Wednesday, March 8, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has recommended that school children be fed coca leaves instead of milk for breakfast. The official’s comments are part of an effort by the government of President Evo Morales to remove coca from international lists of toxic substances.

Speaking before the congressional foreign relations committee last Thursday, Mr. Choquehuanca said that the coca leaf has more nutritional substance and gives extra energy.

“Our children need calcium, and the coca leaf has more calcium than milk,” he said. “Possibly, instead of giving milk in our school breakfasts, we need to give coca leaves to our children.”

He also told the Bolivian congress that coca has more phosphorous than fish.

The Bolivian government seeks to decriminalize coca with the argument that the leaf used to make cocaine also has a variety of legitimate and benign uses.

Andean indians have chewed and made tea out of coca for centuries to cope with fatigue and altitude sickness. Peasant farmers who produce the drug are the grass-roots base of Bolivia’s ruling Movement to Socialism.

Mr. Choquehuanca’s suggestion that the government encourage use of the addictive leaf in schools drew criticism from some health officials. One nutritional specialist in Santa Cruz accused him of “playing politics with the health of our children.”

International drug control agencies report an excessive growth of coca.

According to the United Nations, there are close to 74,000 acres of coca being cultivated in Bolivia, where U.S. supported eradication programs have almost come to a halt.

Less than 170 acres of coca were eliminated in 2005, falling far short of targets set by anti-drug authorities, who believe that much of the coca production goes to making illicit drugs.

Mr. Morales was elected on a platform of allowing each farming family to grow half an acre of coca.

Deteriorating relations between Bolivia and the United States reached new lows this week when Mr. Morales publicly complained that the U.S. Embassy had tried to interfere in the promotions of certain military officers considered untrustworthy for anti-drug operations.

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