Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
The U.S. Senate is currently considering an aid package that will dramatically increase support for the "war on drugs" in Colombia. The aid promises to increase violence in a country already ravaged by decades of civil war. It will also intensify crop eradication campaigns, in which glyphosate herbicides are used to kill coca and opium poppies, the crops used to manufacture cocaine and heroin. These spray campaigns have destroyed small farmers' food crops, contaminated water, and made children sick. While Colombian farming villages suffer severe consequences from the spraying, the campaigns produce little to no effect on the drug trade, which could be addressed far more efficiently through addiction treatment programs within the United States.
If you live in the United States, call or email your Senators now (see below for contact information). Tell them you oppose aid for military escalation and chemical crop eradication in Colombia. Ask them to support any amendments that shift funds away from military aid and toward drug treatment programs within the U.S.
The Colombian government currently operates 65 spray planes and helicopters. In 1999, this fleet sprayed 104,000 acres of coca and 20,000 acres of opium poppy. Unfortunately, the herbicides' effects were not limited to the target crops. Drug crops are often interspersed with food crops and pasture land, so that it is impossible to spray drug crops without also destroying other crops. In addition, pilots often fly higher than directed in order to evade gunfire from below, thus increasing the rate of drift from target to non-target areas. Whether due to pure negligence or because they cannot see their targets accurately, pilots sometimes spray farms that grow no drug crops at all.
Even worse, the spray often falls directly on people. Last summer seventy children in a Yanacona indigenous village were sprayed as they played outside their school. Unable to treat the children at the school, their teachers sent them home, but the children were further exposed as they crossed newly sprayed fields and streams.
The U.S. embassy official overseeing the spray program in Colombia claims glyphosate is harmless and villagers' accounts of its toxic effects must be false. But exposure to glyphosate-containing products is known to produce symptoms including eye and skin irritation, headaches, nausea, numbness, elevated blood pressure, and heart palpitations, and studies on laboratory animals implicate glyphosate in genetic and reproductive damage as well as other chronic effects. Monsanto, which manufactures the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, agreed in a 1996 out-of-court settlement in New York State to cease making claims that the herbicide is "safe, nontoxic, harmless or free from risk."
Colombian villagers' involuntary exposure to glyphosate herbicides in effect constitutes a huge public health experiment with no controls. No systematic data are being collected on victims' symptoms, nor is long-term follow-up an option in these isolated communities. One doctor who saw several victims described them as suffering from a standard array of symptoms associated with pesticide poisoning. Another health care professional working in the area said she had been instructed not to comment on the situation.
Between 1996 and 1998, despite aggressive spray campaigns, coca production in Colombia increased by 50% and poppy production remained approximately constant. The principal effect of eradication campaigns on production is to push cultivation into increasingly remote areas, leading to increased rates of deforestation. Compared with drug treatment programs in the U.S., crop eradication is a highly inefficient approach to combating the drug trade. A 1994 study by the RAND corporation estimated that investing in drug treatment programs was 23 times more cost effective than efforts to reduce drug production in source countries.
Seventy-three percent of the aid proposed for Colombia in 2000 and 2001 will go to military and police forces. Only ten percent will be allocated for alternative development projects that help farmers to make the transition to growing legal crops. A centerpiece of the aid package is support for a "push into southern Colombia," in which the Colombian military would attempt to gain control of a vast region currently controlled by guerrilla forces. In this $272 million portion of the package, just $10 million is earmarked for alternative development projects.
How to reach Senators: Call the U.S. Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121, or look up your Senator on the U.S. Senate Web site at http://www.senate.gov.
Sources: Larry Rohter, "To Colombians, Drug War is Toxic Enemy." New York Times, May 1, 2000; Philip Coffin, "Coca Eradication." Foreign Policy in Focus, Vol. 3, No. 29, October 1998; National Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) Glyphosate Fact Sheet, 1999; Center for International Policy, "U.S. Aid to Colombia: Comparison of Administration, House, and Senate Aid Proposals," May 10, 2000.