Plan Colombia's Aerial Spraying. A Failure Foretold

1 December 2003


Plan Colombia's Aerial Spraying. A Failure Foretold


Among the various anti-drug operations launched as part of Plan Colombia was the massive aerial spraying of the chemical glyphosate on illicit crops in Colombia. This intensive programme has been the backbone of the bilateral anti-drug partnership. The increase in aerial spraying has reduced the area under cultivation in Colombia, an apparent local success that masks the significant failure of this strategy when examined in context.

Initially presented by the US and Colombian governments as an integrated strategy to bolster rule of law, economic development and peace-building in Colombia, Plan Colombia was soon seen for what it really was: an anti-drug and counterinsurgency plan that emphasised a military solution to the complex Colombian conflict, placing drugs at the centre of the agenda in Colombia and the Andean region as a whole. Launched by former US President Bill Clinton in 2000, the plan would become the core of the Bush administration's anti-drug policy in the Andean region. So far, the United States has allocated US$2.225 million for Plan Colombia, not counting US$574.6 million approved for fiscal year 2004. The region currently receives $700 million a year, much of which is earmarked for military assistance to the Colombian armed forces.

Even before it went into effect, Plan Colombia unleashed fierce controversy in the hemisphere and around the world, drawing fire from many corners, including academics, independent analysts, well-known political figures, non-governmental organisations, the governments of countries neighbouring Colombia and some European Union countries. The controversy has continued during the years the plan has been in effect, confirming what critics warned from the start: any plan that ignores Colombia's real socio-economic situation and emphasises repression to achieve its objectives is doomed to failure, even if it has a multimillion-dollar budget.

The entire world seems to have known this from the start. Even the CIA knew it. US researcher Jeremy Bigwood recently unearthed a previously classified Central Intelligence Agency document that evaluates the real impact of Plan Colombia. Surprisingly, the document reveals CIA scepticism about Plan Colombia's effectiveness. The document was prepared in 2000, before the first phase of the plan went into effect.

The Council on Foreign Relations policy toward Latin America entitled, a major centre of studies in Washington, has published recently "Andes 2020" [PDF document], in which it proclaims the failure of Plan Colombia - which should officially end in late 2005 - and states that US policy is placing excessive emphasis on military components and ignoring socio-economic aspects.

Aerial Spraying Programmes

Plan Colombia included the launch of two major operations, one a counterinsurgency operation and the other an anti-drug operation. The first consisted of selective military operations based on the use of real-time intelligence, state-of-the-art technology and elite battalions trained by the States. The second included various anti-drug operations, of which the most important has been the intensive use of the herbicide Roundup Ultra for massive aerial spraying of illicit crops in Colombia. The intensive programme to eradicate crops with aerial spraying is the backbone of the bilateral anti-drug partnership.

The forced eradication of illicit crops with aerial spraying is not new in Colombia, where chemical herbicides have been used for that purpose for more than 25 years. During that time, the tactic has been proven a failure, not only because it failed to reduce supply, but also because of its negative impact on state legitimacy, the social order and the armed conflict, as well as the environmental damage caused by spraying. The fact that an increasing crop area is being eradicated - much more was sprayed in 2003 than in 2002 - should be interpreted not as a sign of the policy's success, but as a sign of its failure, because it indicates that more and more land is being planted in these crops.

A look at the most recent US government figures (based on CIA data) for hectares of coca crops and hectares sprayed shows that at the end of 2002, there were 144,450 hectares under cultivation in Colombia. In 2003, 139,000 hectares were sprayed. Nevertheless, by the end of 2003, there were still 113,850 hectares. This means that despite the great financial investment and the enormous cost of spraying in 2003, only about 30,000 hectares were eradicated. This result has met with an enthusiastic response from US and Colombian government officials, who have taken advantage of the opportunity to reiterate their confidence in the effectiveness of the aerial spraying.

But the "success" of 30,000 hectares eradicated is substantially shakier than officials make it seem, not only because of the financial investment it represents (hundreds of millions of dollars) and its serious consequences (thousands of peasant farmers marginalised and criminalised in the Amazon basin alone), but because it has again made it clear that aerial spraying does not discourage replanting. In addition, as experience at other times and in other regions of the world has shown, when dealing with illicit crops, short-term decreases mask long-term trends. While Colombia showed an overall decrease in the area under cultivation, this is not the case when different regions are viewed separately. While in Putumayo, the area under cultivation was reduced, in other areas, such as the region of Catatumbo and the departments of Guaviare and Nariño, new crops were detected. Bolivia also recorded an increase in 2003.

This means that the old theory of the "balloon effect" still holds true. It is interesting to note that both the CIA report and the CFR document mentioned above blame Plan Colombia's failure on the balloon effect, which for decades has been the argument most often cited by critics of US drug policy. The failure of Plan Colombia has not been only in terms of global production. In a recent interview, Mr. William Wood, US ambassador to Colombia, was forced to admit that the aerial spraying of illicit crops had had no impact on the cocaine market. Despite a $2 billion investment in anti-drug policies in the Andean region in the past four years, cocaine continues to flow as usual through the streets of US cities.

