Peru backs off goal of destroying coca fields in rebel haven

by Reuters
Thursday, 5 June 2014 23:07 GMT

LIMA, June 5 (Reuters) - Peru is dropping its goal of destroying most coca fields in a lawless jungle region to avoid conflicts with farmers backed by Shining Path rebels, the interior minister said on Thursday.

The government will instead focus on persuading farmers in a swath of jungle valleys known as the VRAEM to switch from growing coca - the main ingredient in cocaine - to coffee, cacao and other crops, Minister Walter Alban added.

Alban said the policy shift follows revelations that a remnant band of Shining Path insurgents operating in the VRAEM was promising to help farmers to oppose eradication efforts.

"This makes it advisable for us to try to propose alternatives that respond to this," Alban told reporters at a news conference.

The former chief of Peru's anti-drug agency, Carmen Masias, told Reuters in January that the government would destroy 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) or 75 percent of all coca fields in the VRAEM this year.

President Ollanta Humala fired Masias last week, replacing her with former defense minister Luis Alberto Otarola.

Alban said the government is maintaining its goal of eradicating 30,000 hectares of coca fields in all of Peru, the world's top coca producer, but now only plans to uproot 5,000 hectares in the VRAEM and only if farmers agree.

About half of all coca in Peru is grown in the VRAEM, an Amazonian region where an estimated 200 to 500 Shining Path rebels hide out, ambushing state security forces and assisting drug-traffickers.

In 2013 the Humala administration also said it would start eradication efforts in the VRAEM but ended up holding off. (Reporting By Marco Aquino, Writing by Mitra Taj)

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