Aerial fumigation causing more harm than good in Latin America

In Environment, Global Issues, Human Rights on January 13, 2011 at 2:26 am

While listening to Philip Borges’ talk on last night, one of the things he said really stuck with me. He talked about one of the tribes he photographed, who had been forced to move three times in 10 years because of aerial fumigation in their area. This forced me to think why we were resorting to such primitive measures in Latin America, of course with ridiculous mental images of Agent Orange and other chemicals back in the Vietnam days. So I decided to find out more about this phenomenon.


Latin America, as it is well-known, is the hub for most of the world’s cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs. Colombia alone is the source of over 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. Countries like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the main allies of the US, implementing its drug policies to stop the influx of these drugs into US soil. The numbers are shocking: over 750 tonnes of cocaine are shipped annually from the Andes worldwide in this multi-million dollar industry, and these amounts of production are consistently increasing.

The US has been the #1 partner in Plan Colombia, a decade-long plan to rid the country of drug operations.

The US government, in its war on drugs, has taken it upon itself to target these drugs at the source. Plan Colombia, which is generally regarded as a continuation of President Nixon’s War on Drugs program, began in 2000 under the Clinton administration, when he allocated $1.3 billion to reduce drug trafficking in the region. In 2001, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative was formed, and that program allocated about $4.5 billion to the effort. Even today, we plan on allocating $315,000 to the ACP and $203 million to Colombia to battle narcotics trafficking. Since 2000, we’ve spent about $7.3 billion in this program, and US aid to Latin America has been on the rise ever since this Plan was implemented.



1960s: nightmare relived?

So how can you tackle coca crops in large areas of land with minimal effort? The US’s answer to this is spraying them with toxins. Yep, simple Vietnam-style spraying down of the land and everything in it. The number of hectares fumigated in Colombia climbed from 60,700 in 1999 to 172,000 in 2006, and current projections call for 80,000 hectares to be sprayed (largely in Putumayo), which means about 65 percent of the area currently under cultivation. This large-scale fumigation is done from US planes, and covers a LOT of area: not only areas supposedly covered by coca plants, but also licit crops such as cacao, rubber, oil palm and castor oil trees, sugarcane and cassava. Farmers are often forced to abandon their lands after the constant spraying, reducing food security for many indigenous tribes.



Don't be fooled by all the green: glyphosate IS toxic.

The chemicals used in these fumigants are nothing short of toxic. The formula used in aerial fumigation includes glyphosate, which is also marketed by Monsanto under the commercial name Roundup, and other defoliants. One of the chemicals used to fumigate in Colombia is Fusarium EN-4, a descendent of a defoliant used by the US in Vietnam that, even after 30 years, is still leaving babies severely deformed and handicapped.


Here are some excerpts for glyphosate fact sheets:

There may also be cause for concern where glyphosate is used extensively in programmes to eradicate drug producing plants such as coca, opium poppies and marijuana. Glyphosate is sprayed indiscriminately over vast areas and will inevitably kill non-target vegetation some of which may be endangered.

Its broad spectrum of herbicidal activity has led to the destruction of habitats and food sources for some birds and amphibians leading to population reductions

Fish and aquatic invertebrates are more sensitive to gyphosate and its formulations… Some soil invertebrates including springtails, mites and isopods are also adversely affected by glyphosate. Of the nine herbicides tested for their toxicity to soil microorganisms, glyphosate was found to be the second most toxic to a range of bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and yeasts.

The formulation of glyphosate with the surfactant polyoxyethylene amine (POEA), which is widely used, is significantly more toxic.

Since glyphosate is being marketed as a safe and environmentally friendly product and its use is so extensive, there is a danger that damage to non-target plants including endangered species will increase. Habitat damage and destruction will occur more frequently and more instances of weed resistance will appear.

Plants exposed to glyphosate display stunted growth, loss of green coloration, leaf wrinkling or malformation, and tissue death. Death of the plant may take from 4 to 20 days to occur.


Toxic aerial fumigtation.

Glyphosate manufactured by US companies is also combined with surfactants created by Colombian companies likeCosmoagro, which isn’t subject to the same safety standards as US. The synergistic effects of these chemicals have shown results that this concoction of chemicals affects embryonic development, which is a VERY serious problem, especially when farmers are trying to grow plants. Not to mention, nearly 100,000 gallons of Glyphosate has been sprayed over Putumayo alone, from heights of over 100 ft (recommended height is 10 ft). To reiterate Anne Leonard, “toxins in, toxins out”.


The US government’s argument would be somewhat valid if the program was successful, yet, there is no evidence that it is! Coca operations have only pushed further inward, damaging forests even more with cocaine production. Cocaine output has increased, in fact, in the past decade that the program has been implemented. The US has sprayed over 2 million acres of legal and illegal plants, yet the cocaine trade is robust. The program has been very unsuccessful in the past decade, yet, there are no talks of discontinuing it in the future.


