WASHINGTON, DC -- The aerial fumigation program that
has grown out of the U.S. government's so-called "war on drugs" is
endangering the fragile ecosystems and indigenous cultures of Colombia's
Amazon Basin, a coalition of groups warned today at a news conference on
The fumigation program, which the U.S. finances as part of a $1.3 billion
Colombian aid package approved this summer, is designed to
eradicate coca and other plants used to manufacture illicit drugs.
But critics say the program indiscriminately wipes out legitimate subsistence
crops as well as natural plants, and kills birds, mammals and aquatic life.
The chemicals are applied by aircraft and frequently fall on Columbia's indigenous
peoples, subjecting them to a variety of health afflictions, critics add.
"This spraying campaign is equivalent to the Agent Orange devastation of
Vietnam - a disturbance the wildlife and natural ecosystems have never
recovered from," said Dr. David Olson, director of the World Wildlife Fund's
conservation science program. "And it is occurring on the watch of the
current Congress and [executive] administration, supported by taxpayer
Though carried out by Colombian police and military authorities, the aerial
fumigation program utilizes U.S. government aircraft, fuel, escort
helicopters and private military contractors.
The herbicide approved for the
program, glyphosate, is manufactured by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation
and is commonly referred to by the trade name Roundup.
Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning that any plant exposed to a
sufficient amount of the chemical will be killed. The chemical has been
sprayed over tens of thousands of acres in Colombia since the early 1990s,
but the eradication program has done little to curtail the supply of cocaine
that comes into the U.S. every year.
Still, Colombian officials - at the request of U.S. policymakers - are once
again gearing up to dump thousands of liters of glyphosate on Colombia, this
time targeting the country's southern state of Putumayo.
Emperatriz Cahuache, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the
Colombian Amazon, came to Washington today to voice her opposition to the
"Fumigation violates our rights and our territorial autonomy," the indigenous leader said. "It has intensified the violence of the armed conflict and forced people to
leave their homes after their food crops have been destroyed."
As many as 10,000 Colombians could be displaced when the spraying begins
next month, noted Hiram Ruiz, a senior policy analyst with the U.S.
Committee for Refugees, a non-governmental group based in Washington. Ruiz,
who toured the Putumayo region in June, said that the fumigation program
will make local residents vulnerable to the guerrillas and paramilitary
groups that were spawned from Colombia's long running civil war.
While the social repercussions of the fumigation program were perhaps the
most poignant aspect of Monday's news conference, other issues - such as the
program's environmental consequences - also generated a great deal of
The World Wildlife Fund's Olson noted that the defoliating chemicals will be
applied by aircraft flying high above the forests, thus increasing the
likelihood that unintended areas will be poisoned.
"For every hectare of forest sprayed, another is lost to [pesticide] drift
and another to additional clearing of displaced crops," Olson said. The
destruction is extensive."
Olson said that wildlife will be directly affected by the application of the
chemicals. Frogs and insects will be impacted immediately, and larger
animals will suffer weakening and sickness, he said.
"If and when our [human] species matures, we will rightfully view such
practices as abominations, crimes against our planet and ourselves, Olson
Olson's point was echoed by Dr. Luis Naranjo, director of the American Bird
Conservancy's international program. Naranjo noted that Colombia has more
species of wild birds than any other country, but he said that scores of
them are vulnerable to extinction because of U.S. led efforts to eradicate
"Bird conservation is at the crossroads of the armed conflict in Colombia," Naranjo said. "Unless the current policies to face the drug problem in the country are revised, we will be facing the extinction of many of the organisms that make the country's biota so distinctive."
Naranjo noted that as a non-selective herbicide, glyphosate will reduce
plant cover and food supply for many forest dependent birds. And because of
the drift effect that occurs with aerial applications, the destruction of
plant cover will extend far beyond targeted areas, he added.
"It has been estimated that for every hectare of coca sprayed, two hectares
of forest are affected," Naranjo said.
The fumigation program will also drive rural communities that now grow
illegal crops to migrate even deeper into the forest to clear new patches of
land in order to reinitiate their activities, further worsening the region's
environmental problems, Naranjo warned.
The environmental consequences of the fumigation program were also criticized
by Francisco Tenorio Paez, president of the Regional Indigenous Organization
of Putumayo. Paez delivered an impassioned condemnation of the program,
calling it an "attack against human life, the community and the environment."
Putumayo elected officials earlier this year declared their "overwhelming
and unanimous rejection" of the Colombian government's fumigation policy.
The local leaders called on the national government to consider "manual and
voluntary" methods to eradicate coca grown in the region. The leaders
supported their argument by citing Article 79 of the Colombian constitution,
which declares that "All people have the right to enjoy a healthy
Appeals to stop the fumigation policy have also been made to President
Bill Clinton, who was sent a letter today signed by representatives of
nearly three dozen environmental, human rights and public policy groups. The
letter urges Clinton to cancel the fumigation program, saying its "long term
ecological effects could be severe."
"The herbicide glyphosate has been blamed for destroying acres of trees and
contaminating wells, streams and ponds," declared the letter, which was also
sent to Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango.
Today's press conference was sponsored by a host of non-governmental groups,
including the Amazon Alliance, the Institute for Policy Studies, the
Lindesmith Center, the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office and the Washington
Office on Latin America.
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