US drug eradication plan endangering Colombian ecosystems and indigenous cultures

An international coalition of indigenous, environmental, human rights, and policy organisations has gathered in Washington D.C. warning that the US Government’s policy of fumigating drug crops in Colombia will result in widespread harm to the environment and indigenous communities.

On 20 November groups as varied as the US think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Amazon Alliance for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the Amazon Basin held an urgent news conference to discuss increased fumigation operations to commence in December in the southern Colombian state of Putumayo. The Colombian National Police, assisted by US Government spray aircraft, fuel, escort helicopters, and private military contractors will increase the already on-going “war on drugs”, designed to eradicate Colombia’s place as the world’s largest cocaine producer. The groups warn, however, that spraying herbicides could seriously harm the health of indigenous and peasant communities, endanger the rich ecosystems of the Amazon Basin, where the operation is centred, and fail to reduce overall drug production and use in the US.

The herbicide approved for the programme, glyphosate, is manufactured by the US-based Monsanto Corporation and is non-selective, meaning that any plant exposed to a sufficient amount of the chemical will be killed. It has been sprayed over tens of thousands of acres of Colombian land since 1994, but, critics say, has done little to curtail the supply of cocaine that comes into the US every year. In December the Colombian police, at the request of the US Government and with the help of $1.3 billion granted by President Clinton, will dump thousands of litres of the herbicide onto Putumayo.

“While glyphosate’s direct toxic effects on the ecosystem may not be as extreme as those seen with other herbicides, the indirect, long term ecological effects are severe,” said Linda Farley of the American Birds Conservancy at the conference. She said that besides non-target plant species killed by aerial ‘drift’ during spraying operations, glyphosate has well-documented deleterious effects on soil micro-organisms, mammalian life including humans, invertebrates, and aquatic organisms, especially fish. This represents a major cause for concern for local people and environmentalists as a significant portion of coca cultivation occurs alongside rivers in the Colombian Amazon that flow directly into Ecuador and Brazil. Moreover, the ecosystems of Colombia contain approximately 10% of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species.

“Deforestation has also increased as farmers whose coca crops have been sprayed move deeper into the rainforests,” Farley continued. In this sense, glyphosate spraying is already having a significant detrimental effect on the endemic and threatened birds of Colombia, as 95% of the 75 plus threatened species are forest-dependent.”

The Human Rights Ombudsman offices at the national and local level have registered hundreds of complaints from rural inhabitants throughout Colombia that aerial eradication has caused eye, respiratory, skin, and digestive ailments, destroyed subsistence crops, sickened domesticated animals, and contaminated water supplies.

Fifty-eight indigenous peoples are among those affected by fumigation in the Colombian Amazon with territories covering almost half of Putumayo, the alliance says. “Fumigation violates our rights and territorial autonomy. It has intensified the violence of the armed conflict and forced people to leave their homes after their food crops have been destroyed,” said Emperatriz Cahuache, President of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon.

The groups involved in the news conference also argue that spraying drug crops will never be successful at decreasing overall production because cultivation will shift to other regions and countries around the world. They say that coca and opium poppy production in Colombia tripled from 1994 to 1999, despite fumigating over 240,000 hectares of illicit crops with more than two million litres of glyphosate.

“Until we admit the drug economy is driven by three problems we refuse to seriously address – poverty in drug producing countries, demand in rich countries, and the “value added” to these relatively worthless crops by prohibition policies – we will never get a handle on the problem,” stated Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

“When Congress chose to spend over hundreds of millions of dollars on risky counter-narcotic efforts in Colombia instead of closing the treatment gap here at home, the door was closed on thousands of Americans needing help, while innocent Colombians were made to pay a horrible price for our country’s addictions,” said Bill Piper, spokesperson for the US Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.

President Clinton, however, has demonstrated nothing but support for the programme to destroy Colombian drug crops, referring to it as providing “a solid, multifaceted strategy that the United States should support with substantial assistance”. “We have a compelling national interest in reducing the flow of cocaine and heroin to our shores, and in promoting peace, democracy and economic growth in Colombia and the region. Given the magnitude of the drug trafficking problem and their current economic difficulties, neither the Government of Colombia nor its neighbours can carry the full burden alone,” he recently said.

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