Pubdate: Wed, 03 Dec 2003
Source: Fort Worth Weekly (TX)
Copyright: 2003 New Times, Inc.
Author: Peter Gorman
Bookmark: (Colombia)


U.S. Aerial Spraying Continues In Colombia Despite Court-Ordered Suspensions.

The folks who worry about Colombian people and food crops being poisoned by 
United States-sponsored spraying of coca and poppy fields should be happy. 
Two Colombian court rulings in the past year have ordered that the aerial 
spraying program known as Plan Colombia -- carried out by major Fort Worth 
employer DynCorp and protected with Fort Worth-produced Bell helicopters -- 
be suspended. But the environmentalists and Colombian rural people are as 
angry and frightened as ever. Why? Because, despite the rulings, Colombia 
continues to spray Monsanto's Roundup-Ultra on fields, and U.S. officials 
continue to maintain an eerie silence on the issue.

The most recent ruling came on June 13 in a lawsuit brought by a group of 
citizens who argued that Plan Colombia spraying violates their right to a 
healthy environment. The Administrative Tribunal of Cundinamarca, the 
second-highest court in Colombia, agreed and ordered the immediate 
suspension of all narco-crop fumigation nationwide, until environmental and 
human impact studies can be carried out. The verdict supplemented two 
earlier court decisions ordering that spraying on indigenous peoples' land 
be suspended, and that Plan Colombia comply with the country's 
environmental management plan.

An almost nationwide cheer went up after the verdict. Yamile Salinas, a 
Colombian government lawyer who works on behalf of farmers and indigenous 
people, said the court order "formally adopts many of the requirements for 
environmental and human protection that the Colombian Ombudsman and 
Comptroller General, along with both national and international 
non-government organizations have been demanding for years."

"Unfortunately," said Astrid Puentes, a Colombian human rights attorney 
with Earthjustice, the legal branch of the Sierra Club, "while that 
decision should have been enough to protect the health and human rights of 
the environment and people of Colombia, the U.S. and Colombian governments 
insist that the spraying is not harmful, and so it continues. The 
Administrative Court recognized the harm to health and biodiversity, soil, 
and water that the aerial fumigation is doing, but those with vested 
interests choose to ignore that."

Among those with vested interests are Fort Worth's Bell Helicopter, which 
provides helicopters used to protect the spray planes, and DynCorp (now 
Dyncorp/CSC, headquartered in Reston, Va., but with a large recruitment 
center in Fort Worth), the company with the $600 million contract to 
actually do the spraying and maintain the spray planes and helicopters.

At issue is the core of the U.S. assault on cocaine and heroin trafficking 
in the Western hemisphere. When former President Bill Clinton initiated 
Plan Colombia in 2000, its aim was to eliminate the coca and poppy plants 
in Colombia used to make cocaine and heroin. If the plants went, not only 
would much of drug traffic in this country disappear, but the funds 
generated by that traffic in Colombia, which support both paramilitary and 
rebel groups involved in that country's brutal civil war, would dry up as 
well ("Scorched Earth Policy," Fort Worth Weekly, March 13, 2003). The plan 
was expanded by President George W. Bush into the Andean Initiative.

But while the plan looks good on paper, it has caused widespread and severe 
health and economic problems for farmers and others. Moreover, the program, 
which the U.S. intended to improve human rights in Colombia, may be 
actively worsening the human rights situation there.

The lawsuit that brought about the June ruling was filed by a group of 
concerned Colombian citizens. It hinges on the fact that in 2001, a binding 
environmental management plan was put into effect by Colombia's minister of 
the environment. One of the stipulations of that plan was that a battery of 
studies would be conducted to determine whether the fumigation is harmful 
to the environment and humans. Because those studies have never been done, 
the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. But Colombian President Alvaro 
Uribe Velez -- who happened to be the mayor of Medellin during the Medellin 
cocaine cartel's heyday -- interpreted the law as permitting the spraying 
to continue while his administration's National Directorate of Narcotics 
appeals the decision to his country's highest court.

