BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia will shift its focus in the fight against illegal drugs by funding the planting of legal crops, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday as the government halts aerial fumigation in one of the world's top cocaine producers.
The Andean nation has historically used crop fumigation to kill coca plants, which are used to make cocaine, but the government announced in May that it would suspend aerial spraying next month because of health concerns.
"Today begins a new era in the fight against drug trafficking in our country," Santos told journalists. "If we are successful, we will cease to have such a sad distinction of being the largest exporter of cocaine."
The plan will emphasize voluntary manual eradication by farmers, Santos said, adding that the government would continue to seize drug shipments and destroy laboratories where cocaine is produced.
More than 80 percent of coca is grown in just six of Colombia's 32 provinces - Putumayo, Narino, Cauca, Caqueta, Guaviare and Norte de Santader - the president said.
Two-thirds of coca cultivations are planted in national parks, nature reserves and territories that belong to ethnic groups like indigenous tribes, Santos added.
"The environmental dividends of this plan are also immense," the president said. "We will care for and preserve our parks and avoid deforestation."
Colombian authorities have seized about 115 tonnes of cocaine so far in 2015. According to the United Nations, some 300 tonnes are produced per year in the country, which has long been infamous for its drug cartels.
Leftist rebel groups as well as criminal gangs make huge sums from their involvement in cocaine production and trafficking.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb)