PANNA: Farmers are Victims in Colombian Drug Wars


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Farmers are Victims in Colombian Drug Wars

September 23, 1999

Under the premise of eradicating drug crops, the Colombian government has been spraying traditional farming communities indiscriminately with herbicides containing glyphosate.

In June of this year, the Colombian government began spraying homes and farms of the Yanacona indigenous community in the Macizo Colombiano region, Cauca province. Herbicides were sprayed over houses, community centers, schools, water sources, pastures and workers in the fields. Intended to kill small crops of opium poppy, the raw material used to make heroin, the spraying destroyed crops and pasture lands the Yanacona depend on for food and income. Fish and chickens died, other farm animals became ill, and both adults and children suffered symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

Faced with illnesses and loss of crops, the Yanacona indigenous community sent a delegation to meet with the governor of the province, demanding a stop to the spraying. The governor promised that a fact-finding commission including representatives of several governmental and nongovernmental agencies would visit the community to collect testimony on the spraying. The actual commission consisted, however, of just two representatives of the provincial government.

Some 1500 members of the Yanacona community assembled to meet with the fact-finding commission. People presented testimony of their experience of being “sprayed like flies” and becoming ill. Mothers reported on illnesses among children, including respiratory distress, rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, migraines and conjunctivitis. One pregnant mother with five children testified that all her children were sick and her livelihood had been destroyed.

Others reported that their pastures had been ruined and their cattle were ill. The spraying destroyed crops the Yanacona grow to feed their families and has affected their ability to sell their farm products. For example, the sale price of milk and cheese has fallen by 50% or more, due to customers’ fears that the cows have drunk water contaminated with pesticides.

Community members maintain that the majority of the Yanacona farms that have been sprayed do not grow poppies.

In another area of Colombia, spraying with glyphosate has undone the successes of small farmers who were working to establish ecologically and economically sound alternatives to drug crops. Farmers in Caquetá province have designed intercropped gardens of native species, pasture areas with tree cover, and small-scale fish farming. In August, the government began spraying herbicides that have killed seedlings in their nurseries and crops in their fields, contaminated water sources and made adults and children sick. The farmers are seeking help from the International Red Cross to set up a forum in which to present testimony on what they have experienced.

Colombia produces three illicit drug crops: marijuana, coca and opium poppy. Commercial production of coca for processing into cocaine began in the mid-1970s and has increased dramatically; Colombia is now the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Large-scale production of opium poppy did not begin until 1990, but it too has grown rapidly. Colombia is now the primary supplier of heroin to the eastern United States.

Between 1990 and 1998, the U.S. provided some US$625 million to the Colombian National Police and the Colombian military for aircraft, weapons, ammunition and other support for the war on drugs. Beginning in 1996, the U.S. State Department identified herbicide spraying to eradicate opium poppy crops as a priority; the cost of this undertaking for fiscal year 1999 may be as high as US$68 million. Yet the expensive and inhumane “war on drugs” has not brought the drug trade under control. According to conservative estimates, the area in Colombia planted with illegal crops increased by almost 400% between 1978 and 1998. Between 1996 and 1998, despite consistent spraying, coca production in Colombia increased by 50% and poppy production remained approximately constant.

RAPALMIRA (PAN-Colombia) is calling for the immediate suspension and long-term prohibition of aerial spraying to eradicate drug crops, and for the implementation of a genuine program of alternative, sustainable development.

Source: This material is excerpted from “Casualties of the ‘War on Drugs’: Traditional Farms Destroyed with Herbicides,” by Elsa Nivia and Rachel Massey, Global Pesticide Campaigner, August 1999. For the complete article, contact PANNA at

Contact: PANNA



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