BOGOTA, May 15 (Reuters) - Colombia will suspend aerial fumigation of illegal coca plants in light of a number of studies linking the herbicide used to cancer, a move which marks the end of a decades-long strategy in the country's fight against drug trafficking.
The Andean country is one of the world's biggest producers of cocaine, which is derived from the coca plant. Its leftist rebel groups, the FARC and ELN, as well as criminal gangs, make huge sums from their involvement in its production and trafficking.
Colombia, which produces some 300 tonnes of cocaine per year, has fumigated illicit coca crops for two decades with financial and technical help from the United States, using the herbicide glyphosate. The strategy also included spraying of poppies, used to make heroin.
"We've taken the decision by a majority of seven to one, to suspend the spraying of areas with glyphosate," health minister Alejandro Gaviria said, referring to the vote taken by the National Narcotics Council late on Thursday.
Various scientific reports, including one by the World Health Organization (WHO), have suggested that the weed killer is likely carcinogenic to humans, Gaviria said.
Spraying will be halted after administrative formalities are completed, which could take several weeks, he added.
Glyphosate is a key ingredient in the world's most widely used herbicide, Roundup, produced by Monsanto Co.
Monsanto officials have said the chemical has been proven safe for decades and the company has demanded a retraction from the WHO over its report linking the herbicide to cancer.
President Juan Manuel Santos called for an end to the fumigations last week, adding law enforcement should intensify its efforts against other parts of the drug trafficking supply chain, which include clandestine laboratories and smuggling networks.
Local communities have expressed concerns that exposure to glyphosate has caused illnesses, among them cancers and birth defects. Colombia was the only South American country still using the chemical, authorities said.
The defense ministry and other entities which fight narcotics trafficking will be tasked with recommending other ways to eradicate illegal plants, the minister added, including possibly increasing the amount of it manually uprooted.
Over the past three decades, more than 1.6 million hectares of land in Colombia have been sprayed using the chemical.
Opposition figures have expressed fears that a halt to spraying may increase coca and cocaine production. (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Murphy and Andrew Hay)