Ecuador: "Collateral Damage" From Aerial Spraying on the Northern Border

01 December 2003

Since the beginning of aerial spraying near the northern border with Colombia, residents of the neighbouring provinces of Ecuador have presented numerous complaints to authorities about harmful effects on human health, crops and the environment. Public opposition to the spraying has been reflected in recent years in various statements and actions by civil society organisations, NGOs and even government agencies. This section describes some of the most significant actions.

Developments in Ecuador

Reaction to aerial spraying

Developments in Ecuador

Since the beginning of aerial spraying in the area of the northern border with Colombia, residents of the neighbouring provinces of Ecuador have presented numerous complaints to authorities about harmful effects on human health, crops and the environment. As in the areas of Colombia where it as been implemented, the aerial spraying of chemicals has created a humanitarian conflict, and authorities have been uncertain about how to respond. Representatives of the US government in Ecuador have denied from the start that the aerial spraying being carried out in southern Colombia to eradicate coca crops affect Ecuador, claiming that the illnesses of which peasant farmers complain have been proliferating for some time among residents along the Ecuadorian border and are not due to the use of glyphosate.

Colombia and Ecuador share a land border of approximately 600 kilometres in the Amazon jungle, a region where, in addition to coca cultivation, guerrillas and paramilitaries have been engaged in a long internal conflict. When the first aerial spraying began as part of Plan Colombia, the Ecuadorian government asked for compensation for collateral damage caused by the spraying and other operations of Plan Colombia in Ecuador; there was even talk of a Plan Ecuador. Since then, the United States has disbursed about $60 million for Ecuador, mainly in military co-operation. (This amount does not include investment in the Forward Operating Location at the Manta air base, which serves as the base for anti-drug monitoring in the Andean region.)

This assistance, which is part of an aid programme for monitoring of conflict areas related to drug-trafficking, is not aimed at alleviating the "collateral damage" reflected in the humanitarian crises caused by the spraying. Rather, it responds to a regional security strategy that is designed is to gradually iincrease the Ecuadorian armed forces' involvement in military operations to contain guerrilla forces in Colombia.

Under the administration of President Alvaro Uribe, Colombian Army actions against the FARC have intensified as part of the so-called "democratic security" policy, translating into an increase in the number of army troops in the zone. The frequent visits by General James Hill, head of the Southern Command, and his meetings with officials of the Ecuadorian armed forces are related to the definition of the security and monitoring strategy on the northern border. Ecuador has gradually become involved in its northern neighbour's conflict, and now has thousands of soldiers on the border, which has led to tremendous tension among residents of the border area. This enormous military presence makes local authorities fear that the negative consequences of the implementation and continuation of Plan Colombia's military component will increase in the coming years.

The escalation of the Colombian conflict and its implications for the transnational drug problem have provided an opportunity for the United States to promoting its strategy of including within its perimeter of security such areas of influence as this border region. The fact that Washington has entered into strictly bilateral relationships to manage problems related to drugs and security with each country individually has made it difficult to reach a common understanding on ways of addressing the conflict and its effects, as well as other shared problems, such as the consequences of the chemical spraying.

Reaction to Aerial Spraying

Public opposition to aerial spraying on the northern border has been reflected in statements and actions in recent years by various organisations, NGOs and even government agencies. The various organisations that monitor the impact in Ecuador of spraying in the Colombian border departments of Putumayo and Nariño have constantly complained that the Colombian government is not complying with its commitment to leave a 10-kilometre-wide strip free of chemicals. These organisations have also witnessed the serious effects of the chemicals on human health, crops and animals.

The Health Office of Sucumbíos confirmed that in October 2002, there was an increase in cases of skin problems in that province, especially among children, although it did not establish that the problems were a direct consequence of the spraying. It is noteworthy, however, that the appearance of the illnesses coincides with the start-up of aerial spraying in areas near the San Miguel River, which is the border between the two countries. In August 2002, under the new administration of President Uribe, a new phase of aerial spraying began in Putumayo with a stronger chemical composition. And in early October 2002, Operation Onyx 4 began in Putumayo, with the goal of eradicating 14,000 hectares of coca.

According to press reports from that period (El Comercio, Quito, Oct. 8, 2002, El glifosato afecta a los cultivos en Sucumbíos), "... Only two kilometres from the San Miguel River, the natural border between Ecuador and Colombia, the countryside is deserted. The fields are empty of people, animals and life. ... Dozens of guarumos, trees typical of the area, have been left with just a few leaves. Others look like huge candlesticks, their branches completely bare. ... Banana plants are on the verge of collapsing, barely supported on their stalks. The impact of the aerial spraying is so great that even the grass has been destroyed. ..." There were also reports that the planes used for the aerial spraying not only failed to respect the 10-kilometre band, but that some planes had entered Ecuadorian air space.