In the U.S., funding for the spraying program can only be released if all 
fumigation is done in compliance with Colombian law. U.S. officials claim 
that requirement is being met, based on a March 2002 letter from the 
Colombian minister of exterior relations, which certifies that the aerial 
spraying program indeed comports with each and every applicable Colombian law.

That might have been close enough for government work a year ago. But 
continuation of the spraying in light of the June court decision and other 
recent events brings the legality of continued U.S. support for the 
spraying into question.

In October, under pressure, according to Earthjustice's Puentes, the 
Colombian environmental minister modified the environmental management 
plan. "They eliminated and weakened environmental conditions of the plan," 
she said. One of the changes governed the height at which spray planes 
could fly. Texas crop-dusters have said that the old legal spraying 
altitude of 100 feet was already absurdly high, allowing poisons to drift 
for miles. But the modifications raised that allowable altitude even 
higher. Another change allowed spraying, for the first time, in national 
parks -- something that Puentes said, "had been going on illegally but 
which overnight became legal."

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has long questioned the 
Plan Colombian fumigation, bristled at the thought of in-park spraying and 
attached an amendment to the 2004 Foreign Operations Bill that would 
prohibit the use of U.S. funding to spray Colombia's national parks. At 
press time, an agreed version of the bill was pending before both houses of 

Ironically, the Bush administration, according to Time magazine, has 
declared that exempting the parks would be "an invitation to the growers to 
destroy the forests and their natural resources."

In Colombia, Uribe has raised the stakes considerably, announcing on 
several occasions that anyone objecting to fumigation in any part of 
Colombia or "working to protect human rights and the environment" would be 
viewed as a sympathizer with terrorists, according to Anna Cedarstav, a 
staff scientist with Earthjustice.

Further stacking the deck, Uribe in early November appointed Sandra Suarez, 
the former director of the Plan Colombia office, as the new minister of the 

Perhaps the Uribe administration's worst assault on human rights 
sensibilities in connection with Plan Colombia occurred on Nov. 2, when an 
international environmental commission studying the effects of recent 
fumigations in the Colombian department of Arauca was stopped by a 
U.S.-trained Colombian anti-narcotics battalion and had their film, 
cameras, and notes confiscated. The commission, which included Colombians 
and representatives of France, the United States, England and Spain, had 
previously met with Colombian Vice-President Carlos Frank about their work.

The State Department and other Bush Administration officials have not 
responded to frequent requests, both by phone and in writing, to address 
these issues. Considering the way Uribe has been flouting Colombian law, 
continued U.S. funding of the fumigation program may not just be harmful -- 
it may be illegal.

That the coca produced in Colombia is making its way to the streets of the 
U.S. is not in question. That the growing and processing of that coca into 
cocaine is ravaging the environment of Colombia as well as fueling a civil 
war there is also not in question.

What is in question is the way in which the fumigation is being carried 
out. Every study but the two carried out officially by the United States 
and Colombia has shown that the fumigation is having a major impact on both 
human life and the environment. (The U.S. study not only evaluated the 
wrong chemical -- regular Roundup, rather than the much more powerful Ultra 
version being used in Colombia -- but it relied exclusively on data 
provided by the State Department.) One recent study carried out by the 
respected Dr. Adolfo Maldonado of Ecological Action showed the presence of 
genetic damage among people exposed to the Plan Colombia fumigation. 
American toxicologist Mark Cherniak recently presented a paper reporting 
that "the exposure to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) 
represents a risk in expectant mothers."

And the problems don't end there. Food crops have been destroyed, 
rainforest ravaged, and tens of thousands of peasants have been displaced 
because their crops, livestock, and water sources have been poisoned.

What would be harmed by a temporary suspension of the fumigation until 
environmental and human impact studies can be made, and safety guidelines 
put into place? The U.S. government isn't saying. Some in Colombia and here 
are willing to hazard a guess, however.

"We know that the U.S. trained Colombian forces to protect the Occidental 
Oil pipeline in Cano Limon from rebel attacks," Puentes said. "And we know 
that some of the land being explored for oil is indigenous land. Some 
people think the fumigation will clear the land for oil exploration as well."

Peter Gorman is a local freelance writer.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom