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Agent Orange, All Over Again

In an fruitless effort to erradicate Colombian coca crops, the U.S. continues to fumigate the countryside with toxic herbicides. The EPA is aware of environmental and health risks, but continues to sit on its hands.
 
 
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Washington, D.C. -- For seven months, the Environmental Protection Agency sat on a call to investigate the coca-defoliation program in Colombia. Presented by one of the agency's own internal boards, the letter asked for a study of harm to people and the environment posed by the U.S.-backed spraying of Roundup Ultra, a chemical critics compare to Agent Orange.

When the resolution was proposed at a December 10 meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, "there was a lot of eye rolling and clearing of throats among the EPA members," said one government employee. No one from EPA "thought it had a snowball's chance in hell" of reaching administrator Christie Whitman's desk.

Those EPA members may seem jaded, but for a long while they also appeared to be right. President Bush has kept the agency hamstrung, forcing it to do an about-face on global warming and to relax water-quality standards. Now the president is seeking yet more funding for Plan Colombia, which is supposed to cut off the supply of cocaine on the streets of New York by halving the 300,000 acres of coca fields in Colombia over five years. The U.S. has pledged $1.3 billion in this fiscal year to support the $7.5 billion scheme with army anti-narcotics training and helicopters.

So far, the attack hasn't worked. Over 38,000 hectares have been sprayed since this year alone, but coca production is shifting to other parts of Colombia and spreading into Ecuador. The program has become the pretext for a Vietnam-style counterinsurgency in which U.S.-trained units of the Colombian army link up with paramilitary death squads in a bloody drive against guerrillas. U.S. Special Forces, who are doing the training, are kept out of the fighting, but U.S. civilian contractors who fly the spray planes have been reported in the thick of firefights.

Meanwhile, the peasantry are getting drenched with Roundup Ultra. In one EPA study published in 1993, California doctors reported that the herbicide's active ingredient, glyphosate, ranked third out of 25 chemicals that caused harm to humans. Some observers say the aircraft blitzing Colombian coca fields are flying at too great a height to ensure surrounding villages and farms are kept safe from the spray. Lower flights would court direct hits by rebel troops.

"Our concern is the longevity of the effects of the spraying: If the farmers can't plant, they can't grow or eat," said Alberto Saldamando, general counsel of the San Francisco-based International Indian Treaty Council, who drafted the resolution. "This is going to affect the whole agricultural economy. We think it's a very serious health-damaging case. We are talking about indigenous people. They are poor; they are not aware of what can happen to their health."

After being approved at the board meeting, the request for an investigation went to the agency's Office of Environmental Justice, a sort of clearing house and rewrite operation for advisory-group resolutions before they are sent up to the administrator. Sure enough, the letter disappeared amid complaints it was full of typographical errors.

It never reached the outgoing Clinton administrator, Carol Browner, and the issue was temporarily set aside as Bush took control of the White House. Next, the letter was kicked over to the Office of International Activities, where bureaucrats argued pro and con.

Eventually the resolution was sent back to the advisory board for its approval. There it sat. Peggy Shepard, executive director of the West Harlem Environmental Action and chair of the board, said Monday she only got the letter two weeks ago. She then cleaned it up and forwarded it to Whitman. "The letter was not withheld," she explained. "I simply did not sign it because I thought it was weak grammatically and lacking factually and needed to be fixed." As for Whitman's expected response, Shepard said, "We have no idea. We have not had any interaction with the administrator since she's been appointed."

Roundup is sold widely in the U.S., and the EPA says it's safe for most commercial uses. According to the State Department's Web site, glyphosate is less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, and vitamin A. In a report sent to the House Appropriations Committee in January, the State Department, with the concurrence of the EPA, claimed that "there are no grounds to suggest a concern for human health."

But in a 1996 out-of-court settlement, the manufacturer Monsanto admitted to certain reservations about such glyphosate-based herbicides. Monsanto withdrew claims that Roundup is "safe, nontoxic, harmless, or free from risk," and signed a statement, saying absolute claims that Roundup "will not wash or leach in the soil" aren't accurate. Roundup Ultra, the product used in Colombia, is a concoction boosted by other powerful chemicals manufactured by ICI and Exxon.

Sources within the agency doubt that Whitman will support the proposal to study the effects of Roundup on civilians and the environment. An EPA spokesman acknowledged that Whitman's deputy administrator, Linda Fisher, is a former Monsanto vice president, but said the EPA has no role in the spraying.

"We do not govern the use of Roundup in another country," the spokesman said. "Anything we say about the use of chemicals in another country is only speculation because we have no authority to check what they're doing."

For critics, the need for some kind of check is clear. "We demonstrated concern over Roundup that was being used without warning or telling people what was in it," Saldamando recalled. "There is a lack of public awareness in the U.S. and especially in Colombia. Children become sick and adults start getting rashes."

Plan Colombia has a short but dubious history. In 1999, the General Accounting Office concluded that "U.S. and Colombian efforts to eradicate enough coca and opium poppy to reduce the net cultivation of these crops have not succeeded to date." Despite fumigating 65,938 hectares of Colombian coca in 1998, the office wrote, the total number of hectares of coca under cultivation in Colombia grew from 101,800 to 122,500.

Defoliation merely sends production elsewhere. Successful eradication programs in Bolivia and Peru in the 1990s led to a sharp rise in production in Colombia. "The pattern has been that fumigation 'chases' coca cultivation from one area to another, while overall cultivation levels rise," noted a report last month from the Washington Office on Latin America. Fumigation does result in a short-term increase in coca prices, but, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, hasn't caused any change in the price of cocaine in the U.S. And while the military aspects of the plan have been in full effect, promised alternative assistance to farmers has not begun, the report said.

Democratic congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who represents the Chicago suburbs, is offering a measure -- along with Democrats John Conyers of Detroit and Cynthia McKinney of suburban Atlanta -- to stop funding for the fumigation project. In February, Schakowsky took a fact-finding mission to Putumayo Province, where she met with health ministers, governors, mayors, and police, all of whom reported Roundup's devastating effects.

"People told of rashes and intestinal problems," Schakowsky said. "There is an increasing number of internally displaced humans. It has destroyed legal crops and livelihood."

As for the overall effectiveness of the program, said the congresswoman, "We've seen no change in the availability or price of cocaine. Coca production simply moves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if demand is strong you move your operation. Fumigation is never going to get ahead of that."