Bolivian president gives U.N. chief coca birthday cake

By Hugh Bronstein

SANTA CRUZ Bolivia (Reuters) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon got an unusual treat for his 70th birthday on Friday when the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, presented him with a cake made with coca leaves.

The UN chief was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for a meeting this weekend of the G77 group of countries to discuss measures for reducing poverty.

Coca is used to make cocaine but host Morales, a former coca farmer, has long defended its legal use as an "ancestral rite" for tea, sweets and medicines, going so far as to pull coca leaves out of a small plastic bag during a UN anti-drug meeting in Vienna in 2012 and chew on a wad of them. People in the Andean region also traditionally chew on coca leaf as a source of energy or as an antidote to altitude sickness.

"The Bolivian people will never forget your visit," Morales told Ban on Friday in front of hundreds gathered for the presentation of the cake and a traditional Bolivian jacket.

Ban was effusive in his thanks but stopped short of publicly taking a bite of the "torta de coca" or of endorsing Morales' position on the controversial leaf.

"The Bolivian people have a big, broad heart ... and great wisdom," Ban said. "You have lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature."

The UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs banned coca leaf in 1961 along with cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine, and in 2012 Bolivia withdrew from it to protest the criminalization of the chewing of coca leaves.

Subsequently the UN granted Bolivia a special dispensation recognizing the traditional practice as legal in Bolivia and Bolivia was re-admitted to the convention.

The country's condition for rejoining met resistance from 15 countries, including the United States and the rest of the G8 group of industrial nations, but in order to block Bolivia's re-admission a full third of its signatories, or 63 countries, needed to object.

Bolivia is the world's biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel; Editing by James Dalgleish)