But the predictable failure of Plan Colombia is due not only to regional factors, such as the displacement of crops to other areas or the complexities of the multimillion-dollar drug market, but also to the myopic and incoherent approach of the anti-drug policy being implemented. The plan's combination of "aerial spraying-alternative development" simply does not work, because aerial spraying and alternative development are not, as the United States claims, two sides of the same coin, but are two incompatible, mutually exclusive strategies. The massive effects of aerial spraying also destroy licit crops and, in many cases, crops that are part of alternative development projects. And while aerial spraying progresses rapidly - in one day, a peasant farmer can see his main means of subsistence destroyed - crop substitution programmes may not begin to bear fruit for years. To be effective, therefore, the eradication of illicit crops should be done voluntarily and gradually, keeping pace with the rate at which alternative crops create a new economic structure that effectively replaces the coca economy.

Consequences for health and the environment

One notable aspect in discussion of the aerial spraying of illicit crops in Colombia is the size of the areas sprayed. Forty thousand hectares are said to have been sprayed in a single department, Putumayo. Nationwide in 2003, chemicals were sprayed on 139,000 hectares. It is not easy to picture such a broad area covered by grey clouds of glyphosate sprayed from airplanes, or the desolate image of destruction left behind. One need not be a harsh critic of aerial spraying to admit that spraying such an extensive area with this chemical must have some impact. Those are the effects that the residents, fauna and flora of the extensive affected regions of Colombia have been suffering for years.

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the spraying is its effect on human health and the environment. Aerial spraying results in contamination that affects humans, animals and plants and destroys the livelihood of peasant farmers and indigenous communities, forcing them to migrate into the rainforest. This displacement accelerates the rate of deforestation, as people plant new plots of illicit coca or opium poppy crops to replace those that have been sprayed. In time, the new plots are also sprayed and the cycle begins again, resulting in a vicious circle of destruction.

Studies by the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman's Office in 2001 [PDF document] and 2002 [PDF document] and indicate that aerial spraying has affected legal crops in the areas where it has occurred, and that health problems have been caused by inhalation of the herbicide or contact with human skin. The potentially harmful nature of aerial spraying has also been recognised by various scientific studies carried out in the United States, Colombia and Ecuador, and has led to several court cases, such as the one in June 2003 in the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca, which ordered that aerial spraying be suspended until more in-depth studies of the effects could be done. (1)

A new phase

In June 2003, the Colombian government launched a new phase of Plan Colombia, which is now known as "Plan Patriot." The objective is a more intensive fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, with emphasis on counterinsurgency activities. This new phase has included action by commando-type special forces trained and equipped to penetrate deeply into insurgent-held territory for long periods of time. The strategy was designed by officials of the Alvaro Uribe administration, top Colombian military leaders, the heads of the Southern Command and high-level US government representatives. In the last few months of 2003, top members of the Bush administration paid several visits to Colombia. They included Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House representative Richard Myers, and Drug Czar John Walters. So far in 2004, James T. Hill, head of the Southern Command, has made several visits to Ecuador. The Bush administration has asked Congress to raise the ceiling on the number of military personnel and contractors allowed in Colombia.

A "new phase" is also apparent in the aerial spraying strategy, with an expansion of the targeted area. In June 2003, the National Narcotics Council approved a resolution allowing spraying in parks and natural reserves in Colombia. That resolution needed the approval of the US Congress, which gave the green light in December 2003, when the Senate - after a great deal of controversy - finally authorised spraying in parks and natural reserves. Although the Colombian Ministry of the Environment was recently forced to temporarily suspend the permission to spray in parks because of growing pressure in Colombia, anti-drug authorities now face no limits on aerial spraying.

Plan Colombia should officially end at the end of 2005, meaning that from then on, all responsibility for the aerial spraying programme will be in the hands of Colombian officials. This worries the Colombian government because of the cost of these programmes, which it is not in a position to fund. For this reason, Colombia has taken the initial steps toward an extension of the programmes, probably until 2009. According to the GAO (the investigative arm of the US Congress), if the United States does not want to see a resurgence of coca crops and wants Colombia to continue to maintain the spraying equipment (personnel, planes and combat helicopters), an investment of about $230 million a year would be required.


Memo from four non-governmental organizations. Compliance with Fumigation Conditions in the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, 10 April 2002

Letter from World Wildlife Fund regarding herbicide spraying in Colombia, 21 November 2001

1. Tribunal ordena suspender fumigación aérea con Glifosato por Felipe Gómez Maldonado Thursday, 26 Junio 2003

Acción Popular promovida por los señores Claudia Sampedro Torres y Héctor Alfredo Suárez Mejía contra el Ministerio del Medio Ambiente y Otros, 13 Junio de 2003, Bogota, DC. [PDF document]