A brew of old coca is Bolivia's vibrant new beer. But it is unclear whether the world will join in

TRINIDAD PAMPA, Bolivia — If it were anywhere else in South America, the nondescript house with buckets of coca leaves soaked in liquid could be mistaken for a clandestine cocaine laboratory.

But this is La Paz, Bolivia, and the fruity smell of coca sitting in barrels signals that you have arrived at the government-authorized El Viejo Roble distillery, which has been making liquor from coca leaves for years and is now gearing up for launch a new coca-infused beer.

The question remains whether Bolivia could convince the world to accept the hardy green leaf best known beyond its borders as the main ingredient in cocaine. But a recent landmark decision by the World Health Organization to study the non-narcotic benefits of coca has rekindled the old hopes of Bolivian farmers, makers and sellers.

“Exporting is a desire that my people and I have had since I was a child,” said Lizzette Torrez, leader of one of Bolivia's main coca grower unions.

In Bolivia, the world's third largest producer of the coca leaf and cocaine, the ancient leaf has inspired spiritual rituals among Indigenous communities for generations — and more recently, among the well-to-do, a flood of coca-related products, including El Viejo Roble's new $2 brew.

“Beer can be bitter, but the sweet touch we give it with coca makes it tastier,” said manager Adrián Álvarez of the distillery, where workers bottled the brew that will soon be added to the coca-flavored vodka and rum of El Viejo Roble. , old classics that they sell to the government and visitors.

The reach of Álvarez's drinks, along with other coca-infused products, is limited to craft fairs in Bolivia and Peru, countries where the leaf is legal – as long as it is not used to make cocaine. As for the rest of the world: a United Nations Convention classifies coca leaf as a narcotic and imposes a total ban on drugs.

The Bolivian government is reviving its decades-long drive not only to destigmatize the plant and make it legal to export, but also to create a global market for coca liqueur, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, baking flour and more. Her efforts received a major boost last fall when the WHO announced it was launching a scientific study on the coca leaf, the first step in a long process to decriminalize the coca leaf worldwide.

“The procedures have been initiated for the first time in history,” Juan Carlos Alurralde, general secretary of Bolivia's vice presidency, told the AP. “The magazine is being seriously investigated.”

The last time the WHO investigated the coca leaf was in 1992, but detailed findings were never made public.

Civil servants of Colombia and Bolivia unveiled the research proposal earlier this spring together with representatives of the WHO in Vienna. They have until October, when a committee meeting on the study starts in Geneva, to submit research into the medicinal and nutritional value of coca.

The study will also take into account Bolivia's efforts to commercialize coca, determining the maximum amount of cocaine alkaloid that coca products can contain on the global market.

“Experts need to evaluate whether this leads to dependency,” Alurralde said.

Nearly 50 miles north of La Paz, where the high-altitude shrub turns the hills of Trinidad Pampa green, coca farmers known as 'cocaleros' welcomed news of the WHO assessment. For them, chewing coca leaves is a daily habit, comparable to drinking coffee.

“It helps me to harvest without fatigue and to support my family,” said farmer Juan de Dios Cocarico, stuffing a wad of coca into his mouth as he tore the leaves from the stem.

Global decriminalization would generate more export revenues, according to cocaleros economic crisis looms due to the rapid depletion of Bolivia's foreign exchange reserves.

“This is a coca growing town that lives on coca,” said Frido Duran, a leader of coca growers in Yungas, a region northeast of La Paz. “We are confident that this (WHO) study will confirm everything our grandparents taught us.”

Across Bolivia, the leaf produces 70,000 cocaleros and brings in about $279 million annually, as farmers sell the leaf in bulk to chew as a mild stimulant. in religious ceremonies or turned into goods marketed as a modern miracle cure that alleviates altitude sickness, increases endurance and staves off hunger.

For Bolivia, cocaleros are largely subsistence farmers who say they have few viable harvest options.

Cocaleros are vilified as the cause of many of the world's drug problems, according to the United States and other Western countries that have long blocked Bolivia's efforts to decriminalize the magazine.

“With each iteration of U.S. policy, Bolivia's coca growers have been coerced into whatever policy direction suits the U.S. bureaucracy,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andes Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “During the war on drugs, coca farmers were first drug traffickers and then narco-terrorists.”

Bolivia's focus on removing the leaf from the UN blacklist stems from its skepticism over coca eradication programs, which authorities say have produced little more than violence since then-US President Richard Nixon launched his program . “war on drugs ” in 1971.

Unable to force the cocaleros to sacrifice their meager livelihoods by planting replacement crops, Bolivian authorities began granting farmers permits to grow coca instead.

In calling for an investigation into the coca plant at the UN, President Luis Arce urged countries to “seize a new opportunity to correct this grave historical wrong.”

Washington said it was open to the WHO investigation but indicated it did not support legalization.

A legal market for coca leaves, the newspaper said U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policydoesn't stop illegal species arise. In a statement in response to questions from The Associated Press, the agency cited U.S. government figures showing that as coca cultivation in Bolivia doubled between 2006 and 2021, illicit cocaine production also increased by 175%.

According to the UN, Bolivia had 29,900 hectares of coca crops in 2022, of which only 22,000 were legal.

Former President Evo Moralesa longtime leader of coca farmers' unions who famously drove the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency out of Bolivia in 2009, used his office to develop himself Bolivia's state-regulated coca market and lobbying the UN to lift the ban.

The left icon scored a diplomatic victory in 2013 when the UN agreed to allow Bolivia to rejoin the Global Narcotic Drugs Convention, with an exception for traditional use of coca leaves.

But Morales' push for a WHO study ended when violent protests rocked Bolivia in 2019, leading to his resignation and exile after 14 years in power.

___

Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.

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