PANNA: Action Alert: Ask the U.S. EPA to Fully Evaluate Aerial Herbicide Spraying in Colombia


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Action Alert: Ask the U.S. EPA to Fully Evaluate Aerial Herbicide Spraying in Colombia
July 26, 2002

The Colombian government has announced that on July 28, 2002, it will begin a massive campaign of aerial spraying of illicit coca plants in the southern Colombian state of Putumayo. Spray campaigns in Colombia, which use glyphosate-based herbicides, have caused widespread damage to crops, ecosystems and human health. The campaigns are supposed to target large producers of coca and opium poppy (the raw materials for cocaine and heroin), but the main victims are small farmers and indigenous communities.

The compound that is slated for use in the spray campaigns, known as Roundup SL, is more highly toxic than Roundup formulations sold for use in the United States. Label instructions put the formulation in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) highest toxicity rating, Class 1. The label instructions note that this formulation can cause irreversible eye damage. Of course, it is difficult or impossible to ensure that EPA application guidelines are followed in Colombia; and residents receive no warning before their homes and farms are sprayed.

The spray campaigns are supported by a massive U.S. military aid package. So far, neither the U.S. nor the Colombian government has adequately reviewed the potential health and environmental impacts of this particular spray mixture under exposure conditions experienced in Colombia. Under the provisions of the current aid package, however, the U.S. State Department cannot purchase additional chemicals for the program unless EPA determines that the spray campaigns meet U.S. safety standards. EPA is currently carrying out its assessment of the spray campaigns.

The Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Putumayo (OZIP) and the 128 Indigenous Governing Councils in the Department of Putumayo have issued an emergency plea to the government of Colombia and the international community not to spray their lands. The groups say the spray will destroy their food sources and the natural resources they depend on for survival.

Colombia is one of the world's most biologically diverse countries, with many endemic species of plants and birds. Destruction of critical habitat in Colombia could lead to extinction of endangered species.

The July 28 date for new spray campaigns in Colombia marks the end of a several-month hiatus of spraying in southern Colombia. However, spraying has occurred recently in northern Colombia. In June, the Colombian government launched a spray campaign against the northern Colombian community of El Catatumbo, in the State of Norte de Santander, near the Venezuelan border. According to press reports, residents reported the loss of thousands of fish; loss of yucca, plantain, and corn crops; contamination of water supplies; and skin infections that appear to have been caused by herbicide exposure. One community leader reported in an interview that many fish have been appearing dead in the Catatumbo River, and that chickens, horses, and cattle have died. A local priest said that in the homes he visits during the week, he has seen a dramatic increase in incidence of skin problems and diarrhea.

A report prepared by the Public Ombudsman in Colombia, a government oversight agency, and summarized in English by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), cites significant health and environmental impacts caused by the spraying and urges that the program be suspended. The report urges that scientific studies be conducted to determine the impact of the spraying on the environment, wildlife and human health. If spraying does continue, the report says, measures must be put in place to protect people from exposure to the spray, monitor environmental effects, and coordinate inter-institutional communication to prevent the indiscriminate spraying of small farms.

ACTION: Call, fax, or email EPA administrator Christine Whitman. Urge EPA to evaluate thoroughly all the existing evidence of harm and make results of this analysis available to the public. In addition, ask the agency to answer the following pressing questions:

  • Most literature distributed by the U.S. State Department on the spray campaigns focuses on the active ingredient, glyphosate, rather than on the complete herbicide formulations used in the spray campaigns. What are the known or likely effects of the entire formulation used in Colombia, including surfactants and other undisclosed ingredients?
  • Colombia is one of the world's most biologically diverse countries. What are the short- and long-term effects of massive spray campaigns on ecologically sensitive areas and endangered species?
  • To date, no reliable studies have been published on the health effects of spray campaigns to kill coca plants. Has EPA evaluated the statistical validity of any health studies conducted by the U.S. State Department?
  • U.S. taxpayers are supporting a program that is threatening the health and livelihoods of rural Colombians. How will EPA make the results of its analysis public, so that US citizens will have full information on the effects of the program they are supporting?

Direct your message to:
Christine Whitman
EPA Administrator
Phone (202) 564-4700; fax (202) 501-1450
whitman.christine@epa.gov

Sources: Anon., "Colombia Drug Sprayings to Resume," Associated Press, July 6, 2002. "Fumigaciones afectan cultivos del Catatumbo," El Tiempo, June 25, 2002. "U.S. Law Imperils Colombia Coca Spraying," New York Times, July 11, 2002. "Position of the Colombian Ombudsman Office on the Eradication of Illicit Crops Through Aerial Application of Chemicals: Executive Summary." Prepared by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), in collaboration with the Colombian Ombudsman Office.

Contact: PANNA. Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies, Prescott House, 893 West St., Amherst, MA 01002; phone (413) 559-5582; Web site http://isis.hampshire.edu. Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) c/o Earthjustice, 426 17th Street, 6th Floor, Oakland, CA 94612-2820; email aceder@aida2.org; Web site http://www.aida2.org.

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