Published on Tuesday, October 17, 2000 by InterPress Service
Plan Colombia's Herbicide Spraying Causing Health And Environmental Problems
by Kintto Lucas
NUEVA LOJA, Ecuador - The military's fumigation of coca plantations in Colombia with the herbicide glyphosate, part of the government's anti-drug trafficking fight, is causing environmental damage and health problems in neighbouring Ecuador's border provinces.

Residents of General Farfán and Puerto el Carmen, villages in the Ecuadorian Amazon province of Sucumbíos, on the banks of the San Miguel River, told IPS that in the days after they heard airplanes fumigating in the nearby Colombian department of Putumayo, dozens of trees in their towns began to die.

'The consequences are felt on this side of the border - many trees dry up and no one knows why, but it can be explained by the application of some herbicides, like those used in the Colombian fumigations,'' commented Tito Piedra, resident of Puerto el Carmen.

Bolívar Botina, mayor of Puerto Guzmán, on the Colombian side, affirmed Piedra's information and added that seven people in the area have died from intoxication caused by the extensive fumigation over the last four months.

'Last week they stopped fumigating, perhaps because of the protests by the people of Putumayo against Plan Colombia,' but we presume they will be back soon,'' said Botina.

Plan Colombia, which took effect Sep 1, is President Andrés Pastrana's seven-billion-dollar initiative to fight drug trafficking and production. The United States has already assured 1.3 billion dollars for the plan û largely military aid -, Colombia is to provide 4.5 billion, and Pastrana is hoping Europe and Asia will put up the rest.

But it was the fumigation efforts in an area of the Colombian department of Nariño, bordering Ecuador's mountainous province of Carchi, that caused the worst impacts on the Ecuadorian population.

'Since August the air we breathe hasn't been the same and there are neighbours who have had sore eyes and headaches, which isn't normal,'' said Juan Cruz, a farmer from Tobar Donoso, a village in Carchi.

Arturo Yepez, a doctor from Tulcán, capital of Carchi, said the zone's residents come to him with symptoms similar to peasants who have been ' poisoned from ingesting pesticides.''

Peasant farmers from Tobar Donoso say there have been only low- level fumigations in recent weeks, but they fear renewed massive efforts, like those in late August intended to destroy 5,000 hectares of coca fields on the Colombian side of the border.

At that time, Colombian anti-drug forces used three Turbo Thrush crop-dusting airplanes, guarded by three Black Hawk helicopters and 200 soldiers, trained and equipped by the United States.

The director of the anti-drug police, Gen. Ismael Trujillo, said that with the destruction of the coca fields and of the processing laboratories in Nariño his force has prevented the production of approximately 29 tonnes of cocaine destined for the US market.

'While planes flew over the plantations, leaving a wake of glyphosate in the air, and the helicopters escorted them to prevent guerrilla attacks, the soldiers went into the forest to search for peasants who fled,'' a coca grower, who requested his name withheld, told IPS.

On the Ecuadorian side, farmers reported that approximately six hours after the spraying they saw extensive areas of yucca, or manioc, with burned leaves.

Glyphosate, one of Monsanto's most important chemical herbicides, was introduced in Latin America 25 years ago, marketed principally under the name Roundup with annual sales of 1.2 billion dollars.

It is an herbicide classified as a Category III Toxin, which calls for caution in handling because it can cause gastro-intestinal problems, vomiting, enlargement of the lungs, pneumonia, mental confusion, and destruction of the red corpuscles in mucus membrane tissues.

But the Ecuadorians also fear that in the eradication of coca, the Colombian military is using the transgenic fungus Fusarium oxysporum.' The fungus is an alternative Washington proposed to the Colombian government, but has been denounced by scientists and environmentalists around the world because of the dangers posed by its release into the environment.

Lucía Gallardo, of the Acción Ecológica' organisation, conducted research on the potential environmental consequences of Plan Colombia in Ecuador and stresses that 'Fusarium oxysporum would threaten the biodiversity of the entire Amazon region.''

'It causes damage to various cultivated plants, leading to different types of diseases and wilting of the leaves, rotting fruit and even killing the plant. It can also cause illness in humans, especially in patients with depressed immune systems, with cancer or AIDS,'' she added.

Gallardo also says the fungus has the ability to genetically mutate and scatter itself, killing other crops - it is an organism that easily adapts to its surroundings.

'By introducing the fungus into an ecosystem as complex as the Amazon, it could attack important crops like manioc, a food on which the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin depend, and it could spread to the coast, affecting coffee, citrus, banana and other plantations,'' the researcher pointed out.

The Amazon could turn into a focal point of contamination, the effects of which could last many years as the fungus can live for 20 years and is disseminated by air, soil and water.

Fusarium oxysporum is categorised in the draft of the Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention as 'a biological agent for war,'' that once released into the environment is impossible to withdraw, such that 'its effects are unpredictable.''

'The fungus can spread without taking into account political borders, attacking other crops and the biodiversity of Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela,'' argues Gallardo.

Ecuador's Minister of Environment, Jorge Rendón, issued a decree prohibiting the use of Fusarium oxysporum in the country and denied that any experiments had been carried out within national borders.

According to the New York Times, the Colombian Minister of Environment, Juan Myer, under pressure from the United States, agreed to test the effectiveness of the herbicidal fungus in that country, but he later refuted the reports, saying Colombia would not allow experiments with the fungus there.

The Ecuadorian population living along the border is also concerned that there might be a massive influx of Colombians, displaced by the fumigations and by the escalation of armed confrontations between the guerrillas, paramilitary groups and government forces.

Anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 peasants from Putumayo could be displaced and seek refuge in Sucumbíos, according to official estimates. Massive immigration would collapse the Ecuadorian province's administrative capacity.

Several human rights organisations have reported that Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups are buying up farms in Sucumbíos, feeding fears that confrontations with Colombia's leftist guerrillas will further spill over into Ecuadorian territory.

Experts believe that coca plantations could spring up in Ecuador, as occurred in the early 1990s when coca eradication plans in Peru prompted the expansion of coca fields in Colombia.

'If that occurs, the indigenous peoples and peasants in those regions could be displaced, and the biodiversity and different ecosystems threatened with extinction,'