蘑菇影院

A brew of ancient coca is Bolivia鈥檚 buzzy new beer. But it鈥檚 unclear if the world will buy in

A coca vendor works at a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. Bolivia鈥檚 government has revived a years-long battle to get the U.N. to decriminalize the coca leaf, an effort to win global recognition for its Indigenous traditions and expand its local market of coca-related products. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

A coca vendor works at a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. Bolivia鈥檚 government has revived a years-long battle to get the U.N. to decriminalize the coca leaf, an effort to win global recognition for its Indigenous traditions and expand its local market of coca-related products. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Share

TRINIDAD PAMPA, Bolivia (蘑菇影院) 鈥 If it were anywhere else in South America, the nondescript house with buckets of coca leaves soaking in liquid could be mistaken for a clandestine cocaine lab.

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

(蘑菇影院 Video/Carlos Guerrero)

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

鈥淓xporting is a desire that my people and I have had since I was a child,鈥 said Lizzette Torrez, leader of one of Bolivia鈥檚 main coca-grower unions.

Within Bolivia, the world鈥檚 third-biggest producer of the coca leaf, and of cocaine, the ancient leaf has inspired spiritual rituals among Indigenous communities for generations 鈥 and more recently, among the well-heeled, a deluge of coca-related products, including El Viejo Roble鈥檚 new star $2 brew.

Spiritual guide Julio Quispe uses coca leaves during the anniversary ceremony for the Ayllus and Markas del Qullasuyo National Council, a confederation of Indigenous governing bodies, at the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Bolivia鈥檚 government has revived a years-long battle to get the U.N. to decriminalize the coca leaf, an effort to win global recognition for its Indigenous traditions and expand its local market of coca-related products. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Spiritual guide Julio Quispe uses coca leaves during the anniversary ceremony for the Ayllus and Markas del Qullasuyo National Council, a confederation of Indigenous governing bodies, at the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

鈥淏eer can be bitter, but with the sweet touch that we give it with coca makes it is more palatable,鈥 manager Adri谩n 脕lvarez said from the distillery, where workers bottled the brew that will soon join El Viejo Roble鈥檚 coca-flavored vodka and rum, old classics they sell to the government and visitors.

The reach of 脕lvarez鈥檚 beverages, along with other coca-infused products, remains limited to artisanal fairs in Bolivia and Peru, countries where the leaf is legal 鈥 so long as it鈥檚 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 blanket prohibition on drugs.

Bolivia鈥檚 government is reviving its decadeslong push not only to destigmatize the plant and make it legal to export but also to create a global market for coca liquor, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, baking flour and more. Its efforts received a major boost last fall when WHO announced it would launch a scientific review of the coca leaf, the first step in a lengthy process to decriminalize the leaf worldwide.

A worker monitors coca leaf-flavored beer bottles on the assembly line at El Viejo Roble liqueurs in La Paz, Bolivia, Friday, May 3, 2024. The distillery has been making liquor from coca leaves for years and is now gearing up to launch a new coca-infused beer. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

A worker monitors coca leaf-flavored beer bottles on the assembly line at El Viejo Roble liqueurs in La Paz, Bolivia, Friday, May 3, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

鈥淭he procedures have been initiated for the first time in history,鈥 Juan Carlos Alurralde, general secretary of Bolivia鈥檚 vice presidency, told the 蘑菇影院. 鈥淭he leaf will be seriously investigated.鈥

The last time that WHO undertook a study of the coca leaf was in 1992, but detailed findings were never made pubic.

Officials from Colombia and Bolivia unveiled the research proposal alongside WHO representatives in Vienna earlier this spring. They have until October, when a committee meeting on the study will kick off in Geneva, to submit research about coca鈥檚 medicinal and nutritional properties.

The study will also consider Bolivia鈥檚 efforts to commercialize coca, determining the maximum amount of the cocaine alkaloid that coca products could contain on the world market.

鈥淓xperts have to evaluate whether it results in dependency,鈥 Alurralde said.

