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04/08/2004 | UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights 56th Session. Item 4. Economic, social and cultural rights

delivered by Marina Sikora

Thank you Mr.Chairman,

In 2000, after seven years of work, the Economic and Social Council of the UN established a Permanent Forum to discuss indigenous issues “relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human right”. The Forum is intended to “provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council, as well as to programmes, funds and agencies of the United Nations, through the Council” and raise awareness and promote the “integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the UN system."
Overwhelmed by a variety of topics, from the environment to social justice, from languages to religions, for almost four years the debate within the Forum has never addressed an issue that is crucial to many indigenous groups: that of coca bush. Coca is a central, if not a vital element of the very life, tradition, culture, religion and economy of dozens of indigenous peoples that live throughout the Andean region.
The main reason for this lack of focus is due to the fact that coca is one of the plants that have been strictly regulated, and at times systematically prohibited, by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances. As a result of this prohibition, over the last decade, the international community has addressed coca-related issues promoting a series of projects of "supply reduction" as well as "alternative development" to eradicate the “evil” plant from the face of the earth.
All those efforts have proved to be unsuccessful in eliminating and/or substituting coca with other licit crops. Many of these eradication programs, often through violent means, and have had a tragic impact on the health of thousands of individuals as well as on the environment of the concerned regions. In other eradication efforts, money has been promised to campesinos for their voluntary eradication and/or eventual substitution of coca.
Despite some timid positive results, duly documented in the late 1990s by the UN in Bolivia and Peru, in the medium-long term all those anti-coca programs have miserably failed adding new problems to already troubled regions.
Different is the story of "alternative development" projects. While in theory the idea of promoting licit crops as an alternative means for the development of those societies where the plants used for the production of narcotics are grown may be a good one, in practice the substitution has never proved to be fully self-sufficient in the medium or long term.
In fact, once the international community pulled out of those projects, the progress achieved disappeared in a matter of months, leaving local communities without the means provided by the "artificial" international support to sustain the alternative crops, leaving entire communities no better choice than to go back to cultivating the illicit plant.
Furthermore, the usual alternatives to coca bush have been palm hearts and other crops in vogue at the time, products that, over the last years, have seen a surplus in the world production that has caused a drastic decrease in their profitability - annulling all the economic arguments in favor of the substitution.
Last, but not least, when it comes to agricultural products, the tariff systems imposed by North American and European countries place an unfair burden on developing nations closing rich markets to products from the "south".
With time passing, the situation in the Andes has become unbearable for hundreds of communities, the general development of their countries as well as the wellbeing of the entire Latin American continent. Moreover, this situation has provided an incredible source of easy and big money for all sorts of illegal groups, from the Narcos to terrorist as well as paramilitary networks. Such a dramatic situation is always addressed with the same formula: Prohibition.

Mr.Chairman, distinguished members of the Sub-Commission

The TRP believes, that, after years of failing prohibitionist measures, the time would be ripe for the United Nations - in the framework of its work towards the respect of economic social and cultural rights, and the promotion of "alternative development" - to carry out a feasibility study to assess the possibility to allow the “original” or “traditional” legal development of the plants that are today mainly used to produce narcotics, starting from the coca bush.
Coca can be used to produce medicines of different types, but also, as it has done for hundreds of years, coca can be used in the production of goods such as tea, flour, toothpaste, soap, condiments, fabrics, chewing gum as well as different dietary supplements and, last but not least, the means to alleviate the abuse of the chemical substances processed from its leaves.
The original use of the illicit plant of coca may trigger several positive outcomes:

• it will remain within the local culture and tradition (at times sacred) of dozens of groups, including ethnic minorities, that live throughout the Andes;
• it will not imply an "intrusion" in a region's economy with techniques and/or producing habits that do not belong to that part of the world;
• it will provide an environmentally-friendly and ecological industry that could facilitate the development of rural areas and their eventual/possible industrialization in a context that respects local customs and practices;
• it will take away the business from the criminal networks that today control and blackmail peasants that are involved in illegal activities;
• lastly, a conversion of programs of supply reduction to curb the production of illicit crops into alternative development of the illicit plants, would also be instrumental in ceasing the negative impact of eradication techniques, which cause dramatic health and environmental problems in several areas of the Andes.

If the system of the United Nations is really committed to improving the socio-economic quality of life of targeted populations through "sustainable development projects", the traditional use of these plants – kept illegal by the three UN Conventions on narcotics - should indeed be integrated in the programs not to prevent, reduce and eliminate the production of illicit “drug crops”, but – at this point in human history - at least to work towards a general decrease in the production of illicit narcotics.
Comprehensive alternative development projects should address the broader economic situation of farmers who cultivate "drug crops" due not only to "rural poverty", "lack of access to markets for legal products" and "unsuitable soil for many other crops" as stated in dozens of UN official documents, but also because the plants that were outlawed 40 years ago, are an integral part of the cultures, traditions and religions of dozens of indigenous peoples who live in those regions where these agricultural products are endemic.

Such as discussion needs to be initiated without delay, and the Sub-Commission could be the most appropriate forum where to launched it involving, from the start, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue in an exercise to include coca-related issues as an item for discussions to issue a set of recommendations to the UN ECOSOC and other relevant UN organs, funds, programs and agencies. Such a debate could make a substantial contribution to economic, social, cultural and indigenous issues, making them become questions of a wider concern linking them to the current, ineffective “drug control” regime.
Putting an end to prohibition on coca could also facilitate, the cohabitation of ancient traditions and peaceful peculiarities in an internationally recognized legal framework.

Thank you