Fumigations: The debate

01 December 2003

The debate

A look at the most significant aspects of the debate over the implementation of Plan Colombia's aerial spraying programmes. Opposition from grassroots movements, non-governmental organisations and civil society, as well as legal action and scientific studies carried out to determine whether glyphosate is harmful to residents of the affected areas.

Developments in the debate

Aerial spraying in October/November 2000 over the Aponte indigenous reserve - an area of nearly 8,000 hectares in the department of Nariño, in south-western Colombia - had widespread international repercussions because of accusations that the chemical being sprayed was affecting the health of the local population. According to reports, 80 percent of the children in the area became ill (Marjon van Royen, NRC Handelsblad, 28 December 2000 with ulcers, skin rashes, fever, diarrhoea and conjunctivitis. Adults were also affected, as were farm animals. In addition, because spraying is indiscriminate, the glyphosate that rained down on Aponte destroyed not only illicit crops in the area, but also the staple food crops of local farmers and many plots of land where crop substitution was being done under the Colombian government's Plante programme. Reforestation programmes that were under way were also harmed. This once again underscored the enormous contradiction between aerial spraying and alternative development. It was the first time that widespread international complaints about the possible effects of glyphosate included images as evidence of the health effects of aerial spraying.

The high concentration of glyphosate, the impact of aerial spraying on the environment and human health, and the strategy's ineffectiveness in truly eradicating coca despite temporary reductions in certain areas are the principle arguments of environmentalists, experts and local authorities opposed to the spraying. Since aerial spraying began, these has been constant controversy, which has become accentuated with the intensification of the programmes and after President Uribe took office in 2002. The Colombian government has been unyielding in the use of glyphosate and has even increased the concentration of the herbicide, which considerably exceeds the standard dosage recommended for commercial use of the product. The concentration currently in use in Colombia was approved by the Ministry of the Environment, based on a U.S. State Department report stating that it was harmless.

Based on the Aponte case, one reason suggested for the unusual problems affecting the population after the spraying was that a new chemical product was being used in Colombia, and that its formula was not yet public knowledge. Shortly afterward, in a January 2001 report to Congress, the U.S. State Department would confirm suspicions that a new product was being used in the Colombian aerial spraying programme. Roundup Ultra, manufactured by the transnational Mosanto, in which the active ingredient is glyphosate, is a modified form of Roundup [click on formula below] that increases the plant's absorption of the herbicide. In a fact sheet issued on January 17, 2001, the U.S. government denied any relationship between the new formula and the symptoms reported by local residents, and claimed that the herbicide had been certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a formula with low toxicity that caused no appreciable harm to human beings or animals.

Since then, Colombian and U.S. officials have repeatedly denied reports from people in the areas where spraying has occurred. These complaints, however, have led to various legal measures aimed at forcing the suspension of the aerial spraying programme [click on the list of legal actions], as well as several case studies and scientific investigations to determine whether there is a connection between the problems reported and the use of glyphosate [click on the list of scientific studies of the effects of glyphosate].

The debate in the United States

In response to the State Department fact sheet, in February 2001 The Transnational Institute, Acción Andina and Rapalmira published a Counter Factsheet, which refutes the State Department's arguments point by point and discloses the high concentration of herbicide being used, in violation of established safety norms, and its association with much more toxic substances about which there is no reliable information. The document emphasises that the aerial eradication strategy completely ignores the harm being done to the environment and the livelihood of peasant farmers.

Because of the national and international pressure at that time, and with funding from the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, the Uribe Cualla Toxicology Clinic in Colombia carried out two case studies, the Nariño Report [PDF document] in September 2001 and the Putumayo Report [PDF document] in December 2001. These reports concluded that there was no possibility of glyphosate poisoning or that the health problems reported by local people were related to the spraying, and said they merely reflected endemic conditions related to the poverty of the residents of those areas.

The reports by the Uribe Cualla Clinic, as well as another study (previously underwritten by Monsanto in 2000), Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and Its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans [PDF document], by Williams, G.M.; Kroes, R.; Munro, I.C.; Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 31, 117-152 (2000) were discounted by various international organisations, such as the environmental law organisation Earth Justice, the umbrella group of Amazonian indigenous organisations Amazon Alliance, and the Latin America Working Group, as well as by the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies, which said they did not present credible scientific evidence to demonstrate that spraying was harmless to human health. The study in Nariño referred to only one poppy eradication programme; the Putumayo study was done long after the spraying had occurred; and the publication by the three scientists is only an evaluation of health risks under conditions far different from those in Colombia, and does not take into account the higher concentration of glyphosate being applied there.

These and other criticisms were echoed in certain spheres of the U.S. government. Concerned about the impact of glyphosate on human health and the environment, several Democratic members of Congress announced that they would launch efforts to stop the aerial spraying. Noteworthy efforts included those of Reps. John Conyers and Cynthia McKinney, who proposed a "moratorium" on glyphosate spraying in Colombia until alternative development programmes had advanced significantly - at least 75 percent. The Senate Appropriations Commission also prohibited the use of government funds to purchase the chemicals being used to spray illicit crops in Colombia until the State Department could prove that they did not affect the population.

In January 2002, Earth Justice called for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to pressure the United States and Colombia to stop the aerial spraying of herbicide to eradicate coca and poppy crops and to promote the use of alternative methods instead. This proposal, made in conjunction with the Amazon Alliance and other environmental and human rights organisations, mentioned the thousands of cases of health problems, destruction of food crops, contamination of water sources and environmental damage, as well as the deforestation being caused by peasant farmers in their need to go deeper into the forest to plant crops.

Anti-drug police insisted that they would not suspend glyphosate spraying. The U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, warned that "ending spraying would be devastating," because it would have an immediate impact on support for Plan Colombia. Despite the doubts about the above-mentioned studies, Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, used them as the basis for testimony before the U.S. Congress in which he argued that the United States had found no credible scientific proof that the aerial spraying programme for drug eradication in Colombia posed a hazard to human health. He stated that "attempts to quantify adverse human health risks to the aerial eradication campaign are fraught with emotion but unfounded in science."

According to the State Department, the mixture of herbicide could in fact cause health problems, but it considered those effects insignificant in comparison to the harm done by paraquat, parathion and other chemicals used in coca cultivation, which are far more toxic than glyphosate sprayed from the air. According to the U.S. Embassy, peasant farmers in Putumayo spread more than 23 million gallons of pesticides annually in the Amazon basin [click on the document on the environmental impact of coca cultivation].

What the State Department fails to mention is that the war on drugs, as it is currently being waged, not only fails to slow this damage, but indirectly encourages it. With no effective alternatives, peasant communities in these areas have no choice but to continue cultivating illicit crops in an uncontrolled manner that harms the environment. During a visit to Washington, several representatives of Amazonian indigenous organisations noted that as long as government officials offered them no alternatives, they would have to keep growing coca.

Criticism of the scientific validity of the studies on which U.S. officials have based their policies increased until the U.S. Congress requested a new study of the effects of the spraying on health and the environment. The new study, designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was to determine conditions before and after spraying, examining a certain number of peasants in the areas that were the focal points of eradication. It should be noted that prior EPA studies of glyphosate had concluded that the substance could cause lung problems, rapid breathing and, over time, kidney and reproductive problems.

Inconclusive results from the EPA

In September 2002, the results of an EPA study on the effects of the spraying on humans and the environment, commissioned by the State Department, were released. The overall conclusion of the study was that there was reasonable certainty that exposure to glyphosate did not pose health risks or have an adverse impact on humans or the environment. It also concluded that the spraying of coca and poppy crops was not harmful and complied with U.S. standards for such procedures As a result, the programme could go ahead.

This EPA approval of the spraying was greeted cautiously by some members of the scientific community, who were surprised by it. In late September 2002, several organisations and scientific experts published six independent reviews [for a list of independent reviews by experts and organisations, see www.amazonalliance.org] questioning a State Department report based on the EPA's conclusions, because it failed to demonstrate that the aerial eradication programmes were safe, and because it underestimated the risks and doubts associated with the programme and did not adequately evaluate the potential impact on the population and the environment. The critics also said the State Department report did not meet the conditions of the 2002 Foreign Appropriations Act, which specified that no more chemicals could be purchased for aerial eradication programmes until Congress was notified that the programme was being carried out in accordance with U.S. regulations and Colombian law, that it posed no risks to humans or the environment, that alternative crops had been implemented, and that a system had been established for evaluating citizens' complaints and providing due compensation. As long as those conditions were not met, funds could not be used to purchase chemicals.

The EPA report to the State Department sparked numerous reactions from the scientific community. The director of the Scientific and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), Ted Schettler [PDF document], stated that the EPA's analysis was seriously flawed and did not properly calculate harm to humans. The U.S.-based Institute for Interdisciplinary Scientific Studies [PDF document] warned that spraying 150,000 hectares "clearly results in an unacceptable ecological impact". And the University of Michigan [PDF document] (2002) said the EPA study failed to take typical animal and plant species into account.

In addition to the reactions from scientists, human rights and environmental organisations also expressed concern that the EPA had been forced to base its analysis on limited information from the State Department. "The studies presented by the State Department as proof that the aerial spraying programme poses no risks to human health were so poorly prepared that they offered no conclusive results," said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group. Nevertheless, the EPA gave credence to some complaints from local residents and described how the use of the herbicide formula in Colombia was not consistent with the use of such herbicides in the United States. The EPA also recommended a change in the formula, particularly the mix of surfactants [For a range of commentary and analysis regarding the results of this EPA study, see the recent report, "Going to Extremes - The U.S. Funded Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia," by Betsy Marsh - www.lawg.org].

During a visit to Colombia in December 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a press conference that the United States would be willing to reconsider the strategy of aerial spraying of illicit crops in Colombia if the area of coca and poppy crops did not decrease within a year. Nevertheless, because of the rate and intensity of the aerial spraying at the time, when the new government of President Alvardo Uribe had launched a new round of eradication efforts, it seemed likely that the area planted in illicit crops in Colombia would decrease noticeably. And that, indeed, is what happened. The decrease in coca crops in Colombia is localised in certain areas, however, and must be viewed within the regional context and the ultimate goal of reducing demand.

The State Department has always found a way to meet Congress' requirements for certification of the aerial spraying programme. A good example was the December 2003 approval of spraying of illicit crops found in parks and natural areas. The Senate had opposed the use of U.S. aid for this purpose until the State Department provided guarantees that the programmes were safe.

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In 2004, the United States will provide $574 million as part of the Andean Anti-Drug Initiative, the United States' regional strategy for fighting drug-trafficking and terrorism. According to official U.S. figures from Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles, in January and February 2004, more than 29,000 hectares of coca and 691 hectares of poppies were sprayed - 84 percent more than the area sprayed during the same months in 2003.

The debate in Colombia

The use of chemicals was only the spark that set off the debate. Other factors related to the aerial spraying soon arose, such as the slow implementation of alternative development programmes, the militarisation of the programmes, and the use of private contractors in interdiction operations. In La fumigación en cuestión - Eficacia y conveniencia de esta política de drogas, Acción Andina-TNI researcher Ricardo Vargas refers to the dual drug policy agenda that Washington has often implemented. In Colombia, aerial spraying has also served as a vehicle for ensuring the militarisation of the coca-growing areas controlled by insurgents, blurring the boundaries between the issues of drugs and security. This is a crucial matter in a country where a peace process was under way when Plan Colombia began. Aerial spraying, therefore, became linked to the armed conflict and its possible solutions.

Actions taken by Colombian government agencies:

The Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, under then-Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, decided to take an active role in questioning the aerial spraying. In February 2001, the Ombudsman's Office issued a resolution [PDF document] on the impact of aerial spraying on alternative development projects. It would be the first of a series of resolutions related to various aspects of the aerial spraying programme.

Because of the lack of information about the effects of the new mixture on human health and the environment and the lack of serious studies in this area, Ombudsman Cifuentes Muñoz sent a letter to the minister of justice, demanding the immediate suspension of the aerial spraying programme. Cifuentes emphasised that the spraying was illegal because it was not accompanied by an environmental management plan, as required by law. He called on the minister to take into account the views of agencies such as the National Council on Insecticides and Herbicides, which had been ignored in the process.

In early October, the Ombudsman's Office [PDF document] again asked the National Narcotics Council to suspend aerial spraying in Putumayo until certain aspects that were having an adverse effect on the population were reviewed. He called on the government to evaluate its compliance with constitutional and legal norms, because the Ombudsman's Office believed that the way in which the chemical eradication strategy had been implemented violated regulations designed to protect public health and the environment. Between December 2001 and the date of the letter, the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office had received 6,500 complaints from residents of Putumayo alone. The Ombudsman's Office's report on complaints about health problems allegedly linked to aerial spraying showed that 29 percent of the people involved had respiratory problems, 26.4 percent had gastrointestinal problems, 15.8 percent had skin ailments, 1.9 percent had psychological problems, 15.5 percent complained of fever, 5.4 percent felt generally ill, and 0.9 percent complained of other problems.

Ombudsman Cifuentes reminded the government of its important commitments to the people of Putumayo. In 2002 alone, 31 manual eradication agreements were signed with peasant farmers and two with indigenous people. The priority should have been to fund short-, medium- and long-term projects for substituting illicit crops with other crops and improving living conditions for the residents of Putumayo.

In February 2003, the Ombudsman's Office issued another statement saying that the government was violating the law by increasing the concentration of glyphosate used in the aerial spraying. Cifuentes said that the increase in the concentration of the substance "... could be producing harmful effects. There has not been compliance with Colombian regulations, and therefore this increase [in concentration] is completely illegal." Cifuentes demanded that the government comply with international and constitutional norms for due protection that should be followed with the chemical because of serious complaints registered by peasant farmers in the various regions where spraying was done.

The Colombian Controller's Office, under Controller General Carlos Ossa, also stated that the aerial spraying violated Colombian law because there was no environmental management plan approved by the Ministry of the Environment. He requested that an international monitoring team evaluate the illicit crop eradication programme.

Governors - In July 2001, the governor of the department of Cauca, Floro Tunubalá, publicly criticised the National Police Anti-Drug Office's decision to resume aerial spraying with glyphosate in that part of the country. "The mere mention of it repulses me, because it is an attack on the self-determination and dignity of my people," said Governor Tunubalá, who is a member of the Guambiana indigenous community. He said that much of the area to be covered by the aerial spraying would be Macizo Colombiano, an area of the country highly valued for its water sources.

"Aerial spraying as a strategy for eradicating illicit crops has been a failure so far," said Tunubalá, who along with the governor of the department of Nariño, Parmenio Cuellar, spearheaded a counterproposal to Plan Colombia that favoured manual eradication and crop substitution. Even though the two governors' statements were backed by peasant farmers in both departments, anti-drug authorities insisted that the aerial spraying of coca and poppy crops would continue as planned in 15 municipalities in southern Cauca and northern Nariño.

According to figures from the National Narcotics Office, by the end of 2002, Colombia had 102,071 hectares, down from 144,807 hectares at the end of 2001. The governors, however, expressed doubts about these figures in relation to the country as a whole. While coca crops had decreased in Putumayo, the same was not true in departments such as Nariño, to which the Putumayo crops had shifted with the entire production chain and related problems.

The governors continued to repeat their doubts about the effectiveness of aerial spraying and insist that the practice was destroying the environment and the social fabric of peasant communities.

Meanwhile, Colombian officials continued to stress the importance of the reduction to "demonstrate the success of Plan Colombia," and the government of Álvaro Uribe continued the aggressive aerial spraying programme, which included the increased concentration of glyphosate, with the goal of eradicating illicit crops within a year.

Indigenous communities - Opposition to aerial spraying reached another high point on July 27, 2001, when Judge 15 of the city of Bogotá ordered the immediate suspension of aerial spraying of glyphosate in the departments of Amazonas, Putumayo, Guaviare, Vaupés, Guainía and Caquetá for at least 10 days while the court examined a request for an injunction filed by the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (Organización de los Pueblos Indígenas de la Amazonía Colombiana, OPIAC) because of violations of the basic rights to life, health and a safe environment, as well as due process and the rights of indigenous peoples. (The request would be rejected 10 days later.) OPIAC's main argument was that the aerial spraying should be suspended because communities had not been consulted about the programme.

Two indigenous representatives from Putumayo travelled to Washington in March 2002 to demonstrate the harm being caused by aerial spraying.

In April 2003, the controversy over aerial spraying reached new heights because of the debate between Interior Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos and the judges of the Constitutional Court over a new request for an injunction filed by the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon against the president and other officials. According to the minister, the elimination of illicit crops was a legal obligation contracted by the Colombian government under the Vienna Convention and in an agreement signed with the U.S. government. In addition, the minister said, aerial spraying would benefit the indigenous communities; if it were suspended, their territories would be invaded by insurgents who would use the land to cultivate coca themselves. These arguments ignored the fact that in Putumayo, for example, aerial spraying had caused the displacement of more than 1,500 indigenous people, who lost their crops. The Barí community in Catatumbo suffered a similar problem.

The Constitutional Court's decision on the injunction left the aerial spraying programme in place, but required the Uribe administration to hold prior consultations with aboriginal peoples.

Scientific study - The public outcry was bolstered by various scientific investigations, such as one by the Pesticide Action Network in Latin America, which revealed the components of the new spray mixture and referred to the aerial spraying as chemical warfare.

The study, done by Colombian biologist Elsa Nivia (Pesticide Action Network) in the department of Putumayo between February and April 2001, concluded that glyphosate causes health problems and affects legal crops in those regions.

