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February 28, 2004

US-Colombia Coca Eradication Called Destructive, Futile

by Jim Lobe

Aerial spraying of Colombia's coca crops should be halted because of its harmful impact on local farmers and the environment, and because it is not heaving any impact on the availability of cocaine in the United States, three NGOs argue on the eve of the State Department's release of its annual report of countries cooperating in the U.S. anti-drug war.

Although the report will show a significant drop in Colombia's production of coca during 2003, the groups say that such short-term gains are more than offset by environmental destruction and the forcible displacement of thousands of peasant farmers, who either go elsewhere to grow coca or join guerrilla or right-wing paramilitary organizations.

The groups also charge that three years of greatly increased spending on anti-drug programs throughout the Andes have had no appreciable impact on cocaine's price, purity or supply in the United States.

"At best, fumigation has caused a temporary dip in coca cultivation levels in Colombia," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin American Working Group (LAWG). "But the fact remains that fumigation has failed at its main goal – reducing cocaine availability and use here at home – and has devastated small Colombian farming communities in the process. The entire policy needs to be reconsidered."

The aerial fumigation program has been part of the Washington-backed "Plan Colombia" since its inception in mid-2000, when the U.S. Congress approved a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia and its neighbors as the first installment of a massive increase in aid for counter-drug operations. That aid total has since climbed to nearly $2.5 billion, of which almost $2 billion goes to military and police forces.

From December 2000 to December 2002, the Colombian Antinarcotics police (DIRAN), with the support of U.S. contractors, sprayed herbicide on more than 600,000 acres of coca and another 15,00 acres of opium poppy in Colombia, mostly concentrated in the southwestern department of Putumayo, along Colombia's border with Ecuador and Peru. The program targeted all coca fields, from large plantations to small plots of less than five acres grown by peasant farmers, including indigenous people.

The herbicide used in the spray mixture is glyphosate, a chemical manufactured by Monsanto Corporation, that, in sufficient doses, kills or stunts the growth of virtually all plants and trees. Because of its potential environmental and human health impact, Congress requires that the State Department consult with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that its use in Colombia complies with regulatory controls of the same substance, sold as "Roundup," in the United States.

The fumigation program has been hailed as a great success by both the Bush administration and the Colombian government. Last July White House "drug czar," John Walters reported that coca production in Putumayo declined by 96 percent since 2001.

But these claims, according to LAWG and two others groups, EarthJustice and California-based Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), should be seen as a "public relations effort, not confirmation of an effective counter-drug policy."

In a 54-page report entitled "Going to Extremes: The U.S.-Funded Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia," LAWG argues that the fumigation policy has failed to make even moderate headway toward achieving its stated goal of reducing the availability of cocaine in the United States. According to the latest national data, including Walters' own office, the report says, the price, availability, and purity of cocaine sold in the U.S. have remained virtually unchanged since fumigation operations began.

Moreover, according to the report, the short-term reductions in coca cultivation mask the fact that coca cultivation is moving. Not only has increased cultivation in Bolivia and Peru – which have rejected U.S. pressure to launch fumigation programs – more than made up for the decline in Colombia, according to the report.

In Colombia cultivation is spreading from Putumayo to nearby provinces and regions that have previously been free of coca, including Colombia's highly biodiverse national parks, which the State Department has already targeted for spraying this year, according to both LAWG and a second report released Thursday by EarthJustice and AIDA.

"The US aerial spraying policy is spiraling out of control," says Anna Cederstav of AIDA. "Now the State Department wants to spray in Colombia's national parks!"

In the absence of either short-term food aid or long-term alternative development assistance, the spraying has caused considerable hardship for small farmers and their families, who have seen their food crops destroyed alongside coca plants.

Between late 2001 and October, 2002, more than 6,500 farmers filed complaints that spraying destroyed their legal crops, but, to date, only five have been compensated. At the same time, an estimated 50,000 people – roughly 15 percent of Putumayo's population – left the province, many of them to grow coca elsewhere, according to one survey.

EarthJustice and AIDA also take issue with the State Department's latest certification that it is complying with Congressional conditions on the spraying program. Their report charges that spraying operations are not being carried out according to the label conditions for the herbicide's correct use, and that the State Department has failed to carry out an impact assessment to verify its own certification.

Instead, Washington has worked with the Colombian government to weaken its environmental management plan, according to both reports, which call on Congress to withhold funds for the program until a adequate assessments can be carried out.

"Without having conducted comprehensive health and environmental assessments, such as those that would be completed for a spray program of this magnitude in the United States," the LAWG report states, "the U.S. government is carrying out an experiment on Colombian soil with unknown human health and ecological repercussions."

"With so much invested in the program, facts that contradict the campaign's 'success' are ignored, at high cost to the Colombian environment and U.S. taxpayers," said Cederstav.

Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars in anti-drug aid over the past 15 years, according to the State Department's own annual reports, coca cultivation in the entire Andean region has consistently hovered at around 500,000 acres since 1988, added Haugaard.

Besides focusing more on demand in the United States, according to the LAWG report, "we need to assess regional and international, not country, production levels." Given the balloon effect of eradication efforts, focusing on one country, or one region within one country, makes little sense.

"The U.S. Congress should not continue supporting a policy," said Astrid Puentes, AIDA's legal director, "that is both ineffective and that poses severe risks to vulnerable communities, threatening key environmental ecosystems and now the national parks in Colombia."

(One World)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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