By Daniel Ramos
LA PAZ, Aug 22 (Reuters) - The area planted with coca crops last year dropped by 6% in Bolivia, a key coca-producing country in South America, but was still above the country's legal limit, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Thursday.
The report, which assessed satellite images and data collected from the field, determined coca cultivation in 2018 had fallen 1,400 hectares (3,460 acres) from 2017 to 23,100 hectares (57,080 acres). The coca leaf is a key ingredient in the processing of cocaine.
The total, however, remains above the 22,000 hectares (54,365 acres) legally authorized for cultivation by the Bolivian government.
"While we did register a reduction of 6 percent, the cultivated area is still above what is legally allowed by law," said Thierry Rostan, the UNODC's representative in the Andean nation.
The area of land cultivated with coca plants dropped to 20,200 hectares (49,900 acres) in 2015, but planting increased in both 2016 and 2017.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, has defended the nutritional and medicinal value of the coca leaf.
Morales has legalized the planting of coca for traditional use in limited areas, while ramping up enforcement elsewhere.
Bolivia is the third-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia and Peru. (Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Wwriting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Peter Cooney)