One of the weak spots in the aerial spraying is the "drift" effect. The herbicide not only falls where it is aimed, but it also "drifts" to other areas. During a visit to Colombia, the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) personally witnessed the imprecision of the aerial spraying despite the use of a global positioning system to establish exact targets. While he was watching an aerial spraying demonstration, the wind suddenly shifted. Instead of settling over a coca field, it literally drenched the observers, including the senator.

According to Elsa Nivia, aerial spraying makes it impossible to distinguish between illicit and legal crops. Completely aside from the fact that the herbicide used in Putumayo has a concentration 15 times that recommended by the EPA for agricultural use, it is absurd to think that the herbicide will fall vertically during aerial spraying.

Senate - In early 2002, during a debate in the Colombian Senate sponsored by Senators Juan Manuel Ospina and Rafael Orduz, the interior minister referred to the possibility not of suspending the aerial spraying, but of improving and perfecting it. The two senators sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan [1 and 2] asking for a complete review of the anti-drug policy being implemented in Colombia.

In January 2002, the Regional Corporation of Amazonas (Corporación Regional del Amazonas, Corpoamazonia) won a brief suspension of aerial spraying in the region despite strong opposition from the Ministry of the Environment, which considered the suspension illegal. The Corpoamazonia petition was based on hundreds of complaints from the community, backed by the Institute for Marine and Coastal Research (Instituto de Investigaciones Marinas y Costeras, Invemar), a Colombian government agency responsible for various scientific projects. According to a statement by Invemar, in Colombia, "...The aerial spraying of illicit crops goes beyond the mere eradication of crops... " and constitutes "true magnicide of ecosystems." The agency's field studies found evidence of the destruction of banana and corn plantations, as well as expanses of virgin forest. Peasant farmers in Putumayo also complained that glyphosate was poisoning hens and pigs. Corpoamazonia found that the spraying was being done indiscriminately, but was unable to prove that the animal deaths were related to the herbicide. Invemar also stated that the Ministry of the Environment had suspended the work of its Technical Commission on Oversight of Eradication of Illicit crops nearly two years earlier, and although it would start up again, no one could explain why the commission had been deactivated.

Administrative Court of Cundinamarca

Five times in 2001, when aerial spraying resumed in Putumayo and southern Bolívar, lawyer Claudia Sampedro, an international environmental law expert at the "José Alvear Restrepo" Collective Corporation of Lawyers, presented a class action suit against the Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies to suspend spraying and stop the deterioration of ecosystems that was resulting from the spraying. The fifth time, the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca finally accepted the class action suit [PDF document]. On June 13, 2003, the three judges handling the case ordered the National Narcotics Office (Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, DNE) to temporarily suspend the aerial spraying of illicit crops, applying the environmental principle of prevention established by Law 99, passed in 1993 (which states that it not necessary to wait until the damage occurs to take steps), and arguing that the right of all Colombians to public health and safety must be protected. The prohibition would be lifted when the programme complied with an Environmental Management Plan, as required by the ministry in 2001, and when the Ministry of Social Security carried out medical and scientific studies to determine the health effects of the aerial spraying being done in the country.

Since aerial spraying began in Colombia in 1984, there have been various attempts to halt it through legal channels, but so far no court had examined the case as carefully as the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca in the 53,000 pages of documentation in that case.

The government responded immediately, announcing that the aerial spraying would not be interrupted. "As long as I am president, the aerial spraying will not be suspended," Álvaro Uribe said, indicating that he would appeal the decision to the Council of State. The government's intransigence unleashed a controversy in the country. Colombia's religious community came out in favour of suspending aerial spraying until reliable studies of the impact on human health could be done. The Ombudsman's Office also backed the court's decision, repeating that the aerial spraying damaged traditional crops. The Colombian ambassador to the United States said that Washington was concerned about the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca's decision prohibiting the use of herbicides on illegal crops, and Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos called the presence of illicit crops in Colombia "a matter of national security" and said aerial spraying would therefore continue until the government's appeal of the Cundinamarca court's ruling was heard.

The court's decision, like the one several months earlier by the Constitutional Court, which established that the government was required to consult with indigenous leaders before spraying in their territories, again revealed the Colombian government's difficult position regarding the U.S. drug war strategy. On the one hand, it must abide by national regulations, but on the other, it feels obligated to meet the commitments imposed by the United States. The latter generally win out.

New phase of aerial spraying

Despite various statements by both Colombian agencies and international organisations, and occasional, temporary suspensions, the aerial spraying has continued. In early March 2002, aerial eradication began in what had until recently been the demilitarised zone that served as the meeting place for peace negotiations between Colombian government officials and the FARC. The Pastrana government called off the talks on February 20, 2002, and the army took over the territory, immediately launching anti-drug operations there like those being carried out elsewhere in the country.

