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
But these claims, according to LAWG and two others groups, EarthJustice and
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
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
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
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
"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
"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."