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
LA HORMIGA, COLOMBIA
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
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
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
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
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
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 ()www.colombiareport.org