A Vicious Circle

01 November 1999

Prologue in Fumigación y conflicto: Politicas antidrogas y deslegitimación del estado en Colombia
Ricardo Vargas Meza
November 1999

This study goes right into the heart of current political debates and controversies over the nature of the relationships between illicit drugs and the armed conflict in Colombia, over finding a balance between the 'carrot and the stick' in drug control policy, over key issues on the table for negotiations between the Pastrana government and the FARC guerrillas, and over the Plan Colombia - supposedly designed to financially seal a lasting peace.

In the course of the nineties some 240.000 hectares of Colombian coca and opium poppy fields have been sprayed from the air with herbicides. Between 1992-98, according to figures presented in this report, 140.858 hectares of coca were dusted with 1,897.357 liter of Glyphosate, and 41.468 hectares of opium poppy were fumigated with 540.979 liter of the same chemical. For 1999, by the 1st of September already a record fumigation figure of 55.000 hectares was reported.

All this takes place in the context of a "supply reduction" strategy, aimed at diminishing the availability of cocaine and heroin and increasing their prices on the international markets, with the ultimate objective of reducing the levels of consumption of these illegal drugs. Something, however, is not working. Colombia is the country where forced eradication of illicit drug crops is executed in the most aggressive way. But in the course of the same time span '92-'98, coca cultivation boomed from about 40.000 to 100.000 hectares according to official figures, going up to 160.000 according to other estimates. For opium, statistics on Colombia are so unreliable that no clear conclusions can be drawn. Meanwhile street prices of cocaine and heroin in the major consumption markets have shown a steady tendency to decrease. In this report Ricardo Vargas Meza unravels with unprecedented detail and irrefutable clarity why it doesn't work; he identifies the fundamental flaws in the strategy by showing the consequences of its implementation in practice and concludes it sets in motion a destructive vicious circle.

The study makes the viciousness of the circle fully apparent, in terms of its futility, its social and environmental impact and the negative consequences for state legitimacy and peace prospects. The argument often used to legitimate the fumigations, that 'drug crop cultivation and processing itself is far more environmentally damaging then spraying the fields' is convincingly countered. The report does contain clear and new evidence of the environmental damage caused by illicit cultivation, largely thanks to a scrutinous field study undertaken by Rodrigo Velaidez in the Caguán area. But at the same time it makes clear that those devastating consequences are only multiplied by the fumigations. There is no way one can counter pose the two, as the US ambassador to Colombia, Curtis Kamman, tried to do when he said in defense of spraying: ""For a net environmental positive effect, getting rid of coca is the best course for Colombia."" Or similarly by Colonel Leonardo Gallego, director of the Colombian Counter-narcotics Police, when he said the "primary objective" of increased fumigation is 'destroying coca and recovering the environment destroyed through coca farming.' (1) On the contrary, the continuous displacement of crops caused by the aerial campaign, multiplies the pace of deforestation of the Amazon and Andean mountain forests, and spreads the polluting consequences of cultivation throughout those ecological sensitive territories.

Another poignant contradiction laid out in the report is the obstacle the fumigations pose to any advances in the so far extremely poor record of alternative development. The resolutions of the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs in June 1998, clearly warned about this contradiction. ""Alternative development is an important component of a balanced and comprehensive drug control strategy and is intended to create a supportive environment for the implementation of that strategy. It is intended to promote lawful and sustainable socio-economic options for those communities and population groups that have resorted to illicit cultivation as their only viable means of obtaining a livelihood, contributing in an integrated way to the eradication of poverty."" ""In areas where alternative development programmes have not yet created viable alternative income opportunities, the application of forced eradication might endanger the success of alternative development programmes.""The resolution also states that:" "Eradication efforts should utilize available research and ensure that environmentally safe methods are employed." (2)"

Not only are there many examples of direct physical destruction of alternative development projects caused by fumigations -and some details can be found in this report-, the policy also destroys completely any possibility to achieve a climate of trust and cooperation with the involved communities, needed for a successful implementation of development programmes. For the first time ever, this year the US has allocated five million dollar for an Alternative Development project in Colombia, a meagre figure compared to the hundreds of millions destined for eradication and the armed forces. However, defying every lesson learned in the long and troubled history of development programmes aimed at crop substitution, ""The alternative development program is being integrated with the aggressive opium poppy eradication program; and combined, the programs aim to eliminate the majority of Colombia's opium poppy crop within three years." (3)" Fumigations and alternative development are mutually incompatible strategies. The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the German Ministry for Development Cooperation, two of the main international players in these programmes in Colombia, have been struggling with this contradiction for years now, and it has led to the almost complete absence of any success in this area so far. As long as the fumigation programme is not suspended, investing in alternative development in Colombia is largely a wasted effort.

A basic presumption underlying aggressively applied forced eradication, is that one can by force intervene in the workings of the illicit market, substantially alter the demand-supply equation by simply cutting down the latter. Only on a purely hypothetical level this presumption holds some truth: if there is less available, less can be consumed. In reality, however, supply restores itself as long as there are places to go to and people willing to grow it. In the case of Colombia, the Amazon is an inexhaustible potential growing area, (4) and there are dramatic numbers of impoverished and internally displaced people desperate enough to do anything to survive. (5)

Contradictory as it may seem, under such circumstances fumigations may even stimulate an increase in hectares, as seems to be the case now with coca. Farmers tend to replant more then they lost in the spraying, to anticipate future fumigation losses. And locally coca prices in some areas rise because of temporary shortage, increasing the stimulus for people to enter the coca economy.

If displacement of crops within the country cannot restore supply quickly enough, international compensation is never hard to find. The close scrutiny of the figures carried out by Ricardo Vargas suggests that both upward and downward trends in cultivation per country are highly influenced by international dynamics of the illicit market. National statistics seem to have a 'communicating vessels' relationship with the figures from other countries, automatically re-establishing a certain global balance between supply and demand. Eradication or other supply side anti-drug efforts have not been able to break that logic. (6) The hard reality of the demonstrated inability to forcibly reduce availability on an international scale by 'going to the source,' makes the fumigation strategy a futile exercise.

The same 'communicating vessels' logic applies to Colombia internally, as has been recognized by US officials, for example by Assistant Secretary of State, Rand Beers, in his recent testimony to Congress: ""In 1998, the joint CNP/INL eradication campaign sprayed record amounts of coca, over 65,000 hectares. In the Guaviare region, where much of the spray effort has been concentrated and which was the center of the Colombian cocaine industry, the crop has decreased more than 30% over the last two years, and very little new cultivation is reported. Similar inroads are being made in the Caqueta region now. Unfortunately, this success has been undermined by the inability of spray aircraft to make meaningful penetration into the Putumayo region, where coca cultivation has increased an astounding 330% over the last two years. The center of gravity of the coca industry in Colombia has clearly shifted." (7)"

This recognition is cause for US agencies to pressure Colombia into stepping up even more the intensity of spraying operations, to extend the program to the Putumayo, finance and train an Anti-Narcotics Army Battalion to support eradication efforts in the region, and to pressure for the introduction of stronger and more hazardous, granular herbicides into the aerial eradication program. Illegally, experiments with Imazapyr have already taken place, in spite of stated opposition from the Colombian Ministry of Environment.

Recently, the pressure for granular herbicides seems to have been traded off against a Colombian condonation to set in motion a program to test a biological control agent, an herbicidal fungus that could destroy coca and opium poppy. Since early nineties an epidemic of the 'Fusarium oxysporum' fungus has severely affected coca fields in Peru, the idea of intentional creation of such epidemics is considered to be the potential 'silver bullet' in the War on Drugs. Little is known still about the possible dangers of massive introduction of -genetically engineered- 'mycoherbicides' into the ecosystem, of their potential to attack other plant species (the 'non-target species safety'), and of the ultimate possible outcome of a herbal genocide - wiping out an entire plant species from the planet. So far, the fusarium fungus does not seem to be very 'host specific', as Peruvian farmers experienced during the epidemic in the Upper Huallaga valley. Moreover, apart from the 'EN-4' strain selected for the coca eradication program, experiments with other fusarium strains have been ongoing to use it against cannabis and opium poppy as well. (8)

Very worrisome, the fungus program threatens to compromise the UN into a direct involvement in forced eradication and fumigation, something the UNDCP has maintained distance from for a long while. An Expert Group on Environmentally Safe Means of the Eradication of Illicit Narcotic Plants has been operating in the shadows of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs for two decades, but now has reached an operational stage within UNDCP under the directorship of Pino Arlacchi. In 1998, a UNDCP sponsored project began in Uzbekistan, to field test another fungus -discovered in a former Sowjet lab- for its effectiveness against opium poppy. (9) The plans for a Colombia project have been prepared by the specialized Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture. In 1998, US Congress approved $ 23 million dollars to intensify the research and bring it 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, call for ""the early deployment of mycoherbicides in FARC and ELN controlled zones"." Although not yet publicly acknowledged, it now seems UNDCP is considering embracing the plan for a field test in Colombia. A State Department action request to the involved embassies in May 1999, 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."" With this step, UNDCP threatens to leave its more careful course in Colombia so far, exemplified by a pilot alternative development project within the demilitarized zone, an attempt to contribute to a climate of trust between the negotiating parties over the issue of illicit cultivation. An active role in promoting a controversial mycoherbicide program might seriously compromise these important efforts and could obstruct the path towards a broader UN involvement in the peace process.

Instead of escalation, that is to apply more and harder the same strategy whose failure has been demonstrated, the recognition should lead to re-evaluation. Rubén Olarte Reyes, director of the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes seemed to have reached that conclusion when he said: ""Unfortunately, we have to recognize that crop eradication, in the manner that it has been carried out so far has failed,""he said." "There is no doubt that there will have to be a profound revision of the crop eradication programme."" (10)

Around the time of the inauguration of the Pastrana government in August 1998, the debate heated up, in the context of the exploration of how to deal with the issue of illicit cultivation in peace negotiations and the controversy over the granular herbicides. An expanding chorus of voices in Colombia urged the United States to curb its policy of aggressive spraying. The Defensoría del Pueblo issued a strong report denouncing the environmental and social consequences, calling for a suspension of fumigations. Jorge Devia, governor of the state of Putumayo, now the scenery for intensifying fumigation efforts, said the US-financed aerial eradication has displaced coca farmers ever deeper into the jungle, poisoned legitimate crops and created peasant resentment that may favour leftist guerrillas. ""The peasant farmers will just cut down more trees and plant more coca.""Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, former foreign minister and member of the National Peace Commission, agreed, stating: ""Drug trafficking is the fuel that keeps this conflict burning. [...] Peace negotiations will have to be based on a development plan, and that plan will have to include real alternatives to narcotics cultivation."" It cannot be based on crop spraying, ""that hasn't worked,""he added"."Juan Mayr, the new Environment Minister in the Pastrana Administration, was cited: ""We can't permanently fumigate the country.""The chorus of opposition is supported by Klaus Nyholm, head of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) in Colombia:" "the fumigation of crops is not effective,""he said on numerous occasions, ""I don't think you can spray your way out of this mess." (11)"

President Pastrana presented his vision behind 'Plan Colombia' as a transformation of the areas of illicit cultivation into zones of" "rural development, economically viable for our farmers, into ecological safe-havens where the kind of tourism can flourish that respects nature, and where the ecosystem -affected by drug production- will be protected"." He referred to his preference for a ""not contaminating nor destructive"" policy towards drug crops, ""we can't just talk about repression, fumigation and eradication." "When we see that over the past four years the numbers of hectares of coca cultivation have grown from 40.000 to 80.000, it's clear that something is going wrong. And if we add to this the environmental destruction, we have to look for another strategy."" Pastrana rebuked Republican congress members for their close-mindedness, in insisting on ""the simple thesis of an all-out war against drug trafficking"" with a continued focus on aerial spraying. (12)

Since then, however, US officials have stressed again and again 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 State Department, for example stated ""the anti-drug efforts between the US and Colombia, including aerial eradication, are not negotiable and will continue." (13)" And Rand Beers, in his earlier cited Congress testimony: ""We have made clear to all parties that the peace process must not interfere with counternarcotics cooperation, and that any agreement must permit continued expansion of all aspects of this cooperation, including aerial eradication.""

And subsequently, in Colombia the chorus of opposition started to sing more quietly, and the draft for Plan Colombia became subject to negotiations with Washington. As a consequence, president Pastrana now has to try to raise $ 3.5 billion of international funds for a plan plagued by contradictions, a compromise between mutually exclusive approaches to the 'drugs and peace' nexus. On the one hand it reaches out to sectors in Washington that seek to intensify and militarize forced eradication efforts. The 'Plan Colombia: plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state' in its published edition of October 1999, states: "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." From US side, the 'Alianza Act' introduced to the Senate in October 1999, calls for a total of $ 1.5 billion, largely destined to support these parts of Plan Colombia.

