LA PAZ (Reuters) - A pale green energy drink made from coca leaves has given Bolivian President Evo Morales a boost as he tries to persuade the United Nations to scrap a ban on the traditional Andean practice of chewing the leaves.
Coca is the raw material for making cocaine, but Bolivians have chewed the leaves for centuries for it mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.
The coca leaf was declared an illegal narcotic in the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, along with cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine and a host of chemical drugs.
Tuesday's launch of the energy drink Coca Brynco was hailed by the Bolivian government as an important step in its efforts to promote coca's health benefits and develop legal uses for its leaves in the world's No. 3 cocaine producer.
"We want to reaffirm with this product that the coca leaf is healthy," Rural Development Minister Nemesia Achacollo said at the launch. "We must defend our coca leaf and show it's not a drug."
Morales, who rose as leader of Bolivia's coca planters to become its first indigenous president, has asked the U.N. to decriminalize coca chewing. Member states have until the end of January to submit objections to the Bolivian appeal.
Two years ago, another group of Bolivian entrepreneurs launched a coca-based energy drink called Coca Colla that failed to gain traction in the local market.
But Coca Brynco's production manager, Jhonny Vargas, was optimistic the planned $1 million investment would pay off.
"Our aim is to cover the whole of Bolivia and start exporting to neighboring countries," he said, adding that the plant would initially use 500 pounds of coca leaves per month.
(Reporting by Claudia Soruco; Writing by Helen Popper)