Reports of destruction caused by the aerial spraying have continued. In late September 2002, the Committee for the Defence of the Border Zone, which consists of representatives of 15 border communities, was created to address the aerial spraying. That same month, the US State Department released its report on the impact of aerial eradication of coca. The report, which was presented to the US Congress on September 4, denied that the mixture being sprayed was harmful. The results of the report were immediately questioned by experts and scientists in the United States. According to scientists, the State Department report failed to prove that the coca eradication programmes were safe for health and the environment, and did not adequately evaluate the possible impact on humans and the environment.

In July 2003, there was a massive wave of protests by residents of communities in Nueva Loja near the San Miguel River. Spraying had begun shortly before in Putumayo, not far from the border. Various commissions from the villages and indigenous communities lodged complaints with human rights organisations, the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office and the Federation of Kichwa Indigenous Organisations of Sucumbíos, Ecuador (Federación de Organizaciones Indígenas Kichwas de Sucumbíos Ecuador, Fokise). The new round of aerial spraying in Colombia forced farmers to stop planting such crops as cassava, banana, rice and corn.

In the past two years, aerial spraying around Puerto Mestanza has caused most of the residents to leave the area. According to records of the Federation of Peasant Organisations of the Ecuadorian Border Area of Sucumbíos (Federación de Organizaciones Campesinas del Cordón Fronterizo Ecuatoriano de Sucumbíos, Forccofes), at least 60 percent of the peasant farmers on the border abandoned their farms in the past eight months. The exodus is another of the serious "collateral" problems associated with the military conflict in general in the border area, and with aerial spraying in particular.

On a visit to Ecuador in late August 2003, President Uribe surprised environmentalists, human rights activists and Ecuadorian officials when he stated that Colombia had never been asked to avoid spraying illicit crops near the border. Although President Uribe had been in office a year by then, and although one of the reasons for his visit to Ecuador was to examine the situation along the 600-kilometre border between the two countries, he seemed unaware of talks under way with the Ecuadorian government to sign an agreement on a chemical-free border. As a result, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE) declared Uribe "persona non grata." At the time, the Colombian government was launching a new phase of Plan Colombia, with stepped-up counterinsurgency measures, many of which would take place in the border region.

Uribe has said that the conflict is regional, not just Colombian. In ignoring the problem of food security, health, etc., of residents of the area, as well as the massive displacement of Colombians to Ecuador, the Colombian and US governments limit their concerned to security along the border, keeping guerrillas from crossing and stopping drug and arms trafficking.

Government proposal for a bilateral agreement

Prompted by various reports throughout 2002, the Ecuadorian government decided to take its own measures to address the constant complaints of people living near the border. In April 2002, Foreign Minister Nina Pacari announced that Ecuador would sign an agreement with Colombia aimed at avoiding the negative impact of aerial spraying on the Ecuadorian side of the border. The agreement would serve as a legal tool to require Colombia not to allow spraying within 10 kilometres of the border with Ecuador. At the time, there was a verbal agreement with Colombia, but it was not being honoured. Ecuador's position was that the 10-kilometre strip should extend along the entire border.

As part of the proposal for the agreement with Colombia, Ecuadorian authorities requested that an Inter-Institutional Commission on Aerial Spraying be formed to analyse the chemicals used in the spraying, identify possible harm to humans for crops from the chemicals and to control possible effects of the spraying. The commission was to consist of representatives of the Foreign Ministry, delegates of the ministries of Government, Defence, Agriculture and Environment, and representatives of the border prefectures and municipalities, with support from various NGOs and civil society groups. It was also announced that a group of experts would be established to evaluate damage in the jungle region of Putumayo caused by the aerial spraying.

Not until a year later, in April 2003, did the Colombian government accept Ecuador's request to sign an agreement regulating aerial spraying near the border. The agreement also sought to stimulate co-operation between the two countries' Ministries of the Environment. Indigenous and peasant communities of the Amazonian province of Sucumbíos asked for an evaluation of the consequences and impact of the spraying on their lands.

Bilateral Commission

In early October 2003, it was announced that spraying would be suspended in border areas pending approval from a bilateral scientific commission for monitoring the environment and health effects of chemical substances for the eradication of illicit crops. The commission began meeting in mid-October, when spraying in Putumayo was suspended. This was apparently not at Ecuador's request, but because the current round of spraying had been completed.

The members of the bilateral scientific commission, which was made up of Ecuadorian and Colombian experts, are to reach conclusions and make joint recommendations about possible harm from glyphosate in Ecuador. Through the technical and scientific team of its commission, Colombia is defending the use of glyphosate in aerial spraying along the border. The Ecuadorian technical team will work with the information and samples of chemicals that Colombian forces are using to eradicate coca along the border. Although the commission was set up in September 2003, by March 2004 it had presented no results and had not even established a protocol for investigation or a work plan for gathering scientific evidence.