According to figures from the National Police Anti-Drug Office, between November 9, 2000, and May 10, 2002, a total of 147,582 hectares of coca crops and 4,369 hectares of poppies were destroyed by spraying. Nevertheless, the United States had to admit that the effort had not resulted in a decrease in production and consumption of cocaine and had had no impact on drug prices in the U.S. market.

At that time, the U.S. and Colombian government decided to double the target area for the rest of 2002, with plans to spray 150,000 hectares over the next six months. That would be facilitated by the implementation of a broader anti-drug programme that would intensify with the change of government on August 7, when the new Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, took office. During his campaign, Uribe had expressed strong backing not only for the U.S. government's anti-drug policy, but for aerial spraying in particular, and had indicated his willingness to increase the concentration of glyphosate to make spraying more effective.

"If we don't destroy the coca, they will destroy our democracy and our environment," Uribe said shortly after taking office, in response to critics of the aerial spraying. The director of Plan Colombia, Ms. Sandra Suárez, warned that "there is strong pressure from illegal armed groups for peasant farmers to plant poppies amid their banana, cassava and coffee crops." With arguments like these, the spraying of small fields of crops, which had actually been done since the start, became official policy.


In October 2003, the Advisory Group on Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), which was monitoring Plan Colombia on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, published a report on aerial spraying [PDF document], displacement and human rights in which it concluded that aerial spraying had caused more displacement of the population, expanded the area of armed conflict, spread coca plantations to new regions and violated the right of communities to a secure food supply. The study included a comparative analysis of the number of hectares under cultivation, the number sprayed, the effects of Plan Colombia, forced displacement and requests for asylum in Ecuador. The tables and charts in the report provide a clear picture of the eradication of illicit crops and their consequences for the civilian population as part of the security policy implemented by President Uribe.

United Nations

Through the UNDCP representative for Colombia and Ecuador, Klaus Nyholm, the United Nations has said from the beginning that spraying should not be used against small-scale farmers whose only possibility for survival is the cultivation of coca and poppies. The United Nations proposed to the Colombian government that an international programme be set up to monitor the spraying, with the participation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and with funding from the British government. That proposal was rejected by the Colombian government, which did not want the United Nations involved. A technical task force was recently set up to evaluate the situation of health, the environment and illicit crops on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border.


In 2001, Colombia asked the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) for an independent, impartial evaluation to determine whether the aerial glyphosate spraying programme could be harmful. The request was apparently finalised in February 2004, with the Colombian government and CICAD signing an agreement to carry out the study. This evaluation took the place of the original U.N. proposal and is also being funded by the British government.

CICAD will be responsible for supervising and monitoring a group of experts, who will determine "possible harm to persons, fauna, flora and the environment from the spraying." The scientists will also analyse "the environmental impact of fungicides and herbicides used in the production of illicit crops. " The investigation, which began in early March 2004, will last a year and will cost $1 million. The scientists involved include team co-ordinator Keith Solomon of Canada, Luz Helena Sanín of Mexico, Antonio Cerdeira of Brazil and John Marshall of Great Britain.


Since the start of Plan Colombia, Europe has taken a strongly critical position of what it considers an imbalance between funding for the military and the war effort and funds for development projects. It has criticised the spraying, and has even placed conditions on donations for alternative development projects, requiring that there be no aerial spraying in the areas where the projects are implemented.

The European Parliament's Development Commission sent a letter to President Pastrana on July 13, 2001, warning of the consequences of aerial spraying. In the letter, Joaquim Miranda, president of the European Parliament's Development and Co-operation Commission, expressed deep concern about aerial spraying in the department of Cauca and "the need to resolve the problem of illicit crops through manual eradication, substitution programmes and other economic alternatives for the population of this department."

The European Commission, through European Foreign Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, has repeatedly asked Uribe to stop aerial spraying that affects projects funded by the commission. Europe favours manual eradication, which ensures that other crops can be planted. This request was repeated most recently when Patten visited Colombia in January 2004, when Europe again expressed support for social programmes and announced a donation of $54 million that would benefit 62 communities.

In mid-2001, when the controversy over the possible effects of Roundup Ultra was at a peak, the British chemical company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which produces the additive with which Cosmoflux is manufactured in Colombia, announced that it had ordered a halt to delivery of this herbicide additive on the grounds that it had not been adequately tested and because of a lack of information about its effects when mixed with glyphosate. ICI did not want its name linked with the aerial spraying of illicit crops in Colombia.