On the other hand, the Plan seeks to obtain funding for large-scale alternative development programs mainly from Europe and the UN, for which an international donor meeting will be convened in 2000. In an attempt to make some sense out of this doomed marriage between opposite strategies, the Colombian Alternative Development Programme -Plante- and the Anti-Narcotics Police are busy dividing up the country between areas destined for fumigations and military anti-drug operations on the one hand, and areas destined for alternative development on the other. Put cynically, some 26 municipalities would become enclaves where Europe and the UN can invest their rural development budgets, while the War on Drugs can cry havoc in the rest of the country. A hazardous tactic, to say the least, considering the current pace of crop displacement, the unpredictable course of the armed conflict combined with the undeniable links between anti-drugs and counterinsurgency objectives, and considering the time needed for gradual substitution oriented development to take root. Even more so with the intended artificial infliction of epidemics of herbicidal fungi, which cannot be trusted to respect administrative municipal boundaries.

It is our hope and conviction that Ricardo Vargas' study scientifically substantiates the grave concerns already present within Colombian society over the impacts of the current policy, and that it will contribute to a change of course. We recall the statement made by the former minister of Medio Ambiente, Eduardo Verano de la Rosa when he opposed US pressure to introduce stronger granular herbicides. ""Any befriended country can propose what it considers appropriate for the fight against drugs, but it is our duty as Colombian authorities to take autonomous decisions." (14)" If Washington cannot be convinced of the irrationality and counter productivity of its policy of spraying and militarization, the Colombian government should and could find support elsewhere in the international community for reinstalling coherence in its policy towards illicit cultivation and the peace process, and to back up a decision that brings to end a policy that is ruining the future of the country. A decision to be taken for the sake of sanity, in defence of the peasants whose livelihoods are destroyed, to preserve the environment and to improve prospects for peace.


1. Colombia to test herbicide against coca crops, The New York Times June 20, 1998.
2. "Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development" endorsed by the UN General Assembly Special Session, 8-10 June 1998, nrs 17, 31 and 32.
3. Statement of Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. September 21, 1999.
4. El área total de la Amazonia Colombiana es de 40 millones de hectáreas, de las cuales 29 pertenecen a bosque natural; La Orinoquia comprende unas 25 millones de hectáreas, con 3.5 de bosque natural. Para todo América del Sur, el Departamento de Agricultura de EEUU (USDA) estima que hay unas 650 millones de hectáreas adecuadas para la plantación de coca.
5. Según información recopilado por la Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y Desplazamiento (Codhes) entre agosto de 1994 y junio 1998, no menos de 726.000 personas fueron desplazados como consecuencia de la guerra, aumentando a los 700.000 colombianos desplazados entre 1985 y 1994.
6. Within the framework of the Drugs & Democracy Programme, a study was also undertaken to review the impact of an important supply side interdiction strategy, aimed to block aerial transport of coca-paste and cocaine in the Andean-Amazonic region. The report, entitled The Drug War in the Skies. The US 'Air Bridge Denial' Strategy: The Success of a Failure (TNI and Acción Andina, May 1999) reaches similar conclusions.
7. Statement of Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. September 21, 1999.
8. See: 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; and Entrevista Benjamin Gilman, Revista Semana, 12 October 1998, where Gilman, chairman of the Foreign Relations Commission of the US House of Representatives, states about the fungus: "Se espera que en dos años pueda comenzar a ser usado. Lo que le puedo decir es que parece que es extremamente efectivo, no es costoso, no afecta el medio ambiente y es una buena manera de erradicar la coca."
9. UNDCP Project Document AD/RER/98/C37. Several fungi are being tested, but the main focus is on Dendryphion papaveraceae. The Uzbekistan project is funded jointly by the British and US governments.
10. "Colombia Calls Drug Crop Eradication A Failure", Reuters, 9 September 1998.
11. See: ""Las Farc quieren romper con narcos"", El Espectador, 26 July 1998; "Drug Eradication Programme Fails", Associated Press, 16 August, 1998; "Colombian Farmers Cultivating More Coca Crops Than Ever", The Houston Chronicle, 23 August 1998; "Colombia Fights its Dependence on Coca Economy," The Miami Herald, 31 August 1998;""and" Colombia's way to halt drugs and war at once", Christian Science Monitor 16 Sept 1998.
12. See: Colombia's Pastrana: US Is Politicizing Drug War, Reuters 20 Sep 1998; Fumigación, piedra del escándalo, El Espectador 17 de octubre de 1998; "Paz no puede ser narcotizada por el mundo" El Espectador 23 de octubre de 1998.
13. "Cuatro ases de Pastrana en busca de la paz", El Espectador 5 de enero de 1999.
14. Un herbicida en aprietos, El Espectador 15 julio de 1997.