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Suspended fumigation of coca crops
Susan Abad
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It took 15 years to show that spraying glyphosate is harmful to human health.

“Better late than never” would be the proverb that could describe the decision made on May 14 by the National Commission on Narcotic Drugs to suspend aerial spraying of illicit crops with glyphosate for being harmful to health.

After more than 15 years of continuous use of this form to eradicate illegal coca crops, the new warning came from a publication of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — which is part of the World Health Organization — that classified the herbicide glyphosate and insecticides malathion and diazinon as likely carcinogens.

After receiving the report, Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria sent a letter to the National Commission on Narcotic Drugs stating that “in the framework of its obligations to protect public health (...), the Ministry recommends to immediately suspend the use of glyphosate in aerial spraying operations for eradication of illegal crops.”

Gaviria’s position was bolstered by the Mar. 20 publication of the scientific journal The Lancet Oncology on the results of the meeting about glyphosate of IARC experts, which reveals that exposure to this substance may be related to the development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that experimental animal exposure is related to the probability of developing renal cell carcinoma, hemangiosarcoma, skin tumors and pancreatic adenoma.

“We have been warning about this for over 15 years,” said to Latinamerica Press Democratic Pole Senator Jorge Robledo, who in 2004 had already stated in Congress that “until at least September 2002, (...) [the substance that] planes sprayed from the air was living the United States with a label that read: ‘Toxic and not for sale in the United States’.” He recalled that Colombia is the only country in the world that performs aerial spraying with this product.
Plan Colombia
The questioned glyphosate entered the country in 1994, but in 1999, as part of Plan Colombia, it began to be used intensively. This agreement to combat drug, signed between presidents Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), of Colombia, and Bill Clinton (1993-2001), of the United States, facilitated helicopters, pilots and herbicides in seeking to eradicate 164,000 ha of coca cultivation present in the country at that time.

Almost immediately the first of thousands of lawsuits were filed on behalf of farmers who saw and still see harmful effects to their health, the death of their animals and the contamination of their water due to aerial spraying with this chemical.

“The Drug Police came to play around with the lives of our people because they did not mind throwing the chemical on civilians, on areas for drinking water; for them it was a game to spray these chemicals,” said Apolinar Granja, the leader of the municipality of Tumaco, on the Pacific Coast.

Daniel Mejía, Director for the Center for Security and Drug Studies at the Universidad de los Andes, assures Latinamerica Press that through a study conducted in 2013 by his organization, “we found that glyphosate herbicide is associated with increased incidence of skin disease, respiratory disease and non-induced abortions.
Using data from the Ministry of Health and data of daily glyphosate spraying in Colombia, we found that there is a significant causal relationship.”

Following the study’s publication, Mejía resigned as President of the Advisory Committee on Drug Policy, stating that the Foreign Ministry had dismissed his research on the harmful effects of using glyphosate.

The problem crossed borders in 2008. The government of Ecuador sued Colombia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague for the effects of glyphosate spraying conducted at 6 miles from a border area.

“Ecuador has substantial evidence that the Colombian spraying crossed the border and seriously affected the health and economy of many Ecuadorian citizens,” said Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry. Finally, the Colombian government reached a settlement with Ecuador, in which it agreed to pay a compensation of nearly US$ 15 million if Ecuador dropped the lawsuit.
Right to a healthy environment
With the avalanche of complaints, in 2013 the State Council banned the spraying of illicit crops in national parks, stating that it threatened “the rights of thousands of inhabitants of sprayed areas to enjoy a healthy environment, [good] health and life.” A year later, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision, arguing that new research “confirmed that glyphosate, in high concentrations, can alter the structure of DNA in different types of human cells in in-vitro cultures.”

The decision of the National Commission on Narcotic Drugs caused controversy because, by suspending spraying, Colombia effectively renounces the weapon it for years considered the most important in fighting illicit drugs. According to figures from the Colombian government, coca cultivation decreased from 163,000 hectares in 2002 to 48,000 hectares in 2013.

For Mejía, in addition to the harmful health effects of glyphosate, there also is the ineffectiveness of the method. “On average, for each hectare of fumigated coca crop, cultivation is reduced by roughly 3.5 percent; that is, to remove one hectare we must spray about 30 hectares,” and “removing one hectare of glyphosate costs the country about $72,000.”

“Since the beginning of Plan Colombia, more than 2 million hectares [of coca] have been fumigated, and only about 100,000 hectares have been eliminated,” says Mejía.

Rafael Nieto, former Vice Minister of Justice, told Latinamerica Press about his disagreement with Plan Colombia because illicit crops production “increased precisely in geographic areas where there was no aerial spraying, which are: the 6 mile border range with Ecuador, the areas in the departments of Putumayo and Nariño, and in Catatumbo, where in 2011, after a strike, the government decided to negotiate with coca farmers and said that there would not be more spraying. And then between 2011 and 2013, drug crops in the Catatumbo increased by 120 percent.”

Meanwhile, the government is waiting lawsuits for millions by thousands of people affected by glyphosate. According to the Unified Management and Information System and the National Legal Defense Agency, between 1998 and 2005, claims totaling approximately $590 million were presented.
— Latinamerica Press.


Drug police destroy a coca maceration pit in Colombian jungle.(Photo courtesy of Policía Antinarcóticos)
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