Colombian judge orders suspension of US-backed drug fumigation programme

Following mounting evidence of risks to health and the environment, a judge in Bogotá has ordered the immediate suspension of the fumigation of coca and poppy by herbicides in the indigenous territories throughout the country, however the Colombian Government intends to continue its eradication programme.

The judge ordered the suspension of the aerial fumigations that use the herbicide glyphosate when he ruled in favour of Colombian Amazon indigenous communities and an NGO, Paz Colombia, on the grounds that it “violates the right to life, due process, and environmental rights”. According to the groups, the government had only signed an agreement for the use of manual eradication only with the inhabitants of two provinces, where some 40,000 acres of coca are under cultivation. According to Paz Colombia, the aerial fumigation of these plantings has caused sickness in more than 35,000 Indians and the judicial order should be immediately applied in territories inhabited by indigenous peoples throughout the country, the southeast, the northwest, and the Colombian Atlantic coast.

The delegate to the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), Klaus Nylhom has proposed the establishment of a neutral international observation team for the fumigations in the smaller plots of coca and poppy and agrees that the small plots of illegal cultivation in the departments of Cauca and Nariño in the southeast, are “very modest”, and stated that the peasants and indigenous people growing them are “not criminals”.

The move follows a letter from Colombia’s Parliamentary Commissioner, Eduardo Cifuentes Munoz, to Justice Minister Dr. Romulo Gonzalez Trujillo saying that the governmental policy of spraying illicit coca crops, which has been aided by US governmental funding “jeopardises fundamental rights – to life, integrity, health and food safety – as well as the collective right to enjoy a healthy environment and ecological equilibrium”. The months old campaign has met with numerous protests to date, including a Washington conference where experts warned that using glyphosate to spray hundreds of square kilometres of plantations would result in widespread harm to the environment and indigenous communities (see related story).

International pesticide experts have also criticised the so-called ‘Plan Colombia’, saying that the aerial fumigation is indiscriminate and causing serious health problems in humans and animals, contaminating the soil, the air, water and food, and destroying crops, livestock and fish, which form the basis for survival of the rural and indigenous populations. “The aerial fumigation of illicit crops by herbicides which is happening in Colombia has no seen no precedent in scientific literature,” said Elsa Nivia, an agronomist from the international organisation Pesticide Action Network.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ecuador, Foreign Affairs Minister Heinz Moeller has asked Colombia to manually spray coca crops near the border following reports of Ecuadorians falling ill. Ecuadorian environmental group, Acción Ecológica, said that the Plan has led to 36 illnesses for more than 6,000 people, including indigenous communities, living along the Ecuador-Colombia border. Every one of the Ecuadorian residents living within five kilometres of the Colombian border presented symptoms of pesticide-related ailments, the group said.

However Minister Trujillo said that the Government would fight the judge’s decision for being unconstitutional and denied that fumigation was taking place in indigenous areas, while Colombia’s Environment minister, Juan Myer, maintains that aerial fumigation of coca plantations causes “no real harm”.

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