March 14, 2008 / 2:50 PM / 9 years ago

Lawmakers defend traditional coca use

<p>Peruvian congresswoman Hilaria Supa displays coca leaves on her desk during a session at Lima's Congress, March 13, 2008. Peruvian politicians, upset by a recent U.N. recommendation to criminalize coca, staged a protest in Congress on Thursday, quietly chewing the leaf to highlight traditional uses of the plant.Pilar Olivares</p>

LIMA (Reuters) - Lawmakers defiantly chewed coca in Peru's Congress on Thursday while criticizing a U.N. recommendation to criminalize traditional uses of the plant.

The coca leaf, the raw ingredient of cocaine, is used by millions of people to stave off hunger and fight altitude sickness. It is also used in teas, in cooking and by fortune tellers.

"The coca leaf has existed for thousands and thousands of years. It's part of our agriculture, our food and our medicine. It's sacred," Congresswoman Hilaria Supa told Reuters before the start of Thursday's session.

"The United Nations doesn't know our culture. It doesn't understand our values," she said.

Supa and Congresswoman Maria Sumire offered coca to their colleagues on the Congress floor from small hats. Dozens of politicians took handfuls and chewed the leaf during a raucous session with boos and hisses.

Earlier this month, the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations in its annual report urged Peru and Bolivia to ban coca chewing, with an eye toward cutting cocaine production.

Jose Garcia Belaunde, Peru's foreign relations minister, says Peru's right to chew coca is protected as an Andean tradition. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who rose to power as a leader of coca growers, has pushed to have it declassified as a drug.

Peru and Bolivia are the world's second and third largest coca producers after Colombia.

Reporting by Dana Ford; Editing by Terry Wade and Xavier Briand

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