Colombia's top anti-drug adviser has whipped up a political storm with comments that the aerial fumigation of coca crops that has been a central tenet of US anti-narcotics policies in Colombia does not work and devastates the lives of rural populations.
Daniel Mejia, the head of the Colombia's presidential advisory commission on drug policy, became embroiled in a row with the government after co-authoring a report (pdf) that said glyphosate, the pesticide used in most aerial fumigation, was ineffective and had harmful side-effects.
Mejia claimed the government tried to prevent the publication of his report until after a ruling by the International Court at the Hague on a long-standing petition filed by Ecuador on behalf of farmers who said they had been harmed by illegal cross-border spraying. When he refused, the government used testimony from contractors of Monsanto, a US company which manufactures glyphosate, to discredit his findings in front of the court, leaving him so outraged he resigned his post, reported Semana.
"These personal and professional attacks, coming as they do from the Foreign Office, directly interfere with my work at the Drug Policy Advisory Commission," he wrote in his resignation letter. "I cannot allow an institution from the same government [that created the commission] to question me like this."
However Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez, to whom the letter was addressed, refused to accept Mejia's resignation, instead expressing his support for the advisor and reaffirming the independence of the commission he heads. Mejia later thanked the minister for this support via Twitter and said he would remain in his position.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the final hearings at The Hague, Colombia settled out of court with Ecuador with an agreement to pay its neighbor $15 million in compensation and to ban any aerial fumigation within 10 kilometers of the border. It was a victory achieving all of Ecuador's objectives, said the Ecuadorean government: "Much more than what could have been achieved in a legal ruling," according to Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño.
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Around 128,000 hectares of land have been aerially fumigated each year over the last decade as a key part of the US-funded billion dollar Plan Colombia, according to the report Mejia published with Adriana Camacho, a fellow professor at Bogota's Universidad de los Andes. Between 1996 and 2012, more than 1.6 million hectares were sprayed, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) -- the equivalent of one hectare every five minutes and 29 seconds. Yet "the vast majority of evaluations of the efficacy of aerial fumigation campaigns have found their efficacy to be very low, if not zero," said Mejia and Camacho. Aerial fumigation only results in a reduction of the sprayed crop area of around 15 percent.
WOLA has pointed out that over time, aerial fumigation has not correlated with a decline in overall coca production in Colombia -- cultivation only began to decline in 2007, the same time as fumigation efforts were scaled back. "For the United States, the marginal cost of reducing by one kilogram the amount of cocaine reaching its borders by attacking production [including manual eradication as well as aerial fumigation] is US$163,000, whereas the same result can be had attacking trafficking [through interdiction] for US$3,600," Mejia concluded in an earlier 2010 report (pdf).
Moreover multiple studies (cited in Mejia & Camacho's report) have documented negative health effects in places where aerial fumigation has taken place, such as skin problems, respiratory problems including lung cancer, gastrointestinal damage, destruction of red blood cells, mental health disorders, miscarriages and fetal deformations. As noted by Mejia and Camacho, it is extremely difficult to establish a direct causal link between health problems and glysophate because there are so many other variable factors to take into account. However the report concludes there is sufficient evidence to ascertain that exposure to aerial fumigation using glysophate increases the possibility of suffering skin disorders and miscarriages. Longterm, the many problems associated with glyphosate could negatively affect the development of Colombia's rural economy by damaging the health of its population, it says.
US company Monsanto developed and patented glyphosate in the 1970s, going on to use the chemical in its Roundup herbicide which has become one of the world's leading herbicide brands. Glyphosate is used routinely all over the world -- but in Colombia, the only country in the world where aerial fumigation of drug crops is allowed, glyphosate is used at more than five times the recommended concentration. Roundup's labelling recommends a concentration of 1.6 to 7.7 percent glyphosate to be mixed with water, with an absolute upper limit of 29 percent. But according to the settlement agreed between Ecuador and Colombia, the mixture used in Colombian aerial fumigation contains 44 percent glyphosate, reported news agency Inter Press Service.
Aside from being relatively ineffective and linked to serious health problems, another major issue with aerial fumigation is its indiscriminate nature -- it destroys all crops it hits, not just illegal ones, and affected communities say its contaminates water supplies and kills livestock. Winds can carry the chemical far from its intended target, especially in areas where pilots do not want to fly too low for fear of being shot at by armed rebels. The government has failed to provide viable, sustainable economic alternatives or compensation to coca farmers and local populations, who often live in remote areas with strong guerrilla activity and little state presence.
Fumigation causes huge anger and resentment among affected communities and seriously damages the government's credibility. During field research last month in the state of Putamayo -- once Colombia's principal coca producing area, where huge aerial fumigation took place under Plan Colombia, InSight Crime was told of the devastation caused, and encountered outrage that the Colombian government had agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador while failing to provide anything to its own farmers. Local people also said they believe old coordinates are being used by fumigators as fields were being sprayed where coca had not been grown in a while.
"While fumigation has contributed modestly to reduced coca growing, it has done so at a steep cost, both in dollars and in goodwill toward Colombia’s government in conflictive territories where it is most needed," wrote WOLA associate Adam Isacson recently. "The past twenty years’ experience makes clear that fumigation is neither an effective solution nor a model to follow in the future."
Mejia's comments have come at crucial time, Isacson told InSight Crime. The Colombian government is currently holding historic peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the policy of fumigation is likely be a key part of the agenda. "Not everyone in [President Juan Manuel] Santos' government is decided on the policy of fumigation, and Mejia is showing the cards of those against it," he said. "Certainly there is opposition in the US to this cornerstone of antinarcotics policy, and Mejia's comments will provide strong ammunition for them at this highly sensitive time."
Mejia is certainly hoping for a dramatic paradigm shift. "No one is saying that we should stop fighting drug trafficking," he told newspaper El Colombiano last week. "What we are saying is we have to fight it in a way that is more efficient, more respectful of human rights, in a way that promotes rural development, that strengthens state institutions. Aerial fumigation does not do that."