Death Falls from the Sky

Plan Colombia's fumigation campaign
destroys everything in its path

by Garry M. Leech

In These Times magazine, April 2001


With 62,000 acres of coca destroyed, the politicians and generals in Washington and Bogota are calling Plan Colombia's initial fumigation campaign a success. But on the ground in Putumayo, Colombia's principal coca growing region, people watched in horror as the deadly mist drifted down and stuck to everything in sight. Their food crops turned brown, wilted and slowly died. Their children and animals became sick. If death didn't come at the hands of the guerrillas, the paramilitaries or the Colombian army, it fell out of the sky.

The fumigation campaign began on December 19. For the next six weeks, U.S.-supplied helicopters swooped down almost daily to unload soldiers whose mission was to prevent attacks by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. The aerial spraying dumped an estimated 85,000 gallons of the herbicide glyphosate onto Putumayo's coca fields from an altitude of 100 feet. The fumigation campaign in Putumayo utilized two of the three U.S.-trained anti-narcotics battalions and 15 of the 60 helicopters that are part of the $1.3 billion aid package approved by Congress last year.

Serious questions have been raised about the tactics used during the fumigation. Even Monsanto-the manufacturer of Round-Up Ultra, the chemical used for coca eradication in Colombia- cautions against aerial application at altitudes greater than 10 feet above crops because higher altitudes increase the risk of drift. Monsanto also warns that "even very small amounts of Round-Up herbicide brands may damage crops if allowed to drift into fields adjoining the target area."

Another reason the herbicide is so destructive, says Ivan Rios, spokesman for Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is because "they are fumigating with glyphosate mixed with a special ingredient that sticks to the leaves and is more harmful to the people."

That "special ingredient" is called Cosmo-Flux, which according to Ricardo Vargas Meza, a researcher for Accion Andina, an organization studying drug policy in the Andes, "makes the glyphosate heavier and stickier so it adheres better to the coca plants."

Cosmo-Flux also makes the herbicide more potent. "Cosmo-Flux substantially increases the biological activity of the agrochemicals, allowing better results with smaller doses," says Dr. Elsa Nivia, Colombia's Regional Director of the Pesticide Action Network. But the fumigation campaign is adding Cosmo-Flux to an herbicide dosage five times greater than that recommended by Monsanto.

According to many campesinos in Putumayo, the herbicide also contaminated maize, yucca, plantains, animals and even children. Some of the families who fled the fumigation are now living in rundown wooden shacks in the town of San Miguel near the Ecuador border. Cecilia, a middle-aged woman who, along with her husband and three children, abandoned their farm in La Dorada in January after it had been fumigated, says, "everything was killed. Maize, yucca, everything." She now sells homecooked food to travelers crossing the border in a struggle to support her family.

Even the leader of Putumayo's paramilitary forces, Commandante Enrique, admits that "if you go to San Miguel you can find campesinos who don't have food and money because the fumigation was indiscriminate."

The local hospital in La Hormiga has witnessed some of the human health consequences of the fumigation campaign. "I have treated people with skin rashes, stomach aches and diarrhea caused by the fumigation," says Dr. Edgar Perea. "And I have treated five children affected by the fumigation in the past 25 days. I don't know how many the other doctors have treated."

Prior to launching the offensive, the government offered $1,000 and technical assistance to those willing to switch from coca to alternative crops, along with a promise that their farms would not be fumigated. Some campesinos accepted the offer, while others, distrustful of a government that has repeatedly failed to deliver on past promises, steadfastly refused. "Historically, the government has never helped anyone here," one La Hormiga resident explained. "People helped themselves, and with coca the economy is good. Now the government wants to help, but people are afraid it will ruin the economy."

When the eradication campaign began, many of the small farmers who had accepted the government's offer stood by helplessly while the aerial fumigation killed their newly planted crops. But according to Col. Blas Ortiz of the Colombian army's Putumayo-based 24th Brigade, the fumigation campaign only targeted "industrial sized" coca farms of 25 acres or more. Furthermore, Ortiz claims, "One of the techniques used by the big coca growers is to grow two acres of yucca or plantains in the middle of 125 acres of coca. These two acres don't belong to the campesinos, they belong to the big coca grower. They use this strategy to avoid being fumigated."

Ruben Dario Pinzon of the National Plan for Alternative Development (PLANTE), the government agency in charge of the alternative crop program, sympathizes with the campesinos. "Growers financed by PLANTE have been fumigated because they are a small area in the middle of coca growers," he says. "It is impossible to protect them because the pilots can't control exactly where they fumigate. They fumigate the whole area."

The indiscriminate nature of the fumigation campaign has led many to call for a greater emphasis on manual eradication, which would avoid damaging food crops. "PLANTE is fighting to end fumigation in the six municipalities in which we are working," Pinzon says, "so we can start the process of alternative crops and then begin negotiations with other towns."

But most coca farming occurs in remote areas that lack the infrastructure required to transport perishable crops to distant cities and ports. And if the number of campesinos turning to alternative crops continues to increase, production will likely surpass local demand and drive prices down. Consequently, impoverished campesinos will face the same economic problems that forced them to turn to coca cultivation in the first place.

When asked if PLANTE intends to help campesinos get their alternative crops to market, Pinzon laments, "At this time it is not possible to propose such an economic plan. It is desirable that the government subsidize some items like they do in the United States and Europe. But in Colombia it's not possible because we do not have the money."

It is the lack of social and economic funding in the U.S. aid package that is criticized by many in Colombia and the international community. Many organizations do not believe coca can be successfully eradicated until more money and resources are used to create viable economic alternatives. The campesino who cultivates coca does not have to be concerned with getting his crop to market before it spoils. The narcotrafficker comes to him. Also, coca is a hardier plant than most legal crops and can reap three or four harvests a year. And if the grower is willing to perform the first step of processing into coca paste, he will be paid more than if he just sold the leaves. The local farmer is not getting rich from this illicit crop, but the $1,000 a year he can earn from two or three acres of coca cultivation helps prevent his family from going hungry.

Local officials are now desperately trying to convince Washington and Bogota to permanently suspend the aerial fumigation before there is a further destruction of legal crops and a renewed exodus of people. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The politicians and generals are too busy celebrating the campaign's success and planning future operations. For the campesinos of Putumayo, it is only a matter of time before death once again begins falling from the sky.


Garry M. Leech is the editor of Colombia Report ()

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