Despite the highly publicised ban, the fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate is legal until October and, even then, it is not certain that it will end, as the government is studying ‘other products’. With the US still firmly backing the continued spraying with glyphosate, it is too early to say that the battle is won.
For almost four decades now the planes have been departing Colombian airstrips with a single purpose. The objective in sight, the pilot dips in low. The chemical payload is released. The tank emptied, the mission is complete. The plane turns back for base.
Over time the target has changed: first it was marihuana, then coca leaves, later opium poppies. The weapon too has evolved, settling eventually on the glyphosate-based Roundup Ultra, manufactured by the Monsanto corporation. The operators have changed too: once just local Colombian forces, today there are US pilots flying US-made planes spraying a US-made product in fulfilment of a multi-million dollar contract granted by the US government to a US corporation.
But for the farmers on the ground, the story is one of unceasing repetition. The chemicals don’t discriminate, and legitimate as well as illegal crops are destroyed, and the soil ruined. Caught beneath the poison, families face the grim decision of packing up their few possessions and heading for the urban slums, or moving out deeper into the countryside and starting again; or they stay, learning that with the spraying come eye problems, skin diseases, miscarriages, cancer. For years civil society groups have documented cases.
The Ecuadorian government, its citizens living near the border affected by the drifting chemicals, has launched its own revealing studies, and in 2013 was awarded a $15 million dollar settlement from the Colombian government after a legal complaint reached the International Court of Justice. But successive administrations in Colombia have been unconcerned with the effect of fumigation on their own people; the evidence and the warnings have been ignored, no serious investigation has ever been initiated, the exact composition of the chemicals being sprayed (known to contain glyphosate plus a binding agent) has never been released, limiting the possibility of independent scientific enquiry. And in order to continue spraying the government has repeatedly violated the ’principle of precaution’, as well as constitutional commitments to engage in pre-consultation with indigenous groups (1).
While one might imagine that such a policy, expensive in every sense, would need to be unusually effective to justify its continuation, analysts generally agree that aerial fumigation operations “have little to no effect on reducing coca cultivation, but rather have produced high direct costs and negative secondary impacts on human health, the environment, and the political capital of the state,” according to a recent report by the Brookings Institute (2).
Denial and dismissal had been the official game plan until early March this year, when the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a statement declaring glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” and recognising also the body of “convincing evidence” that the world’s most widely used herbicide could cause “DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells”. A number of countries, among them Mexico, Russia and the Netherlands responded with bans on the non-commercial use of glyphosate-based herbicides.
In Colombia, the Constitutional Court determined the precautionary principle to be applicable in the case of fumigation, and it was then invoked by the health minister, Alejandro Gaviria (3). He wrote to the Secretary of the National Narcotics Council, the inter-ministry body in charge of counter-narcotics policy in the country, and, citing the IARC statement and the position of the Constitutional Court, recommended the immediate suspension of fumigation with glyphosate (4). An announcement was made soon after: the matter would be decided by a vote at the National Narcotics Council.
The US government, the architect and major funder of fumigation in Colombia, sensed trouble. The Office on National Drug Control Policy rushed the publication of their annual assessment of coca cultivation in the country. Released four months earlier than usual, the report claimed the number of hectares under cultivation had grown a remarkable 39% between 2013 and 2014; a UNODC report released in July would later put the rise at 44%. But if the figures were supposed to stir support for more fumigation, in reality they had the opposite effect: a growth in cultivation was locally interpreted as one more inditement of the policy.
In Colombia’s highest circulation newspaper El Tiempo, US ambassador Kevin Whitaker was granted space to express the concerns of his government. Decreases in coca cultivation in the past were the direct result of fumigation operations, he argued, and the chemicals being used were not harmful to humans. He wrote: “Anyone who claims that aspersion with glyphosate on coca crops is dangerous, or that there are many proven cases of damage to human health, is badly informed.” To spray the land of poor rural farmers with glyphosate was to “strike against the narco-mafias” and stopping the policy would be senseless when “aerial aspersion is well managed, uses a secure and effective chemical, and has achieved many positive results for Colombia.”
