Pubdate: Thu, 07 May 2015
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Sibylla Brodzinsky


For more than two decades, crop dusters have buzzed the skies of 
Colombia showering bright green fields of coca with chemical 
defoliant as part of a US-funded effort to stem the country's 
production of cocaine. Farmers across the country have long 
complained that indiscriminate spraying also destroys legal crops, 
and that the chemical used - glyphosate - has caused everything from 
skin rashes and respiratory problems to diarrhoea and miscarriages.

Authorities in Colombia and the US  which has funded the aerial 
eradication programme with as much as $2bn (UKP1.3bn) since 2000 - 
argued that aerial spraying was the most effective and safest method 
of destroying coca plants - the raw material for cocaine.

But after 20 years and 4m acres sprayed, Colombia is now considering 
an about-face.

Following the finding from the World Health Organisation's cancer 
research arm that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic", the 
country's health minister last week issued a recommendation that the 
government stop using it in its aerial spraying programme.

A decision on the recommendation is expected to be made at a meeting 
on 14 May of the National Narcotics Council, which sets Colombia's drug policy.

"It would be unacceptable, even from an ethical standpoint, to have 
this evidence on the table and not accept it," said the health 
minister, Alejandro Gaviria, a member of the council.

The US, which made the spraying programme an axis of its drug policy 
in Colombia, has staunchly defended use of the chemical, which is 
marketed by Monsanto under the name RoundUp.

"Colombia is a sovereign country and it must do what reflects its 
national interest, but they should take a serious look at the 
scientific evidence," said William Brownfield, US assistant secretary 
of state for counter-narcotics, and a former ambassador to Colombia. 
"There is not one single example of a person who has suffered damage 
from glyphosate in Colombia in the past 20 or 21 years," he told Caracol Radio.

The looming possibility of an end to defoliant spraying appears to 
have prompted the White House to bring forward publication of its 
annual report on coca cultivation in Colombia. The figures released 
on Monday showed a sharp rise last year after six straight years of 
steady or dropping production. The land under coca cultivation in 
2014 was up 39% to 112,000 hectares, according to the Office of 
National Drug Control Policy. Potential cocaine production jumped 32% 
to 245 tonnes.

One State Department official suggested that the 2014 coca numbers 
would convince Colombian officials that cutting the spraying 
programme would be a mistake.

Under pressure from the US, Colombia began allowing the large-scale 
coca spraying programme in 1994. To date it has sprayed more than 4m 
acres, an area slightly larger than the US state of Connecticut.

It is the only country where coca is grown that allows aerial 
spraying, in part because its half-century-old internal conflict with 
leftist rebels prevents access to many remote areas.

But Colombia's justice minister, Yesid Reyes, has said the Colombian 
government can not endanger its citizens. "If a programme like the 
eradication of illegal crops through aerial spraying has the 
possibility of harming the health of Colombians, the state has the 
obligation to protect its citizens," said Reyes, who holds a seat on 
the narcotics council.

Other council members disagree: the government inspector general, 
Alejandro Ordonez, warned that ending the spray programme would play 
into the hands of leftwing Farc rebels who reap huge profits from the 
drug trade.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom