by Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-83. Article 15 of the new law states ‘the possession and consumption of coca leaves in their natural state’ for the purposes of ‘chewing’ or in ‘infusions’ is legal. However the law does not allow for coca to be legally imported or grown within Argentina.

Inevitably, this has given rise to a flourishing black market in coca leaves transported illegally from Bolivia to the northern provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Tucuman. Accurate statistics are scarce, but it is estimated that around US$600,000 worth of coca leaves per month are sold in the city of Salta alone.

Coca leaves. Image: El Tribuno Salta

Effects of covid-19 on the coca market in Argentina

As both Argentina and Bolivia both sealed their borders in response to the current health crisis, rigorous controls and searches at border crossing between both countries have led to large seizures of coca leaves by border police. These seizures have resulted in crippling shortages in the local market, with price increases of around 600% for a quarter kilo of coca leaves since March, causing this normally accessible and popularly consumed commodity to be out of reach of many people in northern Argentina.

In the short term, steps are being taken here to address this issue. The governors of Jujuy, Gerardo Morales, and of Salta, Gustavo Saenz, have successfully petitioned the Federal Courts to release seized coca leaves so that they can be redistributed to indigenous communities, rural workers and cooperatives in both provinces.

321kg of coca leaves seized in the border town of La Quiaca by the La Brigada de Narcotrafico. Image: Jujuy al Dia

More important, however, is a recent law proposed in the Camara de Diputados of the Argentine Congress by the Deputy for Jujuy, José María Martiarena, calling for the legalisation both of both imports of coca leaves and its cultivation in northern Argentina.

If the law is passed, it will remove the risk of prosecution both from indigenous communities, and from the wider community of users drawn from all social classes.

Coca: a sacred offering and mediator between different forms of existence

As Dr. Eugenia Flores, Professor in Anthropology at the National University of Salta, explains, in northern Argentina indigenous communities ‘consider it [coca] a sacred offering and mediator between different forms of existence of the Andean ethos, from where it interacts with multiple subjects of the cosmos. But, in addition, coca is used by students, doctors, lawyers and judges, and by a multiplicity of actors of distinct social sectors, who also have a special relation with the leaves that they use in the form of ‘coqueo’ (chewing) or in infusions.’

Coca leaves and international law

Any attempt at legalising coca’s production will no doubt be met with opposition internationally, as coca leaves are considered a banned substance by the UN in accordance with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – because of its use as the raw material for producing cocaine.

This global ban was given further weight by the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, of which Argentina is a signatory.

Article 3 of the convention lays down that ‘each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as a criminal offence under its domestic law, when committed intentionally, the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention’.

However, Article 14 of the 1988 Convention makes allowances for ‘traditional uses’ of illicit crops provided that measures are taken to ‘eradicate plants containing narcotic or psychotropic substances’ – which includes coca bushes. Punitive measures, the Convention states, should ‘respect fundamental human rights and shall take due account of traditional licit uses, where there is historic evidence of such use’.

The example of Bolivia

Bolivia has continued to defend the right of its citizens to grow and consume coca leaves in their natural form by claiming the historical and cultural significance of the practice for indigenous people.

Thus Bolivia submitted a ‘reservation’ to the 1988 Convention arguing that the country’s ‘legal system recognizes the ancestral nature of the licit use of the coca leaf which, for much of Bolivia’s population, dates back over centuries’.

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In 2009, the deposed ex-President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, appeared at the United Nations to defend Bolivia’s regulated system of coca production, citing, among other conventions, the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration enshrines a commitment among the global community to respect the cultural traditions, medicinal practices and other forms of expression of all indigenous people.

Evo Morales at the UN defends the chewing of cocal leaves. Part I. Video: DrugReporter, 11 May 2009

The Bolivian Constitution protects coca as ‘ancestral’ and as part of the ‘cultural heritage’ of the Bolivian state. During Morales’ period in office, Bolivia almost doubled the legal cultivation of coca from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

Despite this increase in the legal crop, Bolivia has been more successful in reducing illegal coca plantations than both Colombia and Peru (where all coca production is illegal). According to UNODC statistics, Bolivia is currently third in levels of cultivation, behind Colombia with 169,000 hectacres in 2018 and Peru with 49,900 hectares in in 2019.

Echoing the views expressed by Evo Morales, Jujuy’s Provincial Governor, Gerardo Morales, recently made similar claims about coca’s ancestral and cultural value in Jujuy. Addressing the current shortage of coca leaves, he said that ‘we are going to preserve this ancestral custom’.

Jujuy provicial governor Gerardo Morales discusses the distribution of cocal and its ancestral value in the province. Video: Mantenete Informado Ledesma, 11 May 2020

Similarly, in the upper house of the provincial congress of Salta, a cross-party commission has been established to investigate regulating the supply and sale of coca leaves in the province.

Prospects for full legalisation

The current law proposed by National Deputy Martiarena will need approval in both houses of Congress where it will likely face considerable opposition due to fears that a portion of the coca leaf harvest would be diverted towards narcotrafficking, and would place Argentina in conflict with international conventions banning coca production.

Historically, opposition to coca in Argentina has centred on the idea that el coqueo is ‘archaic’ and a sign of ‘backwardness’, as well as the desire not to fall foul of international law banning its production and use.

For example, during the 1970s and early 1980s, according to Dr Flores, ‘the Argentine government aligned itself with the United States, implementing not only repressive devices towards el coqueo but also socio-political repression… this involved our country assuming commitments before international development bodies. It was about matching national legislation to international law with respect to the consumption of coca’.

Current situation

A recent outbreak of coronavirus in the province of Jujuy has sharpened the debate over coca’s legal status in Argentina. Judicial proceedings are underway against two police officers accused of illegally smuggling coca over the border from Bolivia where they contracted coronavirus and later infected 22 other members of the local Jujuy police force.

In response, Governor Morales, backtracking on previous statements about the need to protect el coqueo and its ancestral use, has imposed heavy fines on anyone found transporting coca into Jujuy. In addition, police have also begun shutting down shops selling coca arguing that in the midst of a quarantine ‘they are not an essential service’, thus further deepening the crisis for both suppliers and consumers in the province.

Beyond northern Argentina there is also growing recognition that the legal quagmire surrounding this popularly consumed leaf needs to be finally resolved.

In its decision to release 864 kgs of coca leaves seized after being illegally imported from Bolivia, the Ministry of Public Prosecution stated that ‘it does not escape this Public Ministry in the present analysis… that the non-cultivation of these [coca leaves] in our country, has generated a clandestine market of importation (contraband) that induces other forms of criminality… This situation must be approached by regulation that harmonizes the tensions in play’.

Ultimately whether the legal cultivation of coca leaves in the north of the country is possible is merely a question of political will, as a number of scientific studies have pointed to the future viability for cultivation of coca in both Salta and Jujuy.

In fact the current shortage of coca leaves in both provinces has resulted in the collection and sale by local traders of coca del monte, a form of coca leaf which grows naturally in a part of Salta that borders with the province of El Chaco.

Coca del Monte in Salta. Video: El Tribuno Salta, 15 May 2020

Undoubtedly these local initiatives for cultivation are indicative of the high-demand for coca in northern Argentina where its consumption is wide-spread.

As Dr. Flores stresses, ‘La Coca, even if supranational bodies don’t like it, has a social life and an agency that is becoming more and more visible in our new trajectories of circulation and movement, in new interethnic scenarios, that show it acting in a political and symbolic field, displaying its potential as interlocutor of social relations’.

Given the distinct uses la coca enjoys across social groups and its non-partisan defence by political elites in northern Argentina, the battle for its full legalisation will no doubt continue long after the world health crisis has ended.