Aerial Herbicide War on Drugs Poisons Land and Water

On January 16, the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice called on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to pressure the United States and Colombia to halt the aerial application of herbicides to eradicate coca and poppy plants and use alternative methods.

Since the spraying began, said Earthjustice, there have been thousands of reports of serious health problems, destruction of food crops and livestock, contamination of surface water, damage to surrounding wilderness areas, and deforestation resulting from the need of peasants to clear forests and plant food crops on uncontaminated lands.

Earthjustice submitted the intervention with the support of the Amazon Alliance, an umbrella group of Amazonian peoples' organizations, and environmental and human rights groups.

The aerial spraying and drift of an herbicide mixture over vast areas of the Colombian and Ecuadorian countryside by private U.S. defense contractors with military protection is harming peasants and indigenous communities, the intervention states.

In the fall of 2000, the United States and Colombia began an intensive aerial herbicide application program to eradicate coca and poppy crops in drug producing areas of Colombia as part of an anti-narcotics initiative called Plan Colombia.

The U.S. Department of State says the decision to use aerial spraying is justified because “herbicide application by airplane is the most cost effective way of coping with the magnitude of the problem and ensuring that eradication operations do not turn violent.”

This strategy in the war on drugs deprives the affected residents of Colombia and Ecuador of "their rights to a clean and healthy environment, health, life, sustenance, property, inviolability of the home and family, and access to information," said the petitioning groups.

The aerial spraying has also drawn objections from 141 scientists, physicians, environmental and human rights groups from across the United States and around the world. Last August, they wrote an Open Letter to the U.S. Senate which said, "From an environmental perspective, applying a concentrated broad spectrum herbicide over delicate tropical ecosystems is almost certain to cause significant damage. Moreover, human health impacts from a concentrated mixture are obviously more likely."

Scott Pasternack, associate attorney with Earthjustice's International Program, said, "Sadly, the United States and Colombia are saying that this strategy is more important than the health, livelihood, and environment of Colombian and Ecuadorian rural communities."

The Earthjustice statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights lists health harms from the spraying that include "gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. severe bleeding, nausea, and vomiting), testicular inflammation, high fevers, dizziness, respiratory ailments, skin rashes, and severe eye irritation. The spraying may also have caused birth defects and miscarriages."

The spraying has destroyed more than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of legal food crops such as yucca, corn, plantains, tomatoes, sugar cane, grass for livestock grazing and fruit trees, said Earthjustice, and has resulted in the death of cows and chickens.

"Regarding environmental harms," the petition said, "the spraying has parched wilderness areas and caused deforestation and loss of critical habitat to endangered bird species because spray victims relocate to farm their legal crops. Other environmental harms include contamination of surface waters and death of fish."

"The State Department has concealed information about the true toxicity of the spray mixture and has failed to conduct proper environmental and health assessments," said Pasternack.

Earthjustice says the situation provides a clear example of the link between the environment and human rights - severe damage to the air, water, land and biodiversity caused by the spraying is violating various human rights.

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