Pubdate: Fri, 22 Jun 2001
Source: Inter Press Service (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service
Author: Yadira Ferrer


BOGOTA -- Environmental authorities in Colombia have accused the military 
of spraying glyphosate herbicide on drug crops without conducting adequate 
assessments of the harm it causes to human health and the environment, and 
of failing to mitigate such impacts.

In the department of Putumayo alone, where 60 percent of Colombia's coca 
plantations are found, some 30,000 hectares of the crop were destroyed from 
January to March of this year. That total was the goal set to be achieved 
within two years, according to the commander of the anti-narcotics police, 
Mario Montoya.

But this efficiency of the police force contrasts with the stance of the 
Environment Ministry on the matter. Environment officials consider the 
Environmental Management Plan of the National Narcotics Directorate to be 
"inconsistent and ambiguous.'

The ministry stated in May that the plan "does not precisely determine 
which strategic ecosystems are exposed to fumigation, nor the regions that, 
because of their high biological diversity, must be excluded" from the 

The government agency also pointed out that there are no existing plans for 
technical and scientific support to evaluate the impact of glyphosate on 
natural resources, and that the risk assessment does not outline actions 
for mitigating or counteracting harmful effects.

The Environment Ministry gave the National Narcotics Directorate -- 
entrusted with executing the illicit crop eradication program -- six months 
to draft a plan of concrete and systematic measures to reduce the 
consequences of the herbicide sprayed over plantations of coca, the basic 
ingredient of cocaine, of marijuana, and of poppies, used to make heroin.

In addition, the policing body should verify the environmental impacts of 
the aerial spraying so far this year in Putumayo, launch a recovery program 
for the area and hire an independent auditor to evaluate the results of the 
new measures, says the ministry.

For now, the government has ordered a halt to the fumigations in Putumayo 
as officials await the outcome of agreements recently signed with the local 
peasant communities for the voluntary eradication of illicit crops by hand.

But a large component of Plan Colombia, the initiative promoted by 
President Andrs Pastrana with financial assistance from other countries, is 
the eradication of coca plantations considered "industrial-size" -- that 
is, more than three hectares.

The spraying of glyphosate over illegal crops, a practice dating back to 
the late 1970s, is sharply criticised by environmentalists and by human 
rights organizations because of its negative effects on human health and on 
the subsistence crops of peasant farmers.

Ricardo Vargas, a researcher at Accin Andina, a non-governmental group that 
monitors drug trafficking in the region, told IPS that glyphosate has been 
applied for years in efforts to wipe out drug crops, but he pointed out 
that the government has not conducted rigorous studies of its effects on 
human health and the environment.

The main objections against glyphosate fumigations are based on the fact 
that it involves a broad-spectrum toxic agent that is not recommended for 
aerial applications, one that destroys all crops, contaminates water 
supplies, and causes skin and respiratory ailments in humans.

In addition, the spraying operations conducted during the last two decades 
in 22 of Colombia's 32 departments forced hundreds of peasant families to 
abandon their lands.

The People's Defender (Ombudsman), a government office, called for a halt 
to the fumigations in May after receiving 1,117 complaints from small 
farmers who said the eradication operations -- whether with glyphosate or 
other chemical products -- had damaged their food crops or caused health 
problems in their families.

The fumigation missions follow the guidelines of the United States 
anti-drug plan, which focuses on the repression of the cultivation and 
manufacture of the narcotics in producing countries and "confuses drug 
trafficking with illicit crops," commented Vargas.

The United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) has stated 
that the drug crop eradication policy has been a failure in Colombia.

According to the UNDCP's latest report, despite the fumigation of 60,000 
hectares of coca fields in 2000, the total area planted with the crop 
expanded to 162,000 hectares, an area comparable to the combined total of 
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia just a few years ago.

The eradication of illicit crops is one of the central goals of Plan 
Colombia, which has $ 1.3 billion in aid from the United States, 80 percent 
of which is earmarked for military aid. It is this component, say local and 
international human rights groups, that is causing an escalation of the 
country's decades-long civil war.

The government defines Plan Colombia, with a price tag of $ 7.5 billion, as 
a strategy for peace and the anti-drug effort. But non-governmental 
organizations charge that it is intensifying the armed conflict, sinking 
the population deeper into poverty and devastating the ecosystems of the 
Colombian Amazon.

According to Vargas, Plan Colombia is "clearly the government's commitment 
to experimenting with biological methods for eradicating illicit crops over 
the next five years," the period Pastrana set for completing the 
anti-narcotics fight.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager