Fungus versus Coca

12 June 2005

Stop the chemical and biological War on Drugs, for the sake of reason, in defence of the communities whose livelihoods are destroyed, to preserve the environment and to genuinely improve the prospects for peace.

Martin Jelsma

Fungus versus Coca
UNDCP and the Biological War on Drugs in Colombia
Martin Jelsma
TNI Briefing Paper, February 2000


The Colombian government and the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) are close to signing a contract marking the start of biological warfare against coca in Southern Colombia. The plan will initiate a series of open field tests with the Fusarium oxysporum fungus aimed at evaluating its effectiveness against coca bush and assessing the environmental risks involved. According to the draft project document: “At the end of this project, an environmentally safe, reliable and effective specific biological control agent for coca bush will be available for use in Colombia, the rest of the Andean region and, possibly elsewhere in the world” (p.8).(1)

The plan aims to have the coca-killing mycoherbicide sufficiently tested, developed and ready for large-scale aerial application by 2002.The project raises serious concerns in terms of its very clear environmental risks including the danger that the fungus could attack other plant species, the social consequences for the war-driven refugees dependent on the coca survival economy and the questionable role of a United Nations agency facilitating such a controversial agenda in the midst of a peace process.

The Need for a Multilateral Disguise

The programme will make use of the so-called ‘EN-4 strain' of Fusarium oxysporum. It will be isolated, tested and developed into a granular formulation in the laboratories of the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The US government has clearly been the driving force behind this agenda. An epidemic of the ‘Fusarium oxysporum' fungus severely affected coca fields in Peru, and since then the idea of creating intentional epidemics is considered the potential ‘silver bullet' in the War on Drugs. As the draft project document states: "USDA research in the area stems from the mid 1980's when disease epidemic, subsequently found to be caused by the plant pathogenic fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Erythroxyli, caused widespread death of coca plants in the Upper Huallaga valley in Peru. This wilt disease has been the focus of extensive research and is clearly identified as having enormous potential as a biological control agent. It is specific to Erythroxylum species, causes a debilitating disease that persist in the soil for several years, so preventing re-planting of the illicit crop" (p. 2/3).

In 1998, the US Congress approved a 23 million dollar package for the purposes of intensifying the research and bringing the Fusarium development to an operational stage. In an August 1999 letter to president Clinton, two Republican Congress leaders, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, called for “the early deployment of mycoherbicides in FARC and ELN controlled zones”.(2) An internal State Department ‘action request' confirms the willingness to provide $400,000 for a pilot stage of the project, “however we urge UNDCP to solicit funds from other governments, in order to avoid a perception that this is solely a US Government initiative.”(3)

Similarly, the draft project document explains the necessity for the multilateral guise by noting,“If development of a biological control agent for coca bush is to be achieved and the agent is to be successfully applied, the necessary research and development must, for political reasons as well as for scientific rigor and veracity, be done in an Andean region country and must be funded by the UNDCP and progressed under UNDCP management and control” (p.10). Because, “It is recognized by many that effective progress with such a drug plant eradication programme could only be made if the research was seen to be a multinational programme, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations. At the same time, the Colombian government has developed a keen interest in the biological control strategy, (...), and is prepared to establish appropriate field tests, provided that the United Nations supervises and controls the programme of activities” (p.2).

The Quest for ‘Environmentally Safe' Eradication

The fact that UNDCP is willing to play the role of promoting this highly controversial exercise, has a history. At the end of the 1970's a political controversy and popular panic broke out when marihuana found on the US market was tested and showed high concentrations of Paraquat. It was proved that the Paraquat in the marihuana came from a herbicide used for aerial eradication of Mexican cultivation. The ensuing “Paraquat-fever” was the starting point for a group of international experts in their tedious scientific quest for a less hazardous means of eradication. These international experts, representing ten countries, met regularly to exchange data on the efficacy of chemical spraying programmes, environmental impact assessments, and research into potentially promising new chemical and biological control agents.

This ‘Expert Group on Environmentally Safe Means of the Eradication of Illicit Narcotic Plants' has been operating in the shadow of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs for two decades but its recommendations reached an operational stage within UNDCP after Pino Arlacchi was appointed executive director in September 1997. Through this scientific platform, with its unclear mandate, the United Nations was drawn into a technical facilitating role for the development of new eradication agents. The group went far beyond its mandate by starting to actively promote the practice of chemical fumigations of illicit crops, in clear contradiction to the policy of most UN member states, which explicitly refuse to implement such aggressive anti-drug strategies.

