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Collateral Damage from Colombia's Drug War

In an attempt to kill coca leaf -- the raw material for cocaine -- Colombian planes are using a U.S.-manufactured herbicide near the border with Ecuador, killing crops and poisoning residents.
 
 
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SAN FRANCISCO 2, ECUADOR

Walking along a dirt trail in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, subsistence farmer Santiago Tanguila says life in this village on the Colombian border has always been difficult.

But now, he says, pointing to trees with yellow, withered leaves, the village's 32 residents are facing a new challenge.

In an attempt to kill coca leaf -- the raw material for cocaine -- Colombian planes are using a U.S.-manufactured herbicide near the border with Ecuador. The aerial spraying has caused widespread crop damage and illness because winds often blow the toxic liquid into Ecuador, according to government officials, environmental groups and local farmers such as Tanguila.

About 10,000 Ecuadorans have been affected by the aerial spraying, according to the environmental group Ecological Action, based in Quito, Ecuador's capital.

The fumigation effort is financed by Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar program, partially financed by the United States, to cut back cocaine production. The Colombians use RoundupUltra, a glyphosate-based herbicide manufactured by the U.S. company Monsanto, mixed with a locally made chemical that causes the poison to stick to the leaf.

"This liquid covers everything," said Tanguila, who is president of the Indigenous Association of San Francisco 2. "It wrecks our agriculture. It affects everything we grow."

Monsanto says RoundupUltra, which is used as a weed killer in the United States, is safe for humans and plants when properly applied. At worst, it could cause temporary eye and skin irritation, according to company spokeswoman Janice Armstrong. She declined to comment about the herbicide's use in the war on drugs.

But residents of San Francisco 2 want the spraying stopped. In February, they filed a class action lawsuit for unspecified damages in Washington against the Dyn Corp., a Virginia firm responsible for the spraying.

Company executives want the suit dismissed, arguing that U.S. courts should not be given jurisdiction and that the company is involved in a legal program authorized by the U.S. Congress. A judge is expected to rule within the next several weeks whether the case should proceed.

"We have a strong case," said Terry Collingsworth, the village's lawyer and general counsel for the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington. "Plan Colombia was never designed to spray inside Ecuador."

All Ecuadorans living within three miles of Colombia and 89 percent residing within six miles of the border have reported symptoms of herbicide poisoning such as respiratory problems, headaches, skin rashes and intestinal bleeding, according to Adolfo Maldonado, a Spanish doctor who helped prepare the study by Ecological Action. Farmers also say the spraying has killed their coffee, yucca and mango crops and polluted local water supplies.

Many of the fumigation victims are Quichua Indians, the largest tribal group in Ecuador with some 110,000 members, some of whom live along the border.

Down a dirt path, Quichua farmer Judith Rodriguez recalls the misty cloud of herbicide that hit her farm just a half-mile from the border.

"I got sick with fever. I have body aches and intense headaches," she said. "I had rashes on my skin."

The Colombian government insists that its planes have been instructed not to spray closer than six miles from the border. But such claims are disputed by dozens of Ecuadoran farmers in the border province of Sucumbios, one of the poorest provinces in Ecuador.

Maximo Abad, the mayor of Nueva Loja, the provincial capital formerly called Lago Agrio, reports dozens of complaints from peasants who have been affected by aerial spraying. In addition to physical harm, there is the "psychological impact," he said.

"The fumigation is done with airplanes guarded by helicopters. They are violating Ecuadoran airspace and scaring children."

Ecuador's Ministry of Environment says it would like to conduct its own scientific study to determine the impact of spraying on agriculture and health.

Ministry official Melania Yanez, however, says not all problems reported by farmers are caused by fumigation. Low coffee yields and smaller mangoes are more than likely not caused by herbicides, since toxins typically kill a plant outright, she says.

But Yanez says the ministry remains concerned because of the "health symptoms reported by farmers are consistent with pesticide poisoning."

Ecuadoran officials have asked their Colombian counterparts for a written guarantee that they will refrain from aerial spraying within six miles of the border. To date, the request has been refused.

Meanwhile, Quichua farmers say they will continue to push for compensation from the United States.

"We want them to pay us for our damaged crops and health problems," Tanguila said. "How else can we recoup our losses?"