Agro-Chemicals at the Eye of the Anti-Drug Storm
By María Isabel García *
Indigenous peoples and environmental activists anxiously await a court decision in September on whether the practice of aerial spraying of glyphosate to wipe out illicit drug crops will continue.
BOGOTA - Indigenous communities, legal experts, scientists in Colombia, and government authorities both here and in the United States continue entangled in a complicated controversy about the aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate this South American country's illegal coca and opium poppy crops.
The case has been on the legal and environmental agenda in Bogotá and Washington for more than two decades, a period in which Colombia went from being a mere processor of the basic paste for cocaine production - using coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru - to the world's leading grower of the coca bush.
As far as the poppies, which produce a sap that is used in making the narcotics morphine, opium or heroin, US government figures indicate that this Andean-Amazon country has become the second-ranked producer, after Afghanistan.
The controversy about the fumigations returned to the forefront of political debate in July as the result of a claim for legal protection filed by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC).
The native group requested that a Bogotá court issue a stay on the aerial spraying of anti-narcotic herbicides in indigenous territories, arguing that the glyphosate had toxic effects on the population, on food crops, on water sources and on local flora and fauna.
OPIAC also invoked Colombia's constitutional mandate that indigenous peoples have the right to participate in government decisions that affect their territories or endanger their survival.
The fumigations were called off, but a subsequent appeals court ruling reversed the decision in the OPIAC case and the government-sponsored aerial spraying resumed.
On Aug 9, the native group took the case to the next level, filing an appeal with the Constitutional Court, which is to issue a definitive ruling in September.
In parallel, a civil action filed with a court in Cundinamarca - the department whose jurisdiction includes Bogotá - called on the institutions of the Environment Ministry to study the effects of the fumigations and to issue a public statement on their findings.
But the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, the Von Humboldt Institute and the Sinchi Institute of Amazonian Studies responded that the case does not fall under their jurisdiction, but instead belongs to the National Narcotics Directorate, which has until November to assess the environmental impact of the glyphosate sprayings.
''No thorough study of the effects of glyphosate is available in Colombia,'' said agronomist Tomás León, professor at the Institute of Environmental Studies of the National University of Bogotá.
However, there is a study on the high concentration of herbicides used on illicit crops, León told Tierramérica.
According to that report, in 1998 more than 148,000 tons of agro-chemicals were used over an area of 78,000 hectares of drug plantations, 18 times more than was used in standard fumigations of legal - mostly food - crops in the rest of the country.
The quantity is the sum of the pesticides used by the growers of coca and poppies to protect their crops from infestations and the glyphosate sprayed by government forces to eradicate the fields, he explained.
Both the US ambassador in Bogotá, Anne Patterson, and Colombia's Interior minister, Armando Estrada, have given the nod in favor of the anti-drug fumigations.
Patterson told the Colombian Congress on Aug 6 that suspending the drug-eradicating fumigations would mean putting President Andrés Pastrana's Plan Colombia on hold, the axis of the anti-narcotics policy agreed by Bogotá and Washington.
The plan bears a price tag of 7.5 billion dollars, with 1.3 billion coming from the United States, largely in military equipment for Colombia's bases in the south and southeast, two areas where there is a high guerrilla presence.
The decades-long armed conflict in this country, involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces, complicates the fight against narcotics production as the irregular armed groups, are believed to have ties to the drug trade as a means to finance their operations.
Two days after Patterson's speech, Ricardo Vargas, an expert in drug-trafficking issues and member of the non-governmental organization Andean Action and of the Transnational Institute, sent an open letter to the US ambassador in which he outlined a scenario without fumigations.
''By suspending the fumigations and the armed forces' action in the coca-growing zones, in a very short time there would be an over-production of the coca leaf, and subsequently a spectacular drop in the price of the basic coca paste,'' Vargas stated in the first of the 15 points in his letter.
''This would produce an effect that 25 years of fumigations in Colombia have not achieved: reducing the area of coca production,'' he wrote.
The number of hectares planted with illegal crops has continued to rise. Indigenous leader Floro Tunubalá, governor of the southern department of Cauca, is an outspoken anti-fumigation activist because the practice ''is harmful, costly and ineffective.'' He calculates that the area planted with drug crops nationwide has expanded from 20,000 hectares in 1976 to 160,000 today.
Parmenio Cuéllar, governor of Nariño, another southern Colombian department, met with lawmakers in Washington last month to seek their support for halting US financing of anti-drug aerial spraying at least until health and environmental impact studies have been completed.
For his part, Interior minister Estrada maintains that the priority is to halt drug trafficking, which he described as ''the fuel of violence, origin of corruption and responsible for the rise in drug addiction among Colombian youth.''
''To confront this scourge the government has a variety of policies,'' fumigation, prohibition and the voluntary and manual eradication of illegal crops, said the minister.
* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent.