Colombia’s Constitutional Court is debating lifting a judicial ban on the spraying of glyphosate during the aerial fumigation of illicit coca crops, a decision that is unlikely to fix the nation’s coca problems.
At the beginning of March, the court announced that it would accept President Iván Duque’s request for a hearing to debate the lifting of a 2015 ban on the aerial spraying of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate.
“We have been left without the necessary tools to confront the greatest threat to constitutional order in many places across the country,” Duque said in favor of modifying the ban in remarks he gave during the March 7 hearing. He added that such a decision would “strengthen public order and the defense of fundamental rights.”
Colombia Attorney General Humberto Martínez and Defense Minister Guillermo Botero both supported Duque’s request that the Constitutional Court permit a return to the use of glyphosate during aerial fumigation, arguing that the current methods being used have been ineffective.
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On the other hand, former President Juan Manuel Santos criticized the “high human cost” of forced eradication and the lack of attention that modifying the ban on glyphosate has on one of the primary threats to eradicating coca crops: farmers replanting them.
Rates of “replanting were and continue to be high -- more than 60 percent in some cases -- not only because there’s no territorial control, but because small farmers simply do not have any alternatives to replanting [coca crops],” the former president said.
In 2015, the Santos administration halted the use of the Monsanto-produced glyphosate to fumigate coca crops. Both Colombian and US authorities have called to revive its use in the years since despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) findings that the herbicide has “links to cancer.”
Other critics of the use of glyphosate and forcibly eradicating coca crops echoed Santos' statements, arguing that the human costs and vulnerability of eradication teams should make officials “seriously rethink” how best to address the country’s coca cultivation and related cocaine production.
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The amount of land being used to cultivate coca -- the raw ingredient in cocaine -- and total cocaine production in Colombia have been on the rise since 2013. A record 171,000 hectares were used for coca cultivation in 2017, helping the world’s top cocaine producer manufacture 1,379 metric tons of the drug, a 31 percent increase from the year before, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
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The Duque administration in Colombia is convinced that, despite its past failures and high humanitarian costs, a return to aerial fumigation using glyphosate is the only way to help curtail record coca cultivation and cocaine production in the Andean nation, something his predecessor was unable to reign in.
“This isn’t a decision about a herbicide, the true discussion is about the risks and threats that our country is confronting,” Duque said.
Antioquia Governor Luis Pérez Gutiérrez supported the president, explaining that “illicit crops in Colombia smell of blood and crime.” The governor added that the state is “losing the war to eradicate illicit crops."
Coca cultivation in Antioquia was relatively low in comparison to the country’s main cocaine-producing departments of Nariño and Putumayo around 2006 and 2007, when the government was spraying coca crops at its highest rates.
Since then, however, coca cultivation in the northwest department has jumped from 6,096 hectares in December 2008 to 9,343 hectares in December 2016, increasing another 55 percent to 13,681 hectares in December 2017, according to the UNODC.
In particular, the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia has been the sight of brutal battles waged over drug trafficking and other illicit activities between the Urabeños and a network of dissident former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) fighters from the 36th Front that is aligned with a splinter group known as the Caparrapos.
However, while aerial fumigation can produce short-term reductions in coca cultivation, coca crops have recovered in the long-term as farmers replant and grow more crops in response, while also deploying other strategies to adjust their growing operations in the wake of increased forced eradication.
The citizens of southwest Nariño and Putumayo departments -- which, according to the UNODC, were Colombia’s biggest cocaine producing departments and accounted for nearly 50 percent of the total land used for coca cultivation in 2017 -- know this better than anyone.
“Human eradication has cost us the most valuable thing: human lives. Police and small farmers have lost their lives during eradication efforts," said Nariño Governor Camilo Romero Galeano, arguing that one effective solution over the use of glyphosate is the substitution of coca crops.
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Indeed, nine civilians were killed and 18 others wounded in an October 2017 clash over the government’s forced eradication of coca crops in the Pacific port city of Tumaco. Other civilians and government officials have also been killed while forcibly eradicating coca crops in this criminally strategic department.
Putumayo Governor Sorrel Aroca added that small farmers are waiting for the government to “fulfill what was promised as part of the crop substitution program” included in the FARC peace deal.
Known as the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS), criminal violence, tensions between coca farmers and UN observers, as well as a lack of state presence and the government’s slow implementation of key aspects of the program have all threatened its implementation.
Some reports suggest that voluntary crop substitution is more effective than forced eradication when it comes to farmers replanting coca crops. A recent United Nations study, for example, found that 35 percent of small farmers replant coca crops after security forces forcibly eradicate them. But when communities voluntarily substitute coca crops, just 0.6 percent of farmers replant them, El Tiempo reported.
Still, what’s been lost in the black and white debate about a return to the use of glyphosate is the complexity of combatting coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, and the need for a multifaceted strategy with a long-term focus. If the government can’t guarantee the safety of small farmers from powerful criminal groups, and if small farmers don’t have viable alternatives to coca crops that allow them to earn a living wage, then the country’s anti-drug struggles seem poised to continue.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.
(Top: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)