Chemical Fumigation and Drug Enforcement

01 November 1999
A research and advocacy project as part of the "Drugs & Democracy" program of the Transnational Institute and Acción Andina

In November 1999 the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Acción Andina finished a study on the social and environmental impact of aerial chemical fumigation of illicit crops in Latin America, with the publication of the book Fumigación y Conflicto. Políticas antidrogas y deslegitimación del Estado en Colombia, written by Ricardo Vargas. The study concludes that the practice of aerial spraying sets in motion a destructive vicious circle of chemical pollution, livelihood destruction, migration into even more vulnerable areas, deforestation of the Amazon, displacement and expansion of the areas of illicit crop cultivation, which then are again fumigated, etc. In the course of this continuous cycle, alternative development projects are aborted, state legitimacy is eroded, human rights are violated, peasant support for the guerrilla increases, etc. This vicious circle urgently needs to be broken, for the sake of sanity, in defence of the peasants whose livelihoods are destroyed, to preserve the environment and to improve prospects for peace. See: The Vicious Circle

The fumigation project has gained momentum and importance due to the peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Colombia. Fumigation of coca and opium poppy fields with chemical herbicides is becoming a key obstacle in the current peace process, gaining steam since the change of government in August 1998. One of the pressing issues in the troubled peace talks, is how to reach an agreement on the massive coca cultivation in areas under FARC control. It may well come soon to a point where a clear decision has to be made between two incompatible scenarios: aerial fumigation in its context of an ongoing militarisation of anti-drug operations, or a peace process in a developmentaland 'harm reduction' drug policy context. The research and advocacy on fumigations is continued in the project Drugs and Peace in Colombia. New developments on the issue will still regularly be updated on this page.


The project started in 1998 when several Andean and Central-American peasant and human rights organisations alerted TNI and Acción Andina in the course of their program on Drugs & Democracy, about the growing use of chemical fumigation as a drug enforcement program in some Latin-American countries. Under the guise of the 'war on drugs' the aerial spraying of chemical substances seems to have become a widespread counter-narcotics effort. Advocated by the United States, Latin-American governments increasingly tend to consider chemical fumigation as an effective measure to fight the spread of illicit crops, despite the obvious negative social, environmental and health consequences. Based on the information TNI and Acción Andina received, it was feared that aerial chemical fumigation, by its indiscriminate nature, was causing considerable damage in the regions involved. Increasingly, the concept of chemical and also biological'weapons' to counter drug crop cultivation seems to be accepted internationally, among others by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP).

At that moment no independent research on the negative impact of fumigation was being conducted in Latin America. Consequently, an overall picture about what was going on at this level was lacking. TNI and Acción Andina intended to fill the void and substantiate complaints, reinforce protests with solid evidence and campaign for a ban on chemical fumigation as a drug enforcement method. Preparations for the project did start early 1998 with the collection of existing documentation and basic research. Ricardo Vargas Meza (Acción Andina Colombia) prepared a paper of the first results of his information gathering in Colombia, which was presented during the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs on June 8-10, 1998 in New York (Earth Times report, and at a conference in Washington on June 11, 1998 ("The War on Drugs: Addicted to failure") hosted by TNI, Acción Andina and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

In September 1998 an in-depth on the ground survey started in Colombia coordinated by Ricardo Vargas. In December members of the Latin American Drugs & Democracy team were contracted to undertake supporting research about the effects of fumigations in Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela. Within Colombia, fact finding missions have been undertaken into the Caquetá, Putumayo, and Guaviare departments. The most intensive field research has been conducted in the Medio y Bajo Caguán area of Caquetá, an area under FARC control with a strongly booming coca economy over the past decade and severely targeted by fumigation operations. Expert environmental impact assessment has been carried out by Rodrigo Velaides, an agronomist from CIFISAM (Centro de información, formación e investigación para el Servicio Amazonico), a research and development NGO based in San Vicente de Caguán, focusing on the Amazon basin. Rodrigo Velaides has a decade long experience of working in this difficult region. He also looked into the issue of environmental damage caused by the use of herbicides in coca cultivation and the use of chemicals in the processing of coca leaf into base paste, the first and only step in the cocaine production process that takes place on the farm level.

