Bolivian President Evo Morales on Monday announced the start of an international lobbying effort by his country to push for the legalization of the coca leaf after the United Nations gave his government the go-ahead for its indigenous people to legally chew and cultivate the plant.
"The coca leaf will no longer be seen as a narcotic in the same way in which harvesters won't be seen as drug traffickers," Morales said during a rally held in Cochabamba.
It was one of two rallies organized by the Bolivian government to celebrate the country's reincorporation into the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs. Last year, Bolivia protested that the 1961 treaty went against the country's Constitution, which protects the coca leaf as public patrimony. Of the signatories of the treaty, 62 nations had to oppose Bolivia's reincorporation but only 15 voted against it, including the United States.
At the second rally, held in La Paz, Morales called on coca growers to join forces to convince the world to approve global marketing for the plant.
The next battle will be centered on selling the coca leaf to the entire industrialized world"
"The next battle won't just be centered on selling the coca leaf in the north of Argentina but to the entire industrialized world," he said, explaining that growers have already been able to successfully export their harvest to the neighboring nation.
While supporting growers, Morales has also intensified government efforts to eradicate illegal harvesting. A special army squad has been given the task to destroy crops that have not been approved by the government, especially in an area near Puente Roto in Chapare province, Cochabamba department.
According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Bolivia took positive steps in 2011 to eradicate 12 percent of the coca crops it considered illegal. Some 43,000 growers in Cochabamba - considered the country's coca leaf capital - have registered with the government, which strictly regulates the size of harvests.
"Our perspective is they've made real advances, but they're a long way from where we'd like to see them," said Larry Memmott, chargé d'affaires of the US Embassy in La Paz. "In terms of law enforcement, a lot remains to be done."
Last year, Morales traveled to Vienna in a bid to win support for the legalization of the coca leaf before a UN body. He captured world attention by chewing on a leaf in front of press cameras.
Morales said that the leaf should not be considered cocaine because it is used for other purposes, including religious ceremonies.
Indigenous communities throughout the Andes grow and chew the leaf as a herbal remedy to help them combat altitude sickness. It has also been used in the past to calm hunger pangs.
Bolivia is the biggest grower of coca leaves in Latin America, followed by Peru and Colombia.
In 2009 the United States authorities were ordered by the Morales administration to pull out the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents after the president accused them of trying to destabilize his administration.