Andean Parliament

In August 2001, the Andean Parliament unanimously called for the Colombian government to temporarily suspend the spraying of glyphosate on coca crops. The decision was to remain in effect pending adequate technical studies of the impact of the chemical being used. Resolutions by the Andean Parliament, which is made up of representatives of the legislatures of the five Andean countries, are not binding, but should be followed.

The Andean Parliament's resolution came in response to complaints from international organisations, environmental experts and indigenous and peasant communities along Ecuador's northern border, which were feeling the impact of aerial spraying in southern Colombia. The organisations asked for the spraying to be suspended because the mixture being used was harming human health and crops.

Various steps taken by civil society

The many grassroots organisations representing settlers, peasant farmers and indigenous people in the region have demanded that the Ecuadorian government take a clear stand on the problem: the suspension of aerial spraying and the creation of a 10-kilometre-wide buffer zone north of the San Miguel River in Colombia, as well as indemnification by the Colombian government for those affected, and a socio-economic development plan for the many communities that do not have electricity, potable water or health services.

In response to these requests, the Ecuadorian Congress' Human Rights Commission organised a fact-finding trip in late February 2003 to gather testimony and listen to the complaints of peasant farmers and local authorities. Nevertheless, the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry still has not presented a clear position to the Colombian government.

The case against DynCorp

On September 11, 2001, indigenous people and Ecuadorian environmentalists sued the US company DynCorp for apparent harm suffered by residents of the border area of Sucumbíos because of the aerial spraying being carried out by the company in Colombia. The trial began in January 2002. In Latin America, DynCorp is by far the largest private military firm contracted by the US State Department. Ninety percent of its revenues, which amounted to $1.8 billion last year, come from US government funds. During the trial, the State Department was forced to admit that the glyphosate was mixed with Cosmoflux, a substance whose health and environmental effects are unknown. The Ecuadorian plaintiffs claimed that the spraying had caused the deaths of children and had affected the health of many people, offering individual medical records as proof. DynCorp insists that the herbicide is harmless.

Permanent Assembly of Human Rights

In December 2000, the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos, APDH) of Ecuador filed a legal complaint against the Colombian and US governments before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The APDH claimed that with the implementation of Plan Colombia, the governments had violated the human rights of Ecuadorian citizens, including the right to peace. Among other things, the APDH cited the violation of Ecuadorian air space by helicopters and crop-dusting planes.


As part of its monitoring of Plan Colombia on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, in October 2003 the Advisory Group on Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), published a report on aerial spraying [PDF document], displacement and human rights, in which it concluded that aerial spraying was causing increased displacement of the population, expanding the area of the armed conflict, spreading coca plantations to new regions and violating the communities' right to food security. According to the report, "... The government's military anti-terrorist strategy, the militarisation of the border and the eradication of illicit crops have worsened the human rights situation, intensified the internal armed conflict and increased the regional humanitarian crisis affecting the civilian population, especially indigenous people and peasant farmers, who are victims of the strategies used by the armed groups to maintain their territorial, economic and political control. We see no peaceful solution to this situation. ... While the country is far form a negotiated political solution, the increase in military aid for the fight against terrorism has become a strong ally that increases the cost in human lives, as well as the social, economic, political and cultural costs."

The study includes a comparative analysis of the number of hectares under cultivation and sprayed, the effects of Plan Colombia, forced displacement and requests for asylum in Ecuador. The tables and graphs of data provide a clear picture of the eradication of illicit crops and its consequences for the civilian population as part of President Uribe's security policy.

According to Jorge Rojas, president of CODHES (Colombia), the recent offensive by the Colombian armed forces in southern Colombia (what the Colombian press has called "Plan Patriot") to recapture territory from insurgents will increase the flow of migrants to Ecuador.

Inter-Institutional Committee against Aerial Spraying (CIF)

In September 2002, the Inter-Institutional against Aerial Spraying (Comité Interinstitucional contra las Fumigaciones, CIF), a steering committee of various civil society organisations involved in monitoring the aerial spraying, was established. (1) The CIF has become an important non-governmental source of information and has carried out various activities, including fact-finding missions to investigate the effects of aerial spraying on health and the environment in the border area.

Because of the lack of response by state agencies to the many requests from peasant farmers and indigenous people in the border area, the CIF presented a complaint before the Court of Judicial Review (Tribunal de lo Contencioso-Administrativo). Shortly thereafter, in a ruling unprecedented in the Ecuadorian judicial system, the court found several government agencies (including the office of the president and the ministries of Foreign Relations, Agriculture, Environment and Health) guilty of serious offense for not taking the necessary steps to assist residents of the Ecuadorian border area neighbouring the Colombian department of Putumayo.

