Peru farmers push alternative coca products

LIMA, Peru: Farmers in Peru are extolling the virtues of beer, wine and candies made with coca in an attempt to erase the stigma attached to the Andean leaf used to make cocaine.

Dozens of vendors, growers and buyers gathered Wednesday for a fair promoting the coca leaf — which is traditionally chewed or consumed in tea in the Andes — and products made from it.

"Many people in Lima think the coca leaf is a drug. That's what they've tried to make us believe," said former congresswoman and coca farmer Elsa Malpartida. "But now we are showing them its bounty. We are giving free coca to the people and saying it is not bad in its natural state."

The leaf was chewed by nobles in Peru's Inca empire and is considered sacred in Andean lore.

Farmers also backed calls by Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, to remove the plant from the United Nations' list of prohibited drugs.

"I'd like to reiterate this humble, sincere request that a historical error be rectified, while also reiterating my commitment to a frontal assault on cocaine and drug trafficking," Morales said Wednesday at a U.N. narcotics conference in Vienna.

"Coca leaf consumption goes back to the year 3000 B.C.," Morales said. "How are you going to end its consumption in 25 years, knowing that it is not harmful?"

The U.N. says more than 80 percent of Peru's coca crop was processed into cocaine in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.

Peru is the world's second biggest coca producer, behind Colombia. Bolivia is third.