Bungle in the Jungle


If you were standing in the Amazon jungle in the south of Colombia, you would be in one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet, home to one-sixth of the world's bird species, more than 45,000 different kinds of tropical plants, and hundreds of thousands of insect species – many of which are as-of-yet unknown to biologists.

The jungle coexists with small-scale agriculture. If you were able to peer out through the leaves to the edge of the forest, you'd see farm plots lining the edge of the jungle, inhabited by peasant farmers who are living mostly below the poverty line.

On almost any given day in the southern region, spray planes fly in to destroy the crops of these small farms. It starts with the even beat of a military helicopter, followed by a plane that sprays a chemical fog. The substance used is a mixture of glyphosate, water, and added surfactants, comprising a powerful herbicide manufactured by Monsanto that is similar to (but stronger than) Roundup.

Within a few days, all the sprayed crops – food and drug alike – are destroyed completely. The target of the spray is the primary cocaine ingredient coca, which may be interspersed with food-bearing crops. While the applications are not as frequent in other parts of the country as they are in regions like Putumayo in the south, the total targeted land area has grown drastically over the past four years, and will reach an estimated total of 1.2 million acres by 2005. This war on drugs carries unintended consequences, affecting not just the coca but the surrounding ecosystems and the health of the people living there.

The aerial fumigation program is part of a multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics effort known as Plan Colombia. The U.S. State Department, in collaboration with the Colombian government, has spent roughly $3 billion from 2000 to 2004 to put a stop to the cultivation of coca and thus reduce its availability in the United States.

According to a State Department spokesperson, "To date, no reports of alleged adverse health effects related to the spray program have been substantiated. Toxicology tests ... show that the herbicide mixture used for spraying, in the manner it is being used, does not pose any unreasonable risks of adverse effects for humans or the environment."

Yet the policy has met harsh criticism from teams of environmental scientists, rainforest conservation groups and human rights workers.

For many of the subsistence farmers in areas such as Putumayo, coca is the only crop that will provide enough income for survival. Betsy Marsh, author of the report "Going to Extremes," released by the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), says that "the majority of farmers have small landholdings, poor marketing capabilities and no access to credit. The lack of security, roads and transport in rural Colombia prevents substantial agricultural trade. In contrast, drug traffickers offer credit, deliver crops to market and pay higher returns for coca and opium poppy crops than almost any other agricultural product. Nonetheless, farmers who grow coca are not getting rich – they are just getting by."

According to the report, some farmers have willingly eradicated their coca plants to comply with Colombian law and taken advantage of alternative development programs, but these farmers still have their legal crops destroyed by chemical drift.

According to Philip Cryan, a Witness for Peace volunteer who lived in Bogotá for two years, the fumigation has had significant health effects on the populations of subsistence farmers. "People have had skin rashes, diarrhea, and all sorts of health complications such as fevers, eye irritation and even psychological problems. In three cases, children have died after exposure."

Cryan adds that water contamination is another major health issue facing the population. "They instruct pilots not to spray waterways, but I have seen dozens if not hundreds of examples of waterways that were hit," he says. "In many cases, people using water for drinking or bathing don't have access to water by any other means, so they continue to use it, even though they know it will harm them."

In addition to human health concerns, there are a host of environmental issues associated with the fumigation. Deforestation, ecosystem damage and contamination have all been linked to the aerial eradication program by non-governmental organizations. According to a report released by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA, in Spanish), the fumigation program has never been subject to a comprehensive environmental impact statement.

"The Minister of Environment initially ordered the protection of sizable buffer zones around potentially sensitive areas like human settlements, legal crop fields, surface waters and national parks," reads the AIDA report. "These buffer zones have now been drastically reduced. Coca growers' practices have changed to adapt to the fumigation, seeping into difficult-to-detect plots scattered throughout the ecologically sensitive forest as well as spilling over the border into neighboring countries.

In June of 2003, Colombia's National Council on Dangerous Drugs passed a resolution that permits the spraying of illicit crops in the national parks. "The national parks are now overrun by coca producers," says Anna Cedarstav, staff scientist for Earthjustice and AIDA. Indeed, the U.S. State Department estimates that nearly 10 percent of Colombia's coca is now embedded in these areas.

There are signs that the ecosystem is suffering. According to Betsy Marsh, "EPA assessments and numerous field reports suggest that spray drift from aerial eradication likely causes substantial damage to non-target vegetation, destroying habitat and causing adverse effects to wildlife. Municipal reports from southern Colombia and rural communities along the Ecuadorian border cite numerous fish kills – in one instance the spraying apparently killed 70,000 newly hatched fish in aquaculture ponds."

Marsh asserts that while LAWG supports the end goal of reducing cocaine availability in the United States, it opposes the extreme method by which this is being done. Instead, LAWG advocates social assistance for Colombia, including humanitarian aid for displaced people, alternative development aid to help small farmers switch to legal crops and expanded drug treatment programs in the United States.

The fumigation program's success in terms of suppressing coca cultivation is debatable, depending on the source. The State Department declares that the program has led to a total reduction of 33 percent of coca and poppy in Colombia, but LAWG is quick to point out that trends throughout the entire Andean region show that production has remained stable over the past 15 years, and even U.S. drug czar John Walters admitted in August of 2004 that the program has not led to a reduction in cocaine availability in the United States.

According to Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy, there is still a great deal of support for the program in Washington. "For those in opposition, it's still an uphill battle," he says.

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