Published on Monday, September 24, 2001 by the Inter Press Service
Ecuadorians File U.S. Suit Over Plan Colombia
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - Ecuadorian Indians are taking legal
action in federal court here, charging that a U.S. company
contracted to carry out fumigation of illicit crops in
neighbouring Colombia recklessly sprayed their homes and farms,
causing illnesses and deaths, and destroying crops.
U.S.-based attorneys representing 10,000 individuals living in the Amazon rainforest near the border with Colombia filed a class action complaint against Virginia-based DynCorp Corporation in federal court here Sep. 11.
A DynCorp spokesperson said the company has not been notified about the complaint and declined to comment further.
The legal complaint is the latest in a series of actions brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to sue U.S. companies in courts here over acts committed abroad.
''The spraying of a toxic herbicide over people and land is a stupid and reckless action,'' said Terry Collingsworth of the International Labour Rights Fund here, one of the lead counsels in the case.
In addition to charging DynCorp with violating the Alien Tort Claims Act, the complaint alleges the company also breached the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act, among others. It seeks millions of dollars in compensation and an immediate halt to spraying that allegedly affects Ecuador.
The complaint also calls into question 'Plan Colombia', the U.S.- funded strategy to combat narcotics launched last year by Colombian President Andres Pastrana.
Plan Colombia involves 7.5 billion dollars for social and economic development and 1.3 billion dollars, pledged by the United States, mostly for military equipment and training, and aerial fumigation of illicit coca, marijuana, and poppy crops.
Colombian politicians and officials have said that although they favour eradicating narcotics crops, a new strategy is needed because fumigation with the herbicide glyphosate is causing illnesses, destroying pastures and food crops, poisoning livestock, and displacing thousands of small farmers.
In March and July, Colombian legislators and governors came here and told reporters that fumigation was not hurting the narcotics industry but severely harming poor farming families. They said planes spraying the crops blanket entire communities with the herbicide and cause poor farmers to suffer illnesses and skin problems.
Indigenous leaders in Colombia also have voiced opposition to the spraying.
Last year, Emperatriz Cahuache, president of the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, came to Washington and showed reporters a map illustrating how the areas of coca and marijuana cultivation overlaps with indigenous territories and the areas that have been fumigated.
''These fumigations are contaminating the Amazon and destroying the forest,'' said Cahuache.
Proponents of Plan Colombia said glyphosate, marketed by the U.S.- based Monsanto company under the trade name 'Roundup', is as safe as salt. Critics countered that directions on glyphosate labels warn users not to allow the product to come into contact with people or water sources.
The lawsuit against DynCorp is the second time that indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon have used the Alien Tort Claims Act to sue a U.S. company in U.S. court for allegedly endangering human health and destroying crops.
In 1993, a group of Ecuadorian indigenous people filed a class action suit against the Texaco oil company, charging that during two decades of drilling in the Amazon, it dumped more than 3,000 gallons of crude oil into the rainforest.
The plaintiffs claimed that the company ignored oil industry standards and, instead of re-injecting the waste back into the ground, dumped a toxic cocktail of chemicals into unlined pits that eventually leached into streams and rivers.
Their lawsuit is still pending in federal court in New York.
Cristobal Bonifaz, a Massachusetts-based attorney originally from Ecuador, is one of the lead attorneys in the case against Texaco. He is also a lead counsel representing Ecuadorians in the new action against DynCorp.
Bonifaz said he became aware of the alleged fumigation in Ecuador after communication with his clients in the lawsuit against the oil company.
''In the same region where Texaco devastated the environment and caused untold suffering to the people of the rainforest, a new enemy now comes from the air, poisoning the people, killing their crops, and destroying their land,'' said Bonifaz.
Copyright 2001 IPS