For example:“The group recognized that herbicides were commercially available for the effective control of illicit cannabis, coca and opium poppy, and that these had been proven to be environmentally safe and non-toxic to humans. In view of the significant damage to the environment (including the destruction of forest ecosystems) resulting from illicit narcotic plant production, very high pesticide use and toxic extraction chemicals, the United Nations should promote and co-ordinate the use of approved herbicides for the control of coca, cannabis and opium poppy.” “Recent field trials of two herbicides had shown that, for the first time, coca could be controlled in a practicable and environmentally acceptable way. Both tebuthiuron and hexazinone had given excellent control of coca (..). If further studies on environmental impact, currently in progress, confirmed initial observations, which suggested little or no adverse environmental impact, those herbicides appeared to offer exciting potential for coca eradication.”(4)

The Shift to Biological Agents

This ‘exciting potential' however, never came to flourish.Bolivia and Peru prohibited, by law, the use of chemical fumigation based on environmental grounds in the interest of protecting peasant communities. In Colombia, where Glyphosate (Monsanto Corporation's RoundUp) is sprayed in large quantities on opium-poppy and coca fields, the Environment Ministry obstructed the introduction of the mentioned granular herbicides, claiming that such aggressive agents could potentially turn the Colombian Amazon forest into a desert. As the draft project document for Colombia describes: “herbicides are currently most disfavored, despite their efficacy, on grounds of public and Governmental concerns that they will damage the environment “(p.1), and “there is considerable organized public opposition to their use, which has resulted in political opposition, on grounds of environmental damage risk, especially in rainforest areas” (p.2). Therefore, the scientists focused their efforts on developing a fungal solution: “The development of a highly specific, effective, reliable, environmentally safe biological agent, that has been exhaustively tested in a coca producing country, obviates these concerns” (p.2).

In its 1989 report to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the Expert Group “acknowledged that a major contribution to eradication programmes could be made by biological control strategies in the foreseeable future. It agreed that every opportunity should be made to foster the development and adoption of such strategies while recognizing that their introduction would not replace the use of herbicides in some situations.”(5) They recommended initiating, under UN supervision, an intensive international research programme “at the earliest opportunity.” That opportunity did not arise until many years later.

Under the directorship of Arlacchi, UNDCP developed in 1997/98 its widely criticized Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination (SCOPE), which aims to completely eradicate the illicit cultivation of coca and opium poppy by the year 2008. Arlacchi failed to have the plan endorsed at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in June 1998, but many elements of the integral strategy continue to be developed. In paragraph 75 the SCOPE plan notes: "UNDCP also intends to test, through an applied research programme in Uzbekistan, a biological control agent based on the plant pathogenic fungus Dendryphion papaveraceae. The agent is claimed to have been found in other central Asian States. An important step will be to confirm its natural occurrence throughout the region (in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), which would contribute to ascertaining whether it is environmentally safe for use in poppy-growing areas, especially in central Asia."

A UNDCP-sponsored open field test project indeed began in 1998 in Uzbekistan testing the fungus for its effectiveness against opium-poppy. (6) “We've been looking for something like this for years and years” said Cherif Kouidri, head of UNDCP laboratory in Vienna, “It would hearten all of us if we were to find that it was indigenous to Afghanistan,” which would open the door to large-scale application in the world's main opium producing country.(7) This project is funded primarily by the United Kingdom and experts of the Ascot based CABI Biosciences, formerly known as the International Institute of Biological Control, and the Bristol-based IACR-Long Ashton Research Station have been contracted as consultants.

Critical media reports couching the Uzbekistan project as ‘biological warfare,' triggered an angry press release from UNDCP. “The UNDCP is supporting a research and development programme on an environmentally safe plant pathogenic fungus (Pleospora papaveracea). The research is being carried out by the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with financial support from the UNDCP, through donor funding. Neither the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent nor the UNDCP are involved in developing any "biological weapon" nor are they conducting any research on "biological warfare". These terms are totally inappropriate and gravely distort the nature of the project which, as above mentioned, aims at developing an environmentally safe and reliable biological control agent for opium poppies.” (8)

The Expert Group, which originated as simply a platform for the exchange of technical information, prepared the terrain for UNDCP to become directly involved as the executing agency for further development, testing and the possible full scale application of agents for forced eradication. The group's questionable mandate and mission statement in terms of ‘environmental safety', provided UNDCP with the necessary arguments to legitimize this step.

Bringing the Bio-War to Colombia

An IACR-LARS consultant, M. P. Greaves, was subsequently contracted by UNDCP to evaluate the longstanding USDA research programme on the Fusarium fungus and advise the UNDCP on the possibility of a similar breakthrough in bio-control of coca in the Andean region. According to the draft project document, “he recommended strongly that UNDCP should become involved in the further development of this agent and that priority should be given to establishment of a research programme in Colombia that emphasized the environmental safety of the agent” (p.6). This issue then became integral to the negotiations between the US State Department and the Pastrana government over ‘Plan Colombia', originally designed to strengthen the peace process. US officials have stressed repeatedly the fact that they will only maintain support for Pastrana's peace efforts under the condition of a continued aerial fumigation programme.

Philip Chicola, director of Andean Affairs at the US State Department stated unequivocally, “the anti-drug efforts between the US and Colombia, including aerial eradication, are not negotiable and will continue.” The ‘Plan Colombia: Plan for peace, Prosperity and the Strengthening of the State' in its published edition of October 1999, reveals the result of this US pressure. The ‘Plan' states as one of its objectives, “Strengthen and increase the employment of combined security operations during fumigation and eradication operations. Support the new strategies under the United Nations International Drug Control Program to test and develop environmentally safe and reliable biological control agents, thereby providing new eradication technologies.” The inclusion of the biological War on Drugs, as part of the Colombian government's strategy for ‘peace and prosperity,' is presented in ‘Plan Colombia' under the guise of multilateral cooperation and rationalized within a context of environmental safety.

Environmental and Other Concerns

Very little is known about the possible dangers of a massive introduction of mycoherbicides into a vulnerable ecosystem such as the Amazon rain forest.Very little is understood of their potential to attack other plant species or of the possible ultimate outcome of herbal genocide or the extinguishing of an entire plant species from the planet.So far, the fusarium fungus does not seem to be ‘host specific', as the Peruvian farmers experienced during the ongoing epidemic in the Upper Huallaga valley. Moreover, apart from the ‘EN-4' strain selected for the coca eradication programme, experiments with other fusarium strains against opium poppy and cannabis have continued.(10)

Reacting to a proposal to start a similar project aimed at destroying cannabis cultivation in Florida, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, David Struhs wrote in a April 6, 1999 letter: “Fusarium species are capable of evolving rapidly... Mutagenicity is by far the most disturbing factor in attempting to use a Fusarium species as a bioherbicide. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species. The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops, including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines, and are normally considered a threat to farmers as a pest, rather than as a pesticide. Fusarium species are more active in warm soils and can stay resident in the soil for years. Their longevity and enhanced activity under Florida conditions are of concern, as this could lead to an increased risk of mutagenicity.” (11)

Another concern is the variety of dangerous toxins the Fusarium fungus is proven able to produce.(12) And a specific worry relates to indications that the researchers at the USDA laboratory have “developed a transformation system in Fusarium oxysporum to allow alteration of the gene expression”(13) of the fungus and have proposed “the development of strains with enhanced pathogenicity using molecular genetic manipulations involving fungal proteins.”(14)

The Expert Group also noted that “modern technology offered many opportunities for the improvement of biological control efficacy in fungal pathogens. In addition to selection procedures to isolate strains of high virulance, simple mutations and adaptations as well as protoplast fusion techniques offered significant opportunities.” As examples they mention the genetic engineering of strains that would make it active only in combination with another compound which could be fumigated separately, or a pure manipulation that would make the strain unfit for over-wintering. The Expert Group worried about existing regulations against modified organisms: “Continued intensive dialogue with regulatory agencies was necessary to avoid undue restraints against the release of biological control agents in the field.” (15)

Should any of these unknown variables and concerns cause serious damage, the liability clause of the draft project document states: “The Government (of Colombia) will be responsible for dealing with any claims which may bebrought by third parties against the United Nations, including UNDCP, against its personnel or against other parties performing services on behalf of the United Nations, including UNDCP, under this Project.” Meanwhile “The US Government, in the form of the US Department of Agriculture own all Intellectual Property Rights in respect of Isolate EN-4 of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. erythroxyli" (p.22).

The draft project document clearly states, with anticipation, several problems of this nature. For example, under ‘project risks' it mentions, “The political sensitivity of the project area may result in adverse reaction from neighboring countries, the general public and environmental and political pressure groups, particularly in connection with the issue that once released the pathogen may transform or mutate and become pathogenic to, inter alia, desirable plant species” (p.19). The draft does not take into account the fact that in Bolivia and Peru, two of the three main coca-producing countries, a significant part of the coca cultivation has always been legal. The uncontrollability of this fungus could destroy legal coca crops in other Andean countries. Furthermore it threatens current alternative development strategies, including those crop-substitution programs implemented by UNDCP itself and by European donors. It seems highly unlikely that experts will be able to alter the gene expression in such a way that the fungus will recognize national or municipal boundaries, or distinguish between legal and illegal coca, between small and large producers, or make exceptions for those involved in development programmes or crop-substitution schemes.

Finally, the implementation of the fungus program means that the UN becomes directly involved in the biological eradication and fumigation agenda, an area the UN has kept a critical distance from for a long time. Klaus Nyholm, head of the UNDCP office in Bogotá, often expressed concerns over the aerial fumigations, and recently said: “The United Nations has maintained strong positions against the United States drug policy toward Colombia, because there is too much stick and very little carrot.” (16)

Should UNDCP sign the pending contract with the Colombian government, it will clearly risk its position in this stage of the Colombian peace process. The current UNDCP involvement stems from a ‘pilot' alternative development project within the zone that has been demilitarized to give space to the peace talks. The project is based on an attempt to cultivate a climate of trust with the involved peasant population and between the negotiating parties in the armed conflict over the issue of illicit cultivation. A UNDCP role in actively promoting a controversial mycoherbicide agenda would seriously threaten these efforts, alienate communities ready to negotiate developmental strategies and potentially undermine any path toward a broader UN involvement in the peace process.

This project will not only be dangerous, contemporary Colombian history shows that the results will be futile. Over the last decade, Colombia has implemented a very aggressive chemical eradication programme. This operation has only set in motion a vicious cycle of the displacement of crops and population to even more sensitive areas thus increasing environmental damage and deforestation and intensifying the armed conflict. This operation has not weakened the illicit crop cultivation by virtue of the fact that the numbers of hectares have increased threefold over the decade. Introducing another eradication agent, be it less or more ‘environmentally safe' and however more ‘efficient' it is thought to be, will not address or change the logic driving the illegal drugs market operating in an impoverished and war-torn society.

The Pastrana government would never have accepted to start biological warfare against coca in the midst of this fragile peace process, if the UNDCP and Europe would have taken a more cautious position. The international community should enable the Colombian government to reinstall coherence in its policy toward illicit cultivation and the peace process, and must support a decision that ends a policy that will perpetuate and intensify the current situation. Stop the chemical and biological War on Drugs, for the sake of reason, in defence of the communities whose livelihoods are destroyed, to preserve the environment and to genuinely improve the prospects for peace.


1. United Nations International Drug Control Programme, Project of the Government of Colombia; Project Document “Experimental testing and further development of an environmentally safe biological control agent for coca eradication.” Vienna, February 1999. This is an initial draft for the project contract, still without a project number.
2. Congress of the Unites States, August 3, 1999; Letter to president Clinton signed by J. Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott.
3. UNDCP: Colombia and the microherbicide program. A. Beers – Arlacchi Telecon May 10 1999. (FOIA Document Number: 1999STATE091579.)
4. Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Environmentally Safe Methods for the Eradication of Illicit Narcotic Plants, held at Vienna from 4 to 8 December 1989; E/CN.7/1990/CRP.7 14 December 1989, Commission on Narcotic Drugs; paragraphs 10 and 33.
5. Ibid, paragraph 49.
6. UNDCP Project Document AD/RER/98/C37. Several fungi are being tested, but the main focus is on Dendryphion papaveraceae. British and US governments fund the Uzbekistan project jointly. See: Biological Warfare in the War on Drugs, by Tom Blickman, September 1998
7. “At heroin's source, hope rises for a way to cut opium crops,” The Christian Science Monitor, 18 March 1998.
8. UN Information Service, 1 July 1998 (UNIS/NAR/643)
9. Cuatro ases de Pastrana en busca de la paz, El Espectador 5 de enero de 1999
10. See for example: Fungus Eyed As Drug Crop Killer, Associated Press 22 October 1998; >Biological Roulette: The Drug War's Fungal Solution? Covert Action Quarterly, Washington, Spring 1998.
11. Rick Bragg, Marijuana-Eating Fungus Seen as Potent Weapon, but at What Cost? The New York Times, July 27, 1999.
12. See for details: Fusarium fungus: Issues worthy of consideration regarding the projected deployment of a mycoherbicide in Colombia; Jeremy Bigwood & Sharon Stevenson, Independent Researchers, January 7, 2000 (unpublished memo).
13. Dr. Bryan A. Bailey, Summary of Ongoing Projects, on the USDA website:
14. USDA/ARS document #0000064222 (1995), quoted in: Biological Roulette: The Drug War's Fungal Solution?, Covert Action Quarterly, Washington, Spring 1998.
15. Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Environmentally Safe Methods for the Eradication of Illicit Narcotic Plants, held at Vienna from 4 to 8 December 1989; E/CN.7/1990/CRP.7 14 December 1989, Commission on Narcotic Drugs; paragraphs 43 and 50.
16. 'Ayuda de E.U., mucho garrote y poca zanahoria', El Tiempo, 22 February 2000