LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru's president is indefinitely postponing plans to forcibly eradicate coca fields in the world's top cocaine-producing valley.
President Ollanta Humala's announcement in a televised interview Sunday night came a week after he fired his drug czar, Carmen Masias.
She had announced in January that a militarized eradication effort, half-funded by the United States, would begin this year in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantauro river valley.
Critics said that strategy would only help drug-funded Shining Path rebels based in the region turn its coca growers against authorities, with violent results. Coca is the remote valley's lone cash crop and growers have already mounted protests and threatened resistance.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying U.S. officials would consult with Peru's government about the revised strategy.
Humala said that while he was not ruling out forced eradication in the valley, he wanted to first try crop substitution, led by the Agriculture Ministry.
An estimated 12,000 families live off coca in the valley, where authorities say more than 300 labs produce semi-refined cocaine, most of it destined for Europe. The government says 54 percent of Peru's coca crop is produced in the area.
Humala said his government would spend $214 million on roads in the valley to help farmers get alternative crops to market.
He has not explained why he replaced Masias with Luis Alberto Otorola, a former defense minister.
Humala, a former army officer, said coca eradication would continue elsewhere, but the government was scaling back its eradication target for 2014 to 23,000 hectares (90 square miles). Masias had told international media in January that Humala was pressuring her to eradicate 40,000 hectares (150 square miles) of coca this year, 30 percent more than the original target.
Peru has been the world's No. 1 cocaine producer since 2012, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, while the United Nations says its coca crop supplanted Colombia's.
Humala made antinarcotics efforts a priority when he took office in 2011 and Peru cut its area under coca cultivation to 62,500 hectares (241 miles) in 2012, a decrease of 3.4 percent from the previous year, according to the U.N.
U.S. counterdrug assistance to Peru doubled last year to $100 million, half of Washington's total assistance to the country.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.