The facts are the opposite: fumigation employs a harmful chemical, used in a more concentrated dosage and dropped from heights and speeds far above those recommended by the manufacturers, is carried out by an unaccountable private corporation, and has been destructive for the victims and the environment – with little effect on levels of cocaine production. The ambassador’s comments, and the condescending and paternalistic tone in which they were made, did not sit well with local journalists. In Semana, the country’s most important weekly magazine, columnist Antonio Cabellero wrote that Whitaker’s article, which he described as “one lie after another from the very first line”, was a “good example of the fact that falsity is an indissoluble part of diplomacy” and should have been accompanied by a warning: “Paid Commercial Advertising”. The ambassador had ended his comments with an English phrase: “We’ve got your back.” Cabellero pointed out that in Spanish the literal translation is different: “We’re giving it to you from behind.”
A few days after the publication of the US assessment of cultivation levels, the Advisory Commission on Drug Policy, an independent group of Colombian academics, took on Washington at its own game, bringing forward the delivery of their own much-anticipated report to the ministry of justice, which had created the body in 2012 with the aim of assessing the previous decade of drug policy in the country. The Commission made 18 recommendations, among them that the current set of policies should be replaced by a new approach, one that does not treat coca cultivators as criminals and that reevaluates the use of aerial fumigation (5). The National Narcotics Council reached their decision the next day, May 14. By a vote of 7-1, with the Attorney General alone in opposition, the resolution to suspend aerial spraying with glyphosate was passed. A “transition period” of five months was announced, during which time fumigation would continue and a newly formed technical body would develop alternative policy recommendations.
It is uncertain whether we are witnessing the final chapter in the cruel history of aerial fumigation in Colombia – the only country in the world that still employs such a policy. What is clear is that the recent developments demonstrate, perhaps more openly than ever, what local analysts here refer to as the “disconnect” between the reputation of the government on the international stage and the policies it pursues at home. Even now, as the Santos administration continues, for the first time admittedly, spraying a carcinogenic chemical on Colombian citizens – in plainer language, engages openly in chemical warfare – the president has bolstered his reputation as reformer and a leader in the movement for drug policy reform; and this despite repeated statements that his administration is not willing to take the lead on any such reforms but will wait for an international consensus, whenever that may appear. International reporting – which in many cases wrongly suggested fumigation had been suspended and that the role of the president was definitive, demonstrative of his commitment to radical change – has not helped unveil the false image.
Amid the praise, in late May the Colombian press reported the words of the defence minister who, speaking before Congress, announced the government was currently examining “other products” that could be sprayed after October; products that he assured his audience would not “infringe on health or the environment”. The testing is being undertaken by the National Police and no information has been made available regarding the new herbicides. Tellingly, the products are not being appraised in collaboration with the National Council for Pesticides, the body that should take the lead in determining the health and environmental impact of any substitute (6).
Meanwhile, behind all the recent talk of suitable alternative ‘counter-narcotics’ tactics, the core of the issue has been ignored: the Santos administration is committed, openly and in lock-step with administrations before it, to an economic model that deepens the problems at the core of the rural farmer’s decision to cultivate an illegal crop. When the rise in cultivation was announced recently, few commentators thought to link the news to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, signed in late 2011 and which aid agencies warned would significantly decrease the incomes of hundreds of thousands of rural farmers, hitting the poorest hardest, leaving them with few survival options other than migrating, joining the guerrilla, or cultivating illicit crops (7). Within a year, the local press noted: “As was entirely predictable, the initial damage is occurring in agriculture, where the country’s tariffs have been relinquished and U.S. subsidised goods accepted.” And reports from local NGOs show that displacement jumped significantly following the agreement, most prominently in the regions impacted by the flood of subsidised foreign products (8).
Even the Colombian government’s Comptroller General has recognised that the country’s “agricultural policy crisis” is the outcome of “the lack of political will on the part of the state to make viable the campesino economy”. A report by the comptroller found that while the present administration has adopted reforms ostensibly designed to create a more equitable distribution of land, these policies “in reality display the contrary”. Santos, like his predecessors, is focused on promoting “exclusive trading strategies, based in ’mega-projects’ which don’t solve the underlying problem” but instead “could consolidate and deepen even further both displacement and concentration of land.” These are the reasons that “after almost 200 years of reforms and counter-reforms, and many billions of pesos invested, the same crisis reigns in agriculture.” And these are also the reasons that today in the Colombian countryside, a full six decades after rural peasants took up arms to try and rectify grave injustices, 65% of the population are poor, 33% are indigent, illiteracy rates are around 18%, 60% do not have clean drinking water, and poor farmers feel compelled, in spite of the associated risks, to cultivate an illegal crop (9).