Dionicio Limachi spreads coca leaves after removing them from a coca-drying oven in Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area in Bolivia, Sunday, April 14, 2024. For many coca growers, chewing coca leaves is a daily habit likened to drinking coffee. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Dionicio Limachi spreads coca leaves after removing them from a coca-drying oven in Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area in Bolivia, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

A legal coca leaf market stands on a corner in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. Bolivia鈥檚 government has revived a years-long battle to get the U.N. to decriminalize the coca leaf, an effort to win global recognition for its Indigenous traditions and expand its local market of coca-related products. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

A legal coca leaf market stands on a corner in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of La Paz, where the high-altitude bush paints the hills of Trinidad Pampa green, coca growers, known as 鈥渃ocaleros,鈥 welcomed news of the WHO review. For them, chewing coca leaves is a daily habit likened to drinking coffee.

鈥淚t helps me to harvest without fatigue and support my family,鈥 said farmer Juan de Dios Cocarico, stuffing a wad of coca into his mouth as he ripped leaves off the stalk.

Global decriminalization, cocaleros say, would bring more export revenues as an economic crisis looms due to the rapid depletion of Bolivia鈥檚 foreign-exchange reserves.

鈥淭his is a coca-growing town that lives off coca,鈥 said Frido Duran, a leader of coca growers in Yungas, a region northeast of La Paz. 鈥淲e are convinced that this (WHO) study will vindicate all that our grandparents taught us.鈥

Across Bolivia, the leaf sustains 70,000 cocaleros and generates some $279 million each year as the farmers sell the foliage in bulk to be chewed as a mild stimulant, incorporated into religious ceremonies or transformed into goods marketed as a modern-day miracle cure that relieves altitude sickness, boosts stamina and dulls hunger.

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

Lizette Torrez, president of the Departmental Association of Coca Producers of La Paz, harvests coca leaves in Los Yungas, on the outskirts of Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area of Bolivia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. Coca-growers in Bolivia are largely subsistence farmers farmers who say they have few viable crop options. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Lizette Torrez, president of the Departmental Association of Coca Producers of La Paz, harvests coca leaves in Los Yungas, on the outskirts of Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area of Bolivia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

For the United States and other Western countries that long have blocked Bolivia鈥檚 attempts to decriminalize the leaf, cocaleros are maligned as the cause of many of the world鈥檚 drug problems.

鈥淲ith each iteration of U.S. policy the coca cultivators of Bolivia were forced into whatever policy guideline was good for U.S. bureaucracy,鈥 said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. 鈥淒uring the war on drugs, coca farmers were drug traffickers, then narco-terrorists.鈥

Bolivia鈥檚 focus on removing the leaf from the U.N. blacklist stems from its skepticism about coca-eradication schemes, which authorities say have brought little more than violence since then-U.S. President Richard Nixon launched his 鈥渨ar on drugs鈥 in 1971.

A vendor fills a sack with coca leaves at a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. Global decriminalization, coca-growers say, would bring more export revenues as an economic crisis looms due to the rapid depletion of Bolivia鈥檚 foreign-exchange reserves. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

A vendor fills a sack with coca leaves at a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, April 18, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Unable to force cocaleros to sacrifice their meager livelihoods by planting substitute crops, Bolivian authorities started licensing farmers to grow coca instead.

In requesting the study of the coca plant at the U.N., Bolivia鈥檚 President Luis Arce urged nations to seize 鈥渁 new opportunity to correct this grave historical error.鈥

Washington said it was open to WHO鈥檚 study, but signaled it wasn鈥檛 supporting legalization.

A legal coca leaf market, said the , doesn鈥檛 keep illegal ones from sprouting up. In a statement responding to questions from 蘑菇影院, the agency cited U.S. government figures showing that as coca cultivation in Bolivia doubled from 2006 to 2021, illicit cocaine production also surged by 175%.

As of 2022, the U.N. said Bolivia had 29,900 hectares (115 square miles) of coca crop, of which only 22,000 were legal.

Farmers harvest coca leaves in Los Yungas, on the outskirts of Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area of Bolivia, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Coca-growers in Bolivia are largely subsistence farmers farmers who say they have few viable crop options. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

Farmers harvest coca leaves in Los Yungas, on the outskirts of Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area of Bolivia, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Juan Karita)

The country鈥檚 former President Evo Morales, a longtime leader of coca growers鈥 unions who famously threw the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency out of Bolivia in 2009, used his office to develop Bolivia鈥檚 state-regulated coca market and and lobby the U.N. to lift its ban.

The leftist icon clinched a diplomatic victory in 2013 when the U.N. agreed to let Bolivia rejoin its global narcotic drug treaty with a carve-out for traditional uses of coca leaves.

But Morales鈥 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.