Death Falls from the Sky in Colombia

On December 19, 2000, the Colombian army’s two U.S.-trained anti-narcotics battalions arrived in Putumayo, Colombia’s principal coca growing region. For the next six weeks U.S.-supplied Huey helicopters swooped down almost daily to unload soldiers to prevent attacks against the fumigation planes by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. In early February, with 62,000 acres of coca destroyed, the politicians and generals in Washington and Bogotá were calling Plan Colombia’s initial fumigation campaign a success. But on the ground in Putumayo it was clear that more than coca had been eradicated.

Many campesinos watched in horror as the deadly mist left behind by the planes drifted down and stuck to everything in sight. They saw their food crops turn brown, begin to wilt and slowly die. They watched their children and animals become sick. To the campesinos it seemed like death was everywhere. If death didn’t come at the hands of the guerrillas, the paramilitaries or the Colombian army, it fell out of the sky.

Serious questions have been raised about the tactics used during the fumigation campaign. An estimated 85,000 gallons of the herbicide glyphosate was dumped onto Putumayo’s coca fields by planes that routinely spray at an altitude of 100 feet. However, the Monsanto Corporation, the manufacturer of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ultra, the type of glyphosate being used in Colombia, cautions against aerial application at altitudes greater than ten feet above the top of the targeted crops. According to Monsanto, higher altitudes increase the risk of drift and “even very small amounts of Round-Up herbicide brands may damage crops if allowed to drift into fields adjoining the target area.” Furthermore, questions have been raised about the dosages of herbicide used in the fumigation campaign.

According to Ricardo Vargas, a researcher for Acción Andina, an organization studying drug policy in the Andes, “The dosage of glyphosate being used in the forced eradication of illicit crops is five litres per acre, which drastically exceeds the normal recommended dosage of one litre per acre.”

Another reason the herbicide is so destructive, according to Ivan Rios, a 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.” The “special ingredient” referred to by Rios is called Cosmo-Flux, which according to Vargas, “makes the glyphosate heavier and stickier, making it adhere better to the coca plants.”

Evidently, it also increases the destructiveness of glyphosate by making it more potent. Doctor Elsa Nivia, Colombia’s Regional Director of the Pesticide Action Network, claims that “Cosmo-Flux substantially increases the biological activity of the agro-chemicals, allowing better results with smaller doses.” But in the fumigation campaign in southern Colombia, Cosmo-Flux is not being added to smaller dosages of glyphosate, it is being added to a dosage that is five times greater than that recommended.

According to many campesinos in Putumayo, the herbicide not only contaminated coca, but also maize, yucca, plantains, and even animals and 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, said, “Everything was killed. Maize, yucca, everything.” She now sells home-cooked food to travelers crossing the border in a desperate struggle to support her family.

Even the commander of Putumayo’s paramilitary forces, Commandante Enrique, who claims to support Plan Colombia, admits that, “If you go to San Miguel you can find campesinos who don’t have food and money because the fumigation was indiscriminate and killed licit and illicit crops.”

The local hospital in La Hormiga, a town of 35,000 in the heart of the Guamuez Valley, has witnessed some of the human health consequences of the fumigation campaign. Doctor Edgar Perea says, “I have treated people with skin rashes, stomach aches and diarrhea caused by the fumigation. 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.”

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 the U.S. Congress last year. The U.S. aid is part of Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s $7.5 billion Plan Colombia, which Washington and Bogotá claim will combat drug trafficking through coca eradication, end the civil conflict and boost the country’s lagging economy. But critics claim that providing arms, training, intelligence and logistical support to Colombian army units fighting leftist guerrillas in southern Colombia’s coca growing regions directly involves the United States in the counterinsurgency war.

The European Union, Colombia’s South American neighbors and many non-governmental organizations have criticized the military emphasis of the U.S. aid package. While 80 percent of the aid is earmarked for the Colombian Armed Forces, only eight percent, or $68.5 million, is going to alternative crop development programs.

It is this neglect of the social and economic problems faced by the 68 percent of rural Colombians who live in poverty that concerns the plan’s critics. In February, the European Parliament voted 474-1 against Plan Colombia because they believed greater emphasis should be placed on solving the political, social and economic problems that have fueled the drug trade and the 35-year-old armed conflict that has killed 35,000 Colombians in the past decade.

Prior to the launching of the Plan Colombia offensive in Putumayo, the Colombian government offered $1,000 and technical assistance to any campesinos 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 had repeatedly failed to deliver on past promises, steadfastly refused. As one La Hormiga resident explained, “Historically, the government has never helped anyone here. People helped themselves and with coca the economy became good. Now the government wants to help, but people are afraid it will ruin the economy.”

When the eradication campaign began in December, 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 Colonel Blas Ortiz of the Colombian army’s Putumayo-based 24th Brigade, the fumigation only targeted “industrial sized” coca farms of 25 acres or more. Furthermore, the Colonel claimed that, “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.”

But Doctor Ruben Dario Pinzón of the National Plan for Alternative Development (PLANTE), the government agency in charge of the alternative crop program, sympathized with the campesinos, “Growers financed by PLANTE have been fumigated because they are in a small area in the middle of coca growers. 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 aerial fumigation has led many to call for a greater emphasis on manual eradication, which would avoid damaging food crops. Doctor Dario Pinzón claims, “PLANTE is fighting to end fumigation in the six municipalities in which we are working 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 roads and infrastructure required for transporting perishable legal 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 distant markets, Doctor Dario Pinzón lamented, “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.” Many local and international 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. Still, the local farmer is not getting rich from this illicit crop, although the $1,000 a year he can earn from two or three acres of coca helps prevent his family from going hungry.

Meanwhile, the fumigation campaign in the Guamuez Valley has been temporarily suspended while the helicopters and troops are used for operations in neighboring Caquetá. Local officials are now desperately trying to convince Washington and Bogotá 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.

This article was previously published by In These Times

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