The Re-emergence of the Biological War on Drugs

01 December 2003

In 2000, the U.S. Congress recommended use of the Fusarium oxysporum fungus as a biological control agent for eradicating coca crops in Colombia. At the time, the news that the United States was seriously considering use of biological agents in the war on drugs lead to a strong opposition movement in Colombia and the rest of the world. Not only would the use of this fungus represent a potential violation of the global prohibition on biological weapons, such biological agents are also hazardous to the environment and could have unforeseen consequences for agriculture and the vegetation in various ecosystems.

In 2000-2001, the Transnational Institute, in conjunction with other international NGOs working on the problem of illicit crops, Colombian civil society associations and environmental organizations carried out an effective, broad-based campaign to prevent the use of Fusarium in Colombia. In July 2000, the United Nations advised against the use of the fungus on coca crops in Colombia.

The U.N. position was important because it left the United States alone in backing the Fusarium project. The risk of unilateral use of a biological agent finally led the Clinton Administration to interrupt the plan, which could have been perceived by the rest of the world as a form of biological warfare. At the time, Colombia prohibited the use of the fungus in the war on drugs.

The threat of the use of a biological agent also sparked a strong reaction from countries in the Andean-Amazon region, leading to a prohibition on the use of mycoherbicides in Ecuador and Peru and a joint resolution by the environmental ministries of the region's countries expressing opposition to the use of Fusarium in their territories.

The international pressure created by the debate also led the U.S. Congress to withdraw the conditions that it had imposed on the Colombian government, under which military aid would be provided only if the country accepted the use of mycoherbicides on its illicit crops.

The fungus strikes back

Now, however, the fungus is returning to centre stage. According to documents revealed recently in various media, the United States has renewed its pressure on the Colombian government to implement the use of mycoherbicides. In October 2003, the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs asked the Colombian government to resume promotion of research and development involving the use of mycoherbicides on poppy and coca crops. Before making the request, the State Department had already spoken with Colombian President Uribe about the issue. Uribe expressed interest and requested training for experts from the Colombian Agriculture Institute. The United States expressed its ongoing intention to extend invitations to these experts, as well as officials involved in designing anti-drug policies, so that they could make recommendations to the president for future action.

The current state of these meetings is not public knowledge, but the fact that they are going on at a time when the Uribe government is waging a full-scale campaign to win an extension for Plan Colombia, which is officially due to end in 2005, is cause for concern. This conjunction of circumstances raises fears that the United States may make the Colombian government's acceptance of the controversial scheme for using biological agents on illegal crops a condition for extending Plan Colombia. As we have mentioned, on other occasions the United States has used such conditions as a form of pressure to achieve its own objectives.

Another cause for concern is the fact that the initiative comes from the State Department and that it refers to new technology that the United States may have been developing since 2001. For some time, the environmental organization Sunshine has been denouncing the possibility that the United States may impose the use of a fungus isolated in Colombia, a "creole fungus," arguing that the substance is safe because it is of local origin.

In a letter dated the 6th of April 1999, the Head of the Florida based Environmental Protection Department, David Struh, wrote to the Drug Tsar of this State, Jim McDonough, right at the moment Florida was seriously considering the use of Fusarium oxysporum against marihuana plantations: "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." Due to the risks mentioned, the State of Florida finally decided not to use the Fusarium. However, the United States are pressuring other countries to implement something they do not want in their own territory.

The fungus threat has been latent during these years. If the United States begins pressuring again for its use, environmental groups and other concerned international organizations are likely to revive the sharp debate over use of the fungus that was launched in 2000-2001.