Regional reaction

In late August 2001, the Andean Parliament spoke out against the aerial spraying with glyphosate, unanimously calling on the Colombian government to suspend the spraying temporarily until the necessary technical studies on the impact of the chemical could be done. Although the Andean Parliament's resolutions are not binding, they should be followed, as they are the result of debate among representatives of the parliaments of the five Andean countries. In this case, the resolution was based on petitions from sub-regional bodies and complaints from international organisations, peasant farmers in the areas where the spraying was being done, and environmental experts.

Spraying in the department of Putumayo, along the border with Ecuador, has caused serious controversy in the neighbouring country.

In April 2002, the Ecuadorian government asked Colombia to form an inter-institutional team to analyse the chemicals being used to spray coca plantations along the border. Ecuador also proposed signing an agreement with Colombia to keep the anti-drug spraying from having a negative impact on the Ecuadorian side of the border. The agreement would be a legal tool to force Colombia to keep from spraying within 10 kilometres of the Ecuadorian border. According to then-Foreign Relations Minister Nina Pacari, it was requested because an earlier verbal agreement had not been honoured. Pacari said that residents of Ecuadorian communities along the border with Colombia had complained about damage in their areas from the spraying in Colombia.

Acción Ecológica and other organisations that monitor the effects in Ecuador of spraying done by Colombia in the department of Putumayo, in the Amazon jungle and along the border with the Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos, have constantly complained that the Colombian government has failed to honour its commitment to leave a 10-kilometer strip free of chemicals. According to witnesses' accounts, spraying has been done along the San Miguel River (the border between the two countries), with planes entering Ecuadorian air space. The "drift" of chemicals has seriously harmed the livelihood of people on the Ecuadorian side of the border.

The U.S. Embassy has dismissed concerns from Ecuadorians, denying any relationship between the spraying and high rates of health problems among residents near the border. The U.S. government attributes the complaints to manipulation and disinformation by drug traffickers who do not want the crops sprayed. Nevertheless, the United States has promised to compensate Ecuador for any impact from Plan Colombia. [see Ecuador]

Glyphosate in parks and natural reserves

Resolution 0013

President Alvaro Uribe's election meant not only more intensive aerial spraying, but an expansion of the targeted area. Because illicit crops are grown in parks and natural areas in Colombia, in June 2003 the National Narcotics Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes, CNE) approved Resolution 0013, paving the way for aerial spraying of glyphosate in natural reserves. The resolution was backed by the Attorney General and appeared in the Environmental Management Plan presented by the Colombian minister of the environment.

It is important to note that in approving this resolution, for some reason Colombian anti-drug officials did not take into account data about areas under cultivation picked up by the United Nations' satellite-based Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI, for its initials in Spanish). According to SIMCI, at the end of 2002 - the date of the most recent available data - there were 4,617 hectares of illicit crops in parks, a 24-percent decrease from the 6,057 hectares under cultivation at the end of 2001. The satellite data indicated that while spraying in parks was prohibited and a broad aerial spraying offensive was under way in the rest of the country, the amount of coca in parks was still decreasing through manual eradication. Why was it necessary to begin spraying when manual eradication had proven effective?

President Uribe's so-called Democratic Security policy, which was backed by the United States, soon began to play a role in other spheres of national life, such as welfare and environmental protection. By emphasising the intensification and expansion of illicit crop eradication by massive aerial spraying, the Democratic Security policy exposed the government's short-sighted mentality. The efforts to eradicate illicit crops failed to distinguish among different areas, and the government resorted to legal manipulation to implement the plan in highly vulnerable areas such as parks.

Decisions by the U.S. Congress

In November 2003, at the insistence of several U.S. senators who were alarmed by the Colombian government's resolution to spray illicit crops in national parks, the Senate approved an amendment to the 2004 Foreign Operations Budget Bill prohibiting the use of U.S. aid for that purpose. (23) The Colombian government and Bush administration officials launched a strong offensive to block the amendment or at least modify it before it became law.

This sparked intense debate in the U.S. Congress for several weeks. Secretary of State Colin Powell committed to meeting a series of requirements, such as proving to the U.S. Congress that the spraying was actually permitted under Colombian law and that it would not harm the environment. He also had to prove that chemical spraying was the only way to control illegal crops in those areas.