The Tribunal demanded that the state abide by Article 91 of the Constitution, which requires it to protect the population, even when there is doubt or a lack of scientific proof of environmental damage. It also ordered the state to provide immediate aid to residents of the border area who had reported environmental damage and health problems as a result of the aerial spraying, and that it respond to the residents' demands and take urgent steps to avoid consequences for their health.

The CIF also presented a request for an injunction to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The petition requests that the commission take a stand and require the Ecuadorian government to take specific steps to minimise the effects of aerial spraying with glyphosate. Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Patricio Zuquilandia said that if glyphosate is proven harmful, the Foreign Ministry will request that aerial spraying be suspended. The Ecuadorian government had earlier prohibited the use of chemicals, biochemicals or biological agents for the eradication of illicit crops in Ecuador.

Acción Ecológica

Research by Acción Ecológica and other CIF member organisations on the effects of aerial spraying has reached alarming conclusions.

In "Impacts in Ecuador of aerial spraying of illicit crops in Colombia, Amicus Curiae," the organisations summarise the conclusions of fact-finding missions, actions taken by the Ecuadorian government and civil society groups in response to the aerial spraying, and national and international rights and protocols being violated by the aerial spraying programme.

In early 2003, Acción Ecológica presented to the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office the results of a study of genetic damage in the affected population. The study, which compiled the results of investigations carried out since the spraying began in 2000, was done by Adolfo Maldonado, a tropical medicine specialist who is a member of Acción Ecológica.

According to the study, which shows genetic damage to humans from the chemical mixture used in the aerial spraying of illicit crops, "exposure to glyphosate represents a risk to pregnant women." The expert based his work on a 2001 study that found a higher rate of miscarriages between the 12th and 19th weeks of pregnancy in women who were exposed to glyphosate before becoming pregnant. The report, which includes photographs, blood sample data and possible genetic damage in the population, warns that many of the harmful effects of the aerial spraying will only be seen in future generations. "The researchers studied 47 women, 22 of them on the Ecuadorian and Colombian sides of the border, who were exposed to the mixture of glyphosate with POEA + Cosmoflux 411F used in the aerial spraying as part of Plan Colombia. ... The tests showed symptoms of poisoning and damage in one-third of the blood cells." Women living 80 kilometres from the area of the spraying were also examined; they showed no such symptoms.

According to the director of the laboratory at the Catholic University, the results of the study also show that in the majority of people exposed, the genetic damage could repair itself, and the genes could return to normal within six months to a year if the person is not exposed to the chemicals again. If the genetic damage is not repaired, the consequences could include miscarriages, infertility, birth defects or children susceptible to developing chronic diseases or cancer.

The experts and environmentalists involved in the study hope that the population does not continue to be exposed to aerial spraying, which could increase the risk of cell damage and the incidence of cancer, mutations and serious birth defects.

In the wake of the study, Acción Ecológica recommended that the scientific commission established by the two countries do testing in Colombian communities where aerial spraying has been under way for several years. Acción Ecológica has also spoken out publicly against the Ecuadorian government's ambiguous position and the fact that the issue has become political, which could affect the commission's impartiality.

Human Rights Ombudsman's Office

The Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) has decided to declare the Colombian state responsible for damage in Ecuador caused by the aerial spraying in Putumayo, requesting the suspension of aerial spraying of crops near the border. The resolution was submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to make them aware of the situation, so they can take the necessary steps to avoid the continuation of these violations and support the measures being taken to protest the spraying before international bodies. The Human Rights Ombudsman's Office also backed the study carried out by Acción Ecológica at the request of the affected population in the Amazon region.

UN technical mission

Ecuador's indigenous and grassroots movements took advantage of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit to the country in early November 2003 to repeat the request that Colombia suspend aerial spraying with glyphosate in the border area. Shortly after his visit, the Ecuadorian government announced that the United Nations would participate in a technical mission to evaluate the situation on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, including health, education, poverty, employment, the environment and illicit crops. Officials said the mission would include the World Health Organisation (WHO), Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Food Programme (WPF) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and would visit the provinces of Carchi, Esmeraldas, Sucumbíos and Imbabura in northern Ecuador.


1. The member organisations of the CIF are: Acción Ecológica, Acción Creativa, Human Rights Clinic of the Catholic University, Comité Andino de Servicios (CAS), Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos (CEDHU), Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos (INREDH), Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES), Plan País, Red Contra el Uso de Plaguicidas en América Latina (RAPAL-Ecuador), Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ-Ecuador), Team of the Pacayacu Health Centre (Sucumbíos), General Farfán Health Centre, Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), and the Federación de Organizaciones Campesinas del Cordón Fronterizo Ecuatoriano de Sucumbíos (FORCCOFES