USA: Critics Detail Risks of Colombian Coca Spraying

Publisher Name: 
Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC -- A U.S. State Department report on aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia fails to prove that the pesticide program does not harm the environmentor pose safety risks to humans, charge six independent reviews released Monday by scientists and advocacy groups. The groups argue that the U.S. cannot authorize more funds for the controversial program until it can rule out health and environmental risks from the spraying.

The State Department report, which includes comments by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was submitted to Congress on September 4 to comply with the requirements of the 2002 foreign appropriations act. The Act requires a determination and report by the Secretary of State that chemicals used in the aerial eradication of coca crops in Colombia do not pose unreasonable health or safety risks to humans or the environment.

But reviews by a variety of experts charge that the State Department report does more to underscore the risks and uncertainties associated with the program than to assess and rule out potential impacts to humans and the environment.

"It is impossible for the State Department to report that there are no unacceptable adverse impacts associated with the eradication program without first conducting a thorough analysis of all potential impacts," said Dr. Anna Cederstav, a staff scientist with Earthjustice and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense.

Among the information lacking from the State Department report is an analysis of how the continual relocation of coca fields after crops have been destroyed is impacting the environment. Each time coca farmers move their crops, they deforest a new area, opening it to further development, the report charges.

"It appears that this impact has been ignored to date," Cederstav added. "This is a grave and unacceptable omission."

Earthjustice's criticisms of the report, along with five other reviews, were provided to the members of Congress in charge of evaluating the State Department report's compliance with the conditions of the 2002 foreign appropriations act.

Under the Kenneth M. Ludden Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2002, the State Department cannot purchase additional chemicals for the aerialeradication program until it reports to Congress that the program is carried out in accordance with U.S. regulatory controls and Colombian law.

The State Department must also demonstrate that the spraying causes no unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or theenvironment; that alternative development programs are in place in sprayed areas; and that a system is in place to evaluate citizens' claims of health harms or damage to legal food crops, and provide compensation for valid claims.

The aerial fumigation program, which the U.S. finances as part of its multibillion dollar Colombian aid package, 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.

The aerial spray mixture contains three components: water, an EPA registered formulation of the herbicide glyphosate, and Cosmo-Flux 411F, a surfactant produced in Colombia that helps the herbicide to penetrate the waxy surface of the coca leaves.

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 theearly 1990s, but critics note that the eradication program has done little to curtail the supply of cocaine that comes into the U.S. every year.

The State Department's conclusion that glyphosate spraying is safe is based heavily on input from the EPA and the USDA. The USDA told the State Department that testing by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) shows that glyphosate
"poses minimal health risks to humans and animals, is environmentally benign, and degrades rapidly in soil and water."

"It is USDA's determination that the risks involved with using
glyphosate with commercially available adjuvants for narcotics
eradication are minimal" added Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

But the independent reviewers charge that the EPA and USDA failed to consider most impacts on Colombia's native species and tribes.

"Colombia is a global biodiversity hotspot and one-third of its reported plant species are not found anywhere else in the world," notes Dr. Ivette Perfecto, professor of tropical ecology at the University of Michigan. "Yet, the EPA analysis does not examine potential risks to these species unique to Colombia, nor does it examine the potential impacts on endangered species in the affected regions."

Dr. Ted Schettler, science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network argues that the EPA review does not include enough exposure or toxicity information about glyphosate to prove that it can be safely applied near human habitations.

"In each of the categories for risk assessment, EPA's analysis fails to provide essential information," Schettler writes. "Most notably, the toxicity of the herbicide mixture is never fully assessed, and the analysis of human exposure is based on unwarranted assumptions about compliance with safety protocols."

"Without a detailed evaluation of exposures as well as the toxicity of the substance being used, an investigation of the spraying program is seriously flawed," Schettler said.

The EPA pointed out that the State Department did not provide the results of glyphosate toxicological tests commissioned by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, because the tests were not completed in time for the report. The EPA reported that without these results, it could not evaluate the toxicity of the spray mixture that the U.S. is using in Colombia.

"In the absence of these testing results, EPA recommended that the Department consider using an alternative glyphosate product with lower potential for acute toxicity," the State Department said. Such an alternative was registered in July 2002, and the State Department "plans to switch to it for use in Colombia as soon as it can be manufactured, purchased and delivered."

