United Nations Pulls Out of Plans to Use Anti-Drug Biological Weapons in South America

01 December 2000

Civil society groups need to analyze possibilities to ban Drug War biological weapons at regional and United Nations agencies that work on related issues of environment, genetic resources, health, arms control, and agriculture.

International drug policy is shifting towards an aggressive strategy of reduction of supply of illicit drugs. Instead of emphasizing work to reduce demand, more and more efforts and resources are being allocated to forced eradication of drug producing crops. Tools favored by countries that promote eradication are chemical fumigation, which has recently intensified in several drug producing countries and, more recently, the introduction of biological eradication agents.

The United States is the political force behind the use of biological weapons to eradicate drug crops and has undertaken programs to identify, test and deploy microbial agents to kill marijuana, opium poppy and coca. Several candidate pathogens have identified and developed, including use of genetic engineering in laboratory work to create microbial strains with enhanced virulence. Part of the research and field testing in this program is being conducted, with US encouragement and financial support, through the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP). Despite high-level attempts to further "internationalize" support for this research, only the United Kingdom has agreed to back the US biological eradication idea with money.

Scientists in a former Soviet biological warfare plant in Uzbekistan are trying to perfect the Pleospora fungus that kills the opium poppy - source of the world's illegal heroin supply. Although the UNDCP is fronting the fungus project, it is the Americans who are the real sponsors with the British making a £100,000 contribution. No other country has been persuaded to contribute to the programme.

According to a former UNDCP official interviewed by BBC Panorama, there had been discussions within the UNDCP where "at one point it was seriously considered trying to get the Afghan government in exile in Islamabad to agree to the application of the fungus." Confidential documents acquired by Panorama from the UNDCP office in Vienna highlight the UN's own fears about the project they are fronting. They concede the fungus may be difficult to contain once released, and that there remains a very 'remote possibility' that the fungus will affect other species and may even 'transform or mutate'. While the US and UNDCP plan contemplates the use of biological weapons for eradication of narcotic crops globally, Colombia is currently the major focus of attention because of intense political pressure from the US for it to deploy the agents as part of President Pastrana's "Plan Colombia". The US Congress conditioned a US 1.3 billion dollar package of mainly military aid on Colombia's agreement to field test biological weapons for use in the counterinsurgency war, which is focused on the Putumayo region bordering Ecuador and upstream from Brazil and Peru.

The main organism that has captured media attention and promoted by the United States is a coca-killing strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. The idea to use this organism came originally from the US Central Intelligence Agency, which passed off research and development to the US Department of Agriculture. There are, however, many other species in the US arsenal that could be used, including insects and viruses that have been investigated by US government scientists.

Publicity surrounding the US plan to use biological eradication agents provoked deep concern in the region - particularly Ecuador and Brazil; but also Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela - as well as dissent within the Colombian government. This concern has resulted in legal bans on the Fusarium agent Ecuador and Peru as well as repeated, but ambiguous, denials from the Colombian President and Environment Minister that the Fusarium would be allowed. Regional concern recently resulted in the adoption of a joint position of Andean Environment Ministers rejecting one strain of Fusarium oxysporum.

Additionally, controversy surrounding the US plan has provoked some reconsideration in Washington. At the end of August, without renouncing the fungus, the US President waived the Congressional stipulation that Colombia accepts mycoherbicides, conceding that their use raises questions about biological weapons proliferation. Because the Fusarium issue was threatening to impede release of US aid to Colombia, waiver of the Congressional stipulation also served the US Administration's desire to announce release of funds for Plan Colombia in time for President Clinton's recent visit to Cartagena.

Despite the slowdown and possible halt of plans to use Fusarium, the Colombian Ministry of the Environment is implementing a project to identify, test and develop "native" biological agents to kill narcotic plants. It has linked this project to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's troubled "Biotrade" initiative.

At present, the future biological eradication work in Colombia is uncertain. The Colombian Environment Ministry appears intent on implementing a domestic research project funded by the US, while UNDCP has announced that its talks with the Colombian government failed to produce agreement on a bioweapon testing program, although it is proceeding with its biological weapons work in Asia. Yet the United States, as recently as May, 2000, affirmed to civil society organizations that it would only support biological eradication research in Colombia through a multilateral mechanism. Meanwhile, a UK cabinet minister has publicly suggested that Britain may be backing away from its support of biological eradication.

The use of biological weapons in the eradication of narcotic crops demands action at national, regional and global levels. At the national level, some countries had already taken steps to prevent the use of biological agents within their territories. Peru and Ecuador have enacted laws banning the use of biological agents in coca eradication. Bolivia maintains a similar policy, while others have started a similar process. Civil society groups need to analyze possibilities to ban Drug War biological weapons at regional and United Nations agencies that work on related issues of environment, genetic resources, health, arms control, and agriculture.

Colombia Abandons Research on Biological Agents for Drug Eradication
Now all research on anti-coca agents illegal under the Bioweapons Convention
The Sunshine Project, News Release, 25 January 2001

(Hamburg and Austin, 25 January) - Colombia has abandoned a project to develop biological agents to eradicate coca and opium poppy plants, dealing another major defeat to the US-promoted idea to use biological weapons in the Drug War.

Last year, Colombia refused a US-funded United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) proposal to field test fungal pathogens developed by US researchers. But, responding to US pressure, the Colombian government floated a counterproposal to domestically develop biological agents for drug eradication. Like its UNDCP predecessor, the counterproposal was intensely opposed as biological weapons research. Now, Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr has abandoned the plan altogether. Mayr's announcement follows Vienna-based UNDCP's decision to withdraw from all efforts to use biological eradication in the Andes and after former US President Clinton decided to suspend a US Congress-imposed stipulation that Colombia use fungi in drug eradication in order to receive military assistance. Thus, barring a major policy shift in Washington, Bogotá, or Vienna, the Colombian decision is the last and final step that ends any biological eradication projects in the region.

Minister Mayr announced his decision in a January 4, 2001 letter to a prominent Colombian Senator who opposes the project. Mayr wrote that the government has "decided not to continue" the controversial research project, a decision Mayr says was precipitated by UNDCP's November withdrawal (for more information, see Sunshine Project / Acción Andina / Transnational Institute news release of Nov. 13th).

Mayr's decision makes fully evident that biological eradication agents are indeed biological weapons. All further research - anywhere - on biological agents for coca eradication is outlawed by the Bioweapons Convention. Since all countries with illicit coca harvests have now announced their opposition to biological agents, any use of such agents can only be considered a hostile act. Under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (and US implementing legislation), development of biological agents for non-peaceful purposes is outlawed.

UNDCP, however, is continuing its work on biological agents in Asia. An anti-opium poppy fungus is currently being field tested by an Uzbekistan laboratory that was part of the former Soviet Union's offensive biological weapons program. The continuation of the Asian projects illustrates why a global ban is urgently needed. A global ban on any such agent can be achieved in resolutions by the Conferences of the Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

European Parliament Rejects Agent Green
Citing Human Health and Environmental Dangers, Parliamentarians Vote 474 -1 to Prevent Introduction of Biological Agents
The Sunshine Project, News Release, 1 February 2001

(Hamburg and Austin, 1 February) - Today the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly against the introduction of biological agents into the Drug War. In Resolution B5-0087/2001, which sets out a stance against militarization in Colombian President Pastrana's "Plan Colombia", Parliamentarians expressed their conviction that the European Union:

"... must take the necessary steps to secure an end to the large-scale use of chemical herbicides and prevent the introduction of biological agents such as Fusarium oxysporum, given the dangers of their use to human health and the environment alike."

Political support for the decision is strong. The European Union's top foreign policy official, Council of Foreign Ministers President Lars Danielsson, said the EU considered Plan Colombia - which calls for the use of biological agents - a bilateral US-Colombia affair in which Europe did not wish to become involved. Commissioner Poul Nielson, speaking on behalf of the European Commission, declared that he was "completely in agreement" with sponsor Joaquim Miranda of Portugal, who attacked eradication with biological agents as dangerous for biodiversity and potentially deepening international spill over of Colombia's complex internal conflict.

The proponents of biological eradication - the US and its junior partner the United Nations Drug Program (UNDCP) - have faced fierce opposition in recent months, forcing them to withdraw immediate plans to test and deploy biological agents in the Andes. But neither has renounced the strategy of attacking illicit crops with biological weapons, and despite accusations of biological warfare, both the US and UNDCP continue to conduct research and development of anti-narcotic crop biological agents.

The European Parliament's decision is a blow against these policies because it rejects not just one biological agent (Fusarium oxysporum); but the entire approach. Thus, European Parliament resolution is an important step toward a global ban on the use of biological weapons against illicit crops called for at a December meeting in France by an international group of more than eighty non-profit organizations (see the Sunshine Project website for more details).

The Resolution is embarrassing for the British government, which is the only country outside the US that has provided money for UNDCP's biological agents research. The Drugs and International Crime Division of the UK Foreign Office is funding tests being conducted by a facility of the former Soviet Union's offensive biological weapons program located in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In recent months, however, as public scrutiny has increased of this program and the related one to develop agents to eradicate coca in the Andes, the Foreign Office has become increasingly tight-lipped on the subject, making ambiguous public statements about the future of its support for biological eradication.

Last year the US Congress conditioned aid to Colombia on Bogotá agreeing to use biological agents. This condition was suspended in a waiver issued by former US President Clinton, who overrode the US Congress citing concerns about biological weapons proliferation. But this policy could be reversed in future appropriations. Shortly before leaving office, Clinton reiterated the concern about biological weapons. The new US administration has not made any public statements on the issue.