On December 15, 2003, amid the debate over aerial spraying with glyphosate, the U.S. State Department sent Congress the certification document that the Senate had requested several weeks earlier, in which it guaranteed that the aerial spraying met the environmental requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Colombia's Environmental Management Plan and National Narcotics Council. The document also stated that the glyphosate mixture posed no risks to humans or the environment, that complaints about damage from the spraying were being investigated, that any damage would be compensated, and that alternative development programmes were being carried out in communities in the areas where spraying was taking place.

The existence of Resolution 0013, the go-ahead from the Colombian Ministry of the Environment and the EPA's controversial approval of the use of glyphosate were decisive in blocking the Senate amendment. Paradoxically, without the resolution it would have been more difficult for Congress to withdraw the amendment. At the same time, without the approval of the U.S. Congress, Resolution 0013 would never have been operative, because while the Colombians can pass any law they want, ultimately the party providing the funding decides what will be done.

There was no future for the Senate amendment. The Colombian lobby in Washington and the Bush administration saw to it that the U.S. Congress approved funds for aerial spraying in parks. In December 2003, there was "mediation" between the two houses of the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, ensuring that Colombian officials could use 2004 funds for the eradication of illicit crops. From then on, Colombian anti-drug authorities were free to carry out aerial spraying wherever they wanted.

The controversy in Colombia

Nevertheless, the issue of aerial spraying in parks - including the fact that the U.S. Senate had once opposed it - sparked international controversy, particularly in Colombia, partly because such a decision was unprecedented in the world. Colombia's national parks cover more than 10 million hectares (10 percent of the country), and the country ranks second in the world in biodiversity, after Brazil. The system includes 34 national parks, nine flora and fauna sanctuaries and two natural reserves.

If Colombia carried out aerial spraying in parks, it would violate provisions of such international environmental treaties as:

  • The Convention on Biodiversity, ratified by Colombia by Law 162 in 1994, which basically protects all diversity, especially in countries like Colombia where there is a great wealth of flora and fauna.
  • International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which protects the identity and integrity of indigenous peoples. Because the territory of various indigenous communities lies within or around parks, this treaty would be violated.
  • Agreements from the 1992 Rio Summit, which are covered by Law 99, passed in 1993.
  • Other treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention, which protects wetlands, and conventions related to the preservation of reserves and forests.
  • It would also violate Articles 79 and 80 of the Constitution, and other laws, such as the Code on Renewable Natural Resources (Decree Law 2811, passed in 1974), and the specific prohibition against aerial spraying in "natural parks and reserves" (Decree 1843, issued in 1991). (24)

A key point raised in Colombia by opponents to the aerial spraying in parks was that, under the Constitution and the Natural Resources Code, it is illegal to use methods like the glyphosate programme for eradicating illicit crops in parks because these areas "are goods that are unattachable, imprescribable and cannot be modified, and are the patrimony of all Colombians." Any action that might harm them could be taken to court.

The CNE's approval of Resolution 0013 does not make spraying in parks any less illegal under Colombian law. The approval also failed to take into account doubts about the effectiveness of this method of eradication, which endangers the ecological balance and biodiversity of these areas, as well as the fact that spraying is only a short-term solution, because the use of glyphosate does not prevent replanting in areas that have been sprayed.

Even former Minister of the Environment Juan Mayr, who had been a strong supporter of aerial spraying during the Pastrana administration, told the Colombian press that he opposed aerial spraying in parks. And researcher Carlos Castaño Uribe, a consultant for Conservation International (CI), said that the parks were "highly sensitive environmental areas, such as the La Macarena reserve, where there are illicit crops, but there is also great agricultural diversity that could be affected." Rebutting the argument that the production of illicit crops contributes to environmental deterioration, he said, "It is true that the use of chemicals in processing coca paste is extremely harmful, but that is not a good reason to throw more fuel on the fire." In late March 2004, a significant number of Colombian legislators, led by opposition Sen. Jorge Enrique Robledo, signed an act of protest against spraying in parks.

Given the constant opposition from a large number of organisations, media and individuals opposed to aerial spraying of glyphosate in parks, Ms. Sandra Suárez, Colombia's minister of the environment, was forced to announce that the measure would be suspended. Unfortunately, the Colombian government has kept Resolution 0013, on which the plan was based, on the books, meaning that it could be reinstituted at any time.


1. The Foreign Operations Budget Bill allocates the majority of resources that the United States will provide for a given year, in this case resources for combating drugs and terrorism in Colombia.
2. Information taken from the article, "Congreso de E.U. acepta otorgar ayuda a Colombia para fumigar en parques y reservas naturales," El Tiempo (eltiempo.com), Bogotá, December 5, 2003