updated 12/20/2006 9:38:05 PM ET 2006-12-21T02:38:05

The U.S. ambassador in Bolivia criticized Wednesday the South American country’s plan to significantly expand the legal area for growing coca leaves, the raw material used to make cocaine.

Bolivia is the world’s No. 3 cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru, and the United States is the main market for the drug.

“The simple fact is that surplus coca will always become cocaine. The drug traffickers will always be able to pay a better price ... the United States continues to ask that the Bolivian government work to decrease rather than increase the (coca) crop,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg said.

Goldberg’s comments came two days after leftist President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, announced Bolivia will increase the legal area for planting coca to 49,400 acres next year from 29,700 acres currently, disregarding limits set in a U.S.-sponsored law.

The 1988 law stipulates that Bolivia’s Yungas region is the only one allowed to produce coca -- on a maximum of 29,700 acres -- for traditional uses such as chewing or brewing as tea to ward off hunger and altitude sickness.

A subsequent decree also allows small plots of coca to be grown in the Chapare region, where Washington funds eradication programs.

Goldberg spoke shortly after he and Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca renewed a cooperation agreement to fight illegal drugs.

According to state news agency ABI, the latest accord calls for a 25 percent reduction in U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Bolivia, putting the figure at $33.8 million.

The United States estimates there are a total of 64,200 acres of coca crops in Bolivia.

Morales, who still heads the country’s largest coca-farmers union, has vowed to defend peasants who make a living by growing the plant, but he also has promised to fight the drug trade.

Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales advocates the voluntary eradication of coca instead of the compulsory eradication promoted by Washington, which earlier this year accused Bolivia of “doing too little” to fight trafficking.

Morales said his negotiated eradication method has prevented bloody clashes between security forces and coca growers, which were common in the past, while some 12,400 acres of coca crops have been eliminated. 

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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