Such deforestation is not only bad for the environment, it ruins peoples' livelihoods.

The damage caused by this aerial fumigation is not only environmental, it is also social. Farmers often lose their entire crops due to these fumigation measures. Especially since the chemicals are administered by air, no one can really control where these chemicals spread to. For example, many farmers in lower Putomayo have complained that fumigation affects fields in upper Putomayo: tomato, beans, bananas and medicinal crops have all been decimated. Since most farms in Colombia are not owned by corporations, most farmers are subsistence farmers: they grow enough for themselves and a little extra to sell for money. Aerial fumigation steals their ability to provide for themselves, and can ravage communities entirely. Especially for a people as dependent on crops for their food as rural Colombians, this is as good as stealing their livelihoods. This problem is in addition to the problems that Afro-Colombian indigenous people in the region already face: racism, disadvantaged access to state programs, food insecurity due to the internal armed conflict, internal displacement and vulnerability to human rights violations by gangs. Fumigation and the herbicides sprayed affects not only Colombia, but also neighboring countries like Ecuador, whose crops are feeling the burn too, as well as Venezuela, the new-found refuge for cocaine lords.


While this is a complex problem, it is one that we have brought upon ourselves as a country AND as a people. In our everyday busy lives, we barely find time to think about someone in Ecuador losing their land, or a tribe being wiped off because they have no place to live. But these problems are not beyond our ability: we created them, we can find solutions. Here’s what I would like to see happen.

  • Instead of attacking the bad, promote the good: The ONDCP has its approach all wrong, in my opinion. Yeah, it’s great to partner up with countries to eradicate drug cartels, but as long as people have an incentive to make and sell cocaine, they’ll find a way to do it. Attacking drug cartels and crime lords isn’t the answer: if one goes, there’s always a replacement. Instead of continuing on this endless chase, we would be much better off by creating agricultural agreements that promote the non-narcotic crops produced in Colombia: coffee, bananas, etc. By making sure we aren’t flooding the market with gluts of subsidized bananas and wheat, we can actually make sure trade with Colombian farmers is fair, and that they get paid equally on the global standard. Campesinos don’t resort to coca because they want to grow the crop, it’s because that’s the only crop that pays them good money. Reports recently out of Peru indicate that farmers in certain areas of the country receive $2.74 per kg for coca, but only $1.05 for coffee, $0.11 for cassava and $0.77 for cacao. So if we were all to trade more fairly on the global scale and give all farmers the money they deserve, we won’t have to spend billions of dollars trying to eradicate drug rings.

  • Cut demand: We’re overseas implementing billion-dollar programs, but the demand for drugs at home hasn’t decreased one bit. And according to the law of supply and demand, if people demand something, it makes the product valuable, and people will go to any lengths to establish a market for it, especially substances as addictive as cocaine and heroin. Let’s try to implement programs at home that creates drug-free atmospheres, and reduces the demand for these fatal drugs– that’s the first step to cutting off this trade.
  • Use international agreements for good: As I said above, trade policies could be much fairer than they are now. Let’s use our trade agreements to secure this. We have a whole group of trade agreements that aren’t being honored anymore. With enough support, we can try our best to make the Colombian campesino‘s life a little better. It’ll do the US a lot of good too: more money to invest in internal betterment projects.
  • Publicize information and assist research: many chemicals currently being used have been tested under secret conditions on unknown subjects (rarely humans, since that’s illegal), and almost never for synergistic effects. What we need is research in these fields, so we can cut down on the number of toxins we’re throwing into Colombia’s (and many other countries’) environment and reduce our damage on their land.
  • Get rid of these chemicals! Now that you know that they aren’t useful, successful OR necessary, inform others about their dangers. This part is tricky, because companies like Monsanto rely on direct pressure on the government to promote usage of their products in such large-scale campaigns. But with enough public support, representatives, who are supposed to represent our opinions, must listen. Also, refrain from buying Monsanto products (they have a whole array of those for you to avoid) in your homes or gardens.  With all the money that goes to them, they’re only developing more and more toxic chemicals!
  • Sign a petition  to stop the aerial fumigation of Colombian farms!

  • Create opportunities for good: Instead of military programs, let’s make a switch to implement social and economic improvement programs in Colombia and other narco-countries instead. This will help our image as aggressors/busy-bodies, and will also result in overall good for the country. At the end of the day, this is what Colombia is in desperate need of–not military funding or strategic training to eliminate coca plants. Most of the farmers just want to go back to being paid fairly for growing sustenance crops and leading normal lives without their environment collapsing. I’m sure we can guarantee them that.

It is in all of our best interest to understand and appreciate the fragile nature of the ecosystem in these areas, especially Latin America, and not cause any further damage by our own actions. A drug-free future doesn’t mean a forest-free one. Let’s try to preserve what’s left of the forests and refocus our efforts on what really needs to be accomplished here.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

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