Colombia potential cocaine output rose 24% in 2022 - UN

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Coca crops in Colombia covered 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres) in 2022, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday, up 13% from 2021 and at its highest level in more than two decades.

Also at a more than 20-year high was potential cocaine output, which rose 24% to 1,738 metric tonnes.

Coca is the chief ingredient in cocaine, whose production has fueled the Andean country's six-decade armed conflict, which has killed at least 450,000 people.

"It is worrying that each year there is an increase in coca crops in the country," said UNODC Regional Director Candice Welsch during a presentation of the report.

The uptick was due to an increase in crops in Putumayo province, along the border with Ecuador, Welsch said. Production elsewhere was relatively stable.

President Gustavo Petro, Colombia's first leftist president, has pledged to shift the focus of the fight against drugs toward public health, instead of what he says is a failed militarized strategy.

Petro's government wants to help rural communities voluntarily substitute some 100,000 hectares of coca crops over the next four years, an official told Reuters recently.

The president has also promised more social investment in production areas and ruled out a restart to aerial fumigation with herbicide glyphosate.

The fall in the annual growth of coca crops to 13% from 43% in 2021 "gives elements to continue on with this stabilization, and hopefully decreases," Justice Minister Nestor Osuna said at the presentation.

The government wants to reduce cultivation areas to 150,000 hectares and production capacity to 900 metric tonnes by 2026, Osuna said.

Some 13% of Colombia's annual deforestation is linked to illicit crops, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad told a drugs conference last week.

Last year, Colombia's deforestation hit 1,235 square kilometers (477 square miles), down 29% from 2021.

A crash in coca prices caused by oversupply and new production in other regions is contributing to food insecurity in Colombia and causing displacement, according to a report by the UN World Food Programme.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Additional reporting by Oliver Griffin; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Richard Chang)