PANNA: Plan Colombia — Pesticide Experiments on Farmers


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Plan Colombia — Pesticide Experiments on Farmers
October 12, 2001

In October 2001, over 95 scientists and health professionals signed a letter to the U.S. Senate calling for an immediate moratorium on anti-drug fumigations in Colombia. The fumigation program — which involves aerial spraying of large quantities of Roundup Ultra, a non-selective herbicide (active ingredient glyphosate), on coca- and heroin-poppy-growing regions of Colombia — has come under increasing criticism from scientists, environmental organizations, human rights monitors and Colombian government officials. In response to these concerns, the U.S. State Department announced in August that it would conduct a test of the human health effects of the aerial fumigations in Colombia. The letter to the Senate stated that even though the State Department was taking a positive step by agreeing to investigate the sprayings’ health effects, the signers “want to emphasize that [they] do not believe [that] continued spraying during the long period of planning and executing the investigation is ethical or justified.”

According to initial reports, the State Department study — which may already be underway — will use Colombian farmers as experimental subjects. The study was designed with assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). According to the Washington Post, the study “will examine 100 farmers in Putumayo, where eradication efforts of the U.S.-assisted Plan Colombia are concentrated, to assess their health before spraying begins, and reexamine the same 100 people after fumigation . . . occurs nearby.”

The State Department study is being undertaken because reports of adverse human health effects from the spraying have now become so widespread that they can no longer be ignored. Although there have been numerous reports of human and animal illness, the farmers will be exposed to the pesticide in order to assess whether it in fact has adverse effects. As Dr. Fernando Lolas, chief of bioethics at the Pan American Health Organization, points out, there is an “ethical double standard” involved in the study. “The bottom line,” explains Kimberly Stanton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in Washington, “is there’s no place in the U.S. where a community would allow this kind of fumigation to happen to them.”

The Code of Federal Regulations outlines the ethical standards that must be followed for all human testing in the U.S. (Title 45:Public Welfare/Part 6). This 1991 policy governs the EPA and 11 other federal agencies. The central component of the document is its policy of “informed consent.” Any researcher seeking to use human subjects must “obtain the legally effective informed consent of the subject.” Test subjects must be free to decide whether or not they want to participate, without any “coercion” or “undue influence” by those conducting the test. To date, the State Department has not provided any information about whether they have obtained informed consent from the farmers being tested in the study.

Many times in recent years, Colombian farmers have registered formal complaints with the Colombian government, courts and medical officials that the fumigations have caused enormous damage to their legal crops, their families’ health, livestock and the environment. At least 300,000 acres of Colombian farmland have been sprayed since 1999, yet total coca production has steadily increased. The governors of the six southern Colombian provinces on which aerial eradication campaigns have focused have jointly called for an immediate end to fumigations. They propose instead voluntary, manual eradication of illicit crops, aided by international financial support for sustainable development projects.

Nongovernmental organizations in Colombia and the U.S. — including PAN North America, the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies, PAN-Colombia (RAPALMIRA) and the American Bird Conservancy — are calling for an independent scientific body to propose and implement a method of testing that does not further endanger human health. In order to begin laboratory tests and the review of existing studies, researchers will require accurate information about the exact formulation of chemicals being sprayed and about the procedures and safeguards governing the spraying — information which is currently unavailable. In the meantime, these environmental, human rights and foreign policy groups demand a moratorium on further spraying.

Sources:, “Anti-Drug Herbicide on Trial,” August 22, 2001; Epidemiological Section of the Colombian Department of Health, “Efectos de la Fumigación: Valle del Guamuez y San Miguel, Putumayo,” February 2001; Elsa Nivia, “Las fumigaciones aéreas sobre cultivos ilicitos si son peligrosos: Algunas aproximaciones,” May 2001; St. Petersburg Times, “U.S. to study spraying risks in Colombia,” August 12, 2001; Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45:Public Welfare/Part 46, August 1991,

Contact: PANNA.

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