Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
August 1, 2000
In June 2000, the U.S. Senate approved a US$1.3 billion aid package in support of Colombia's "War on Drugs." This paves the way for large-scale U.S. military intervention in Colombia's decades-old civil war, with the vast majority of the aid going to military and police forces and only about 10% allocated for alternative development projects that help farmers make the transition to growing legal crops.
One element of the devastating War on Drugs is the use of chemical pesticides to eradicate drug crops (see PANUPS June 19, 2000, and September 23, 1999). Now the U.S. State Department wants to add a new weapon to the drug war arsenal: a coca-killing strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. This misguided crop eradication strategy promises serious, and possibly irreversible, consequences for human health and biodiversity of key Amazonian ecosystems.
Between 1992 and 1998, Colombia's crop-dusters dumped nearly 2.5 million liters of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate) on 140,858 hectares of coca and 41,468 hectares of opium poppies. In 1999, reports indicate that over 42,000 hectares of coca and 8,000 of opium poppy were fumigated, and 50,000 is set as the minimum target for the year 2000. Despite the spraying, net coca cultivation roughly tripled during this same period. While failing to control drug crop production, the spraying contaminates water, poisons people and destroys non-target crops, and hence farmers' abilities to sustain farm-based livelihoods.
The U.S. has also pressured Colombia to introduce stronger and more hazardous granular herbicides into the crop eradication program. Experiments with imazapyr and tebuthiuron have already taken place on Colombian soil, in spite of stated opposition from the Colombian Ministry of Environment.
Now, the U.S. is pressuring Colombia to accept a strain of Fusarium oxysporum known as EN4 as a biological control agent. Coca-growing areas would be sprayed with the Fusarium strain in an effort to make the treated Amazon soil unfit for growing coca for up to 40 years.
Fusarium species, naturally abundant in temperate and tropical zones around the world, kill plants by releasing fungal toxins (mycotoxins) into the plant's roots. Some Fusarium species are also known to cause human disease, especially in individuals with compromised immune systems due to cancer, AIDS or asthma.
Little is known about possible dangers of a massive introduction of these fungi into the environment, their potential to attack other plant species or the health risks caused by the toxins they produce. Massive applications of newly selected or genetically modified strains may irreversibly alter the stability of the Amazonian ecosystems in which the fungus is applied or to where it later disperses.
On July 6, 2000, Acción Ecológica and other environmental and human rights groups staged a peaceful takeover of the Colombian Embassy in Ecuador to demonstrate against the counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency campaign the U.S. aid package will support. The groups say the campaign will intensify armed conflict and exacerbate the region's social, political, economic and environmental problems. They call on the international community to urge the U.S. and Colombia to replace this approach with programs that effectively integrate environmental, economic, social and cultural drug control methods and provide for civil society participation in their development and implementation.
The Colombian government is reluctant to approve experimentation with the new fungus strain, but has been under pressure to accept it as a condition for military aid. As a compromise, the Colombian government has proposed investigating native fungus varieties for toxicity to drug crops.
The Seattle-based Sunshine Project has obtained a recent version of Colombia's proposed plan for research into biological controls and concluded that the still-secret proposal is insufficient to stop U.S. deployment of biological weapons in the drug war. According to Sunshine Project attorney Susana Pimiento, "Despite confusing statements from the U.S. State Department, we are encouraged that press reports and the document itself appear to indicate that plans to immediately field test the dangerous U.S.-developed agents have been stopped. But this counterproposal would only result in a delay, not a prohibition, on the use of biological warfare agents in Colombia."
Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña, "Latinoamericanos rechazan aplicación del Plan Colombia de Estados Unidos." ECOLATINO, El Salvador, July 6, 2000.
"U.S .Signs Up for Colombian War." Legislative Update, Latin America Working Group, email@example.com, June 2000.
The Sunshine Project, "Biological Agents in the Drug War: Colombian Response to U.S. Pressure for Biological Drug Eradication is Inadequate; UN Role Questioned." http://sunshineproject.org/publications/pr/pr070700.html.
Ed Vulliamy, "U.S. Prepares To Spray Genetically-Modified Herbicides on Colombians." London Observer, http://www.commondreams.org/headlines/070200-01.htm, July 2, 2000.
Miami Herald. "A Dangerous Silver Bullet." July 11, 2000.
Jared Kotler "Colombia Against Using Fungus." Associated Press, July 15, 2000.
The Sunshine Project. "Colombia's Agent Green Counterproposal Released." http://sunshineproject.org/publications/pr/pr180700.html.
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