In January 1999 Martin Jelsma (TNI) and Winifred Tate (WOLA) accompanied Ricardo Vargas and Rodrigo Velaidez on a trip into the Bajo Caguán, one of the major coca-growing areas of Colombia. They saw the devastating effects of the fumigations and the destruction of voluntary alternative development programmes (crop substitution). A project substituting coca with rubber trees, run by the farmers with support of CIFISAM and the local priest, which took nine years to build, was fumigated into oblivion in 30 minutes by government planes. [See their reports: The Caguán: Laboratory of Peace and Drugs and Fumigation Proves Futile].

Extensive conversations with the government's Alternative Development Programme (formerly known as PLANTE) and other ministerial officials, with the local UNDCP office, the US embassy, and with the FARC, plus a good working relationship with the local UNDP branch, the Colombian Environment Department (Ministerio del Medio Ambiente), local peasant and settlers organizations, and various human rights and environmental NGOs, have resulted in an unprecedented detailed overview of fumigation practices, of drug policy opinions and of different peace process strategies. The results of the studies were published in Spanish in November 1999, in the book 'Fumigación y conflicto - Políticas antidrogas y deslegitimación del Estado en Colombia', written by Ricardo Vargas. The research has become a leading source in argumentation against fumigation in Colombia. When a summary of the book was presented to the press, the major newspapers in Colombia questioned the fumigation policy in their editorials. [See: Fumigación de cultivos, insuficiente (El Espectador, October 6, 1999) and Fumigación sin resultados (El Tiempo, October 8, 1999).]

On October 29, 1999, the programme convened a conference in Washington-DC, "Counter narcotics Policy and Prospects for Peace: Eradication and Alternative Development in Southern Colombia," organized jointly by WOLA and the George Washington University in Washington DC. Ricardo Vargas presented the fumigation research, and Rodrigo Velaidez the results of his case study in the Caguán on coca cultivation, eradication and the environment. Klaus Nyholm, representative for Colombia and Ecuador for the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) explained the background of the current UNDCP projects in Colombia. And Colombian Interior Minister Néstor Humberto Martínez presented the government's 'Plan Colombia', the large scale antidrugs and economic reconstruction strategy for which Colombia is seeking major support from the international community. The conference was attended by over a hundred people and received quite a lot of media attention, especially in the Colombian press. [See the press reports: La erradición en el banquillo (El Tiempo, October 30, 1999) and Reparos de ONG de U.E. a Plan Colombia (El Espectador, November 1, 1999).]

The elaboration of a document presenting an integral proposal around 'drugs & peace in Colombia' is in progress, in order to make concrete proposals for an alternative path to follow, alongside campaigning for a ban on fumigations. The core of the proposal will consist of five points that have been discussed over the past months with different actors involved in the issue of illicit cultivation and the peace process:

  • the suspension of forced eradication of illicit drug cultivation and the promotion of agreements with the communities involved setting specific conditions for manual eradication;
  • the decriminalisation of small producers of drug crops and the creation of a forum for discussions with legitimate organisations;
  • developmental alternatives with a gradual process of substitution of illicit crops;
  • full participation of the communities on the local and regional level combined with the development of a Programme for Territorial and Environmental Planning setting the criteria for substitution projects;
  • full respect and guarantees for human rights and international humanitarian law, specifically in the areas of illicit production upset by the 'war on drugs' and the articulation of the the ilegal economy and the armed conflict.

Early December, two conferences were held in Colombia on "Drug trafficking, illicit cultivation and the peace process", to present the fumigation book, and to have a broad debate about the ingredients for an integral alternative drugs policy that could enhance the peace process. The first one took place in Bogotá on the 2nd of December and gathered some 80 special invitees from various governmental agencies (Environmental Ministry, Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation, Defensoría del Pueblo, Programme for Alternative Development, etc.), NGOs and peasant and indigenous representatives from some several northern and central Colombian departments. The second one took place in Florencia, in the southern department of Caquetá, and was co-hosted by CIFISAM and the Socio-political Observatory of the Amazon University in Florencia. About two-thirds of the 70 participants, were peasant and settler representatives from various municipalities from the Amazon departments of Caquetá and Putumayo.

Meanwhile, increasingly the concept of biological ‘weapons' to counter drug crop cultivation seems to become accepted internationally, among others by the United States, the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the United Kingdom, who both have become strongly involved in developing mycoherbicides for anti-drug purposes. The fungi are presented as ‘environmentally safe alternatives' for the chemical herbicides. This development, and the actual start of two open field experiments, in Uzbekistan and Colombia, have forced TNI and Acción Andina to undertake additional research which is still in progress and to include the issue in the campaign. [See: Biological Warfare in the War on Drugs.]