The primary risk the EPA did identify is a potential for "acute eye toxicity, due to an inert ingredient in the particular glyphosate formulation used by the program," according to the State Department report. That risk is limited mostly to the handlers and mixers of concentrated glyphosate, rather than the general public.

The U.S. Embassy in Colombia is working with the Colombian government to warn local citizens in areas where spraying is planned, and inform them of precautions to take in case of possible incidental contact with the spray mixture.

"Based on the above information, we do not believe that EPA's
reservation about the risk of eye irritation rises to the threshold of 'unreasonable risks' or 'adverse effects' to humans or the environment identified in the statute," the State Department wrote.

However, the reviews by the scientists and advocacy groups charge that a number of concerns that the EPA raised in their analysis were minimized or ignored in the final State Department report to Congress.

"The State Department report glosses over, downplays, or simply ignores many of the concerns and uncertainties emphasized by EPA in its analysis of the aerial coca eradication program," said Jim Oldham, Amazon project director at the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. "The result is a presentation that seems designed to mislead readers and - through exaggerations and incomplete summaries - to obscure the manifold problems associated
with the eradication program."

Rachel Massey, a research fellow with the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies, notes that the EPA admitted that its ecological tests of the environmental impacts of glyphosate are based "solely on North American species and ecosystems."

"The EPA further stresses that none of the ecological studies itreviewed were based on the actual herbicide formulation they are using in Colombia," Massey said. "EPA says it cannot evaluate ecological hazards of the spraying due to lack of data. Given EPA's concerns, on what basis can the State Department claim it has demonstrated ecological safety?"

Critics also note that the herbicide spraying threatens a traditional way of life for the Colombian people, because it destroys their crops and farmlands. Dr. Janet Chernela, chair of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association says the State Department report failed to consider the health and cultural impacts to the more than 58 native peoples living in the tropicallowlands affected by the aerial coca spraying.

"These nations have lived in their territories for hundreds, and in somecases, thousands, of years," Chernela noted. "Displacement caused by herbicidal spraying and violence seriously threatens the rights of aboriginal peoples to inhabit lands belonging to them; it also brings about social and economic disruption affecting every aspect of life."

Anna Cederstav illustrated this point by noting that, "EPA concludes that there is a risk of spray drift affecting and killing 50 percent of young plants up to 600 feet downwind of the sprayed area."

When the herbicide is sprayed on grazing pastures, livestock may not be able to find enough food to survive.

"While the State Department argues that actual drift affects
much smaller areas than estimated by EPA modeling, it
provides no data to support its assertion," Cederstay continued.

"Per the EPA model, the area impacted by drift in a worse case scenario would be approximately equal to the area being sprayed. If the U.S. government meets its goal of killing 300,000 acres of coca this year, that means that up to 300,000 acres of tropical forest habitat and/or food crops could be damaged or destroyed purely as a result of drift. This is clearly an unacceptable adverse environmental impact."

Under the Colombian aid package, the United States is required to provide alternative development options and financial compensationfor farmers affected by the spraying. Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, says the State Department report fails to prove that its program complies with these requirements.

"Aerial spraying, whether through drift, accident or intention, is destroying the food crops of farmers who have agreed to eradicate drug crops and, even worse, of farmers and indigenous communities who are innocent of drug production," Haugaard writes.

"The compensation system required by Congress exists on paper, but not in practice. Of 1,000 claims filed by Colombian farmers for damages, 800 were dismissed sight unseen, and the only claim determined to be valid has not yet been paid."

"Plan Colombia was sold to the U.S. Congress as a balanced
package, with alternative development aid to help farmers transition to legal crops. Yet those programs lag shamefully behind, while spraying expands exponentially," adds Haugaard.

Until these problems can be corrected, the reviewers argue that the Colombian aerial spraying program should be shut down.

"Because the Department of State has not provided sufficient
information" on the herbicide formulation, its toxic properties and environmental impacts and other controversial issues, the agency's report does not meet Congressional requirements, concludes Earthjustice's Anna Cederstav. "In light of this fact, we recommend that the Appropriations Committee withhold financial support for the aerial eradication program."

The State Department's "Report on Issues Related to the Aerial
Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia," is available at:

The independent reviews by scientists and advocacy groups are
available at:

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
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  • 181 Food and Agriculture