Colombia, more than three decades of toxic sprayings. Enough!

26 September 2014
Article

It is unfortunate that 35 years after the first chemical spraying in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we are still writing about aerial sprayings in Colombia, demanding the current government to definitely defer an ecocide and incompetent policy.

It is unfortunate that 35 years after the first chemical spraying in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we are still writing about aerial sprayings in Colombia, demanding the current government – how many governments have not happened since! – to definitely defer an ecocide and incompetent policy.

Throughout these years we have seen increasing national and international voices opposing the spraying of coca with the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

To the protests of the affected rural communities, soon began to join environmental and human rights NGOs, political groups, a neighboring country (Ecuador) affected by the spraying at the border, researchers associated with respectable academic institutions, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and more recently even the United Nations.

Indeed, the Office of the UN High Commissioner sent on March 31, 2014 a letter to the Colombian Government requesting information "concerning the harmful effects of the resumption of watering airborne chemicals (spraying) of illicit crops in Colombia." The letter was signed by Anand Grover, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standardof physical and mental health, and Jorge Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

In this letter, after a description of the concerns of rural and indigenous communities by "water pollution, poisoning of livestock, and loss of food crops due to the explosion to aerial spraying" the Special Rapporteurs called on the Government to inform on the following points:

1. Are the presented allegations factually correct?

2. Has any complaint by or in the name of any victim has been presented?

3. Please, provide details on the measures taken by the Government to assure the protection of the human rights to physical and mental health, water and food of affected farmers and indigenous peoples.

Has the Colombian government responded to the questions posed by the UN Special Rapporteurs? What has the Government responded to the allegations that fumigations cause significant adverse impacts on health and food security of farmers and indigenous peoples?

After three decades of toxic fumigation a large number of claims and convictions to the State have been accumulated, as well as extensive scientific and technical literature demonstrating the harmful effects of systematic use of herbicides on forests and jungles. However, the perpetuation of the 'war on drugs' has ignored all evidence to the detriment of human health and the flora and fauna of the large regions subject to intense fumigation for many years now. Such literature (studies, surveys, fieldwork, newspaper reports) that anyone can access through the internet would provide the answers to the questions raised by the UN Special Rapporteurs.

Although the extent of chemical sprayings has been reduced in recent years – according to UNODC, Colombia counternarcotics police sprayed in 2013 a total of 47.053 hectares of coca, 53% less than the previous year – and, even after a long battle, at least now chemical spraying is prohibited in national parks, the strategy as such remains authorized, prolonging its negative impacts such as displacement of crops into new territories and the consequent deforestation and irreversible damage from the poisoning of the environment, among many others. It is also worth noting that while Colombia has greatly reduced the area of planted coca, it is difficult to relate this to the sprayings. The departments of Nariño and Putumayo, where the more Roundup sprayings have happened, are precisely the departments that still have also the highest number of hectares of coca plantations.

The great political controversy that has surrounded the spraying from the beginning has prevented to objectively assume the severity of the data documented in multiple works realized on the different impacts of glyphosate on health and the environment. It is time to change this attitude.

Now that a favorable movement for changing the drug policy is growing in Latin America, and that specifically in Colombia a peace agreement including a new approach towards illicit crops is being negotiated, President Santos has during his second term the opportunity to permanently terminate an unsuccessful and counterproductive strategy. During the years of Plan Colombia, the sprayings became an important element of the strategy against the FARC. Now that the guerrilla is talking to the Government in Havana, the spraying as a strategy of force has no relevance.

The 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council takes place in Geneva from 6 to 26 September 2014. One of the panel discussions to be held today, September 17, will consist on the rights of indigenous peoples, which will consider the claims of the effects of chemical sprayings. Within the Colombia State's obligation to protect the health of indigenous peoples living on its territory, this could be a good framework to put an end the program of chemical sprayings.