updated 7/24/2005 10:02:02 PM ET 2005-07-25T02:02:02

The Colombian government is offering to buy farmers’ illegal crops of coca — the plant used to make cocaine — in the latest effort to stem illegal drug production in this South American nation.

President Alvaro Uribe said in a speech late Saturday that farmers would have to sign a document promising to never again cultivate illegal crops in order to get the money. The government would destroy the purchased crop.

“Hand over the coca and take the cash, similar to a country fair: Hand over the pig, take the cash,” Uribe said in the central plains region of Villavicencio, 45 miles southeast of Bogota.

He said drug crop farmers should approach the nearest police or army commander without fear of arrest and hand over their crops of coca or poppy, which is used to make heroin. The price would be negotiated at the point of sale. The program is so far only available in the central Meta region.

Uribe said the decision was made after the government analyzed the situation of hundreds of poor farmers in the area, where the Colombian army has been locked in a two-year military offensive against leftist guerrillas who are also major drug traffickers and the primary buyers of the peasants’ coca crops in the area.

The offensive has forced the rebels to retreat into the jungle, where they are unable to negotiate coca purchases, leaving coca farmers seeking new buyers, he said.

Colombia, with the help of more than $3 billion in U.S. aid during the past five years, has undergone major efforts to eradicate the cocaine trade, mostly by using crop dusters that fly over coca fields, spraying them with herbicide. Despite the efforts, the White House reported in March that coca cultivation in Colombia increased slightly in 2004 to 281,323 acres as traffickers quickly replanted or shifted production to new regions.

Colombia is the world’s leading producer of cocaine and the United States is the top consumer.

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