Colombia Suspends Use of Aerial Herbicide to Kill Coca Crops

World

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced today that he is halting the use of the herbicide glyphosate as part of a US-backed effort to destroy coca crops. More than four million acres of land in the country have been sprayed with the Monsanto-manufactured weed killer.


The US has paid for the program as part of its multi-billion dollar, decades-long anti-drug campaign in the country that had been (and might be again) the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. US contractors paid by the State Department do some of the spraying.

Santos acted a little more than a month after an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the herbicide is probably carcinogenic and days after the Colombian Health Ministry, citing the WHO report, recommended that the program be halted.

Critics of the spraying program had complained for years that the herbicide not only killed coca crops, but also injured people, livestock, and other plant life exposed to it. Those claims got some backing last year when Daniel Mejia, chairman of an expert panel advising the Colombian government on its drug strategy, published research showing high rates of skin problems and miscarriages in areas sprayed with glyphosate.

The move comes in the midst of peace talks between the Santos government and the rebels of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), who have been in rebellion against the government in Bogota for more than 50 years. The two sides had already agreed that aerial eradication should be used only as a last resort.

It was the strength of the rebels around the turn of the century that was a principal reason for the resort to aerial spraying. Their presence in coca-growing areas, where guerrilla fighters protected the crops, made manual eradication risky. At least 62 manual eradicators—48 of them soldiers—have been killed since 2009 and nearly 400 injured, most of them the victims of guerrilla groups.

Colombian coca cultivation had declined for the previous six years, but jumped 39% last year, according to a US government report that came out last week. The conveniently timed report, which blamed the increase on new cultivation outside areas where aerial eradication was allowed, failed, however, to stop the Colombian government from suspending the program. 

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