QUITO - Colombia's Environment minister, Juan Myer, maintains that aerial fumigation of coca plantations causes ''no real harm,'' though the environmental group Ecological Action stated Wednesday that the practice has meant health problems for more than 6,000 people living along the Ecuador-Colombia border.
''The effects of the fumigation are evident in the 36 symptoms of illness present in the border communities,'' reported Adolfo Maldonado, a Spanish doctor who participated in conducting a study sponsored by the Quito-based Ecological Action.
Every one of the Ecuadorian residents living within five kilometers of the Colombian border presented symptoms of pesticide- related ailments, he said. At 10 km, the portion of the population affected fell to 89 percent.
The people suffering the impact of the coca-eradication efforts on the Ecuadorian side of the border number nearly 2,000, while there are an estimated 4,000 on the Colombian side, according to the study.
As part of Plan Colombia, an anti-drug trade and pro- development plan championed by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, that country's military forces have been spraying coca plantations in the department of Putumayo, located on the Ecuadorian border and home to an estimated 60 percent of the country's coca fields.
Ecological Action's report seeks to refute the statements made by Myer, who stated Tuesday that glyphosate, the herbicide used in the aerial spraying, causes no real problems for human health or the environment.
According to the Colombian minister, just 15 percent of the glyphosate used in Colombia goes toward eradication of coca, the raw material for cocaine production. The rest, he said, is utilized in wiping out weeds in plantations of sugarcane and of other crops.
The research conducted by the environmental group includes an analysis of the substances implemented in the fumigation of coca plantations and the effects of these chemicals on the health of the residents of Ecuador's Amazon province of Sucumbíos, on the Colombian border.
The herbicide used contains RoundUp Ultra, manufactured by the agro-chemical transnational Monsanto, with the active ingredient glyphosate. Cosmo-Flux 411F is added to the Roundup Both are highly toxic, says the environmental organization.
Lucía Gallardo, head of Ecological Action's biodiversity campaign, pointed out that Roundup Ultra contains 26 percent glyphosate, instead of the one percent recommended for use as an herbicide.
''That percentage is exceptionally dangerous to human health, but even worse is the use of Cosmo-Flux, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency has classified as 'extremely toxic','' Gallardo told IPS.
Ecuador's Ministry of Environment, meanwhile, has formed a commission - with delegates from the ministries of Health, Defense and Foreign Relations - to assess the problems that have arisen along the country's northern border since Plan Colombia was launched last year.
The commission will turn to the Pan-American Health Organization. for assistance in conducting its evaluation, the results of which will determine what course Ecuador's government will take with respect to the aerial fumigations, announced Environment minister, Lourdes Luque.
But Luque stressed that no damages have been incurred in the Ecuadorian region bordering Colombia as a result of the spraying and she described Ecological Action as an ''extremist'' organization.
For her part, Gallardo defended her group's research, saying ''it confirms what the residents and the border authorities had already reported.''
Environment minister Luque is ''turning a blind eye to an obvious reality,'' she added.
''It would be important for the minister to visit the areas affected and not just speak from her office, because her attitude and that of the Colombian minister (Myer) contradict the principles they claim to defend,'' said the activist.
Myer and Luque made their statements during the Andean Conference of Environmental Authorities, held Monday and Tuesday in Quito, an event that also drew Venezuela's assistant minister of environment, Alejandro Hitcher, and the ambassadors of Peru and Bolivia in Ecuador.
The Andean countries - Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela - together are home to 25 percent of the planet's biodiversity and share a common destiny in the natural heritage that they must protect, Luque said.
Also entering the debate on coca fumigations is the Ecuadorian Congress. Its International Affairs Committee has asked the National Polytechnic University and the Central University to study the effects of the herbicide on human health and the environment in the area along the Colombian border.
The Committee's chairman, Hugo Moreno, said it is imperative to determine whether harm is being caused in Ecuador by the chemicals used in the fumigation of coca plantations in the nearby areas of Colombia.
''If human ailments are verified, the national government will be called upon to provide the corresponding reparations to the farmers and peasants of that area,'' he said.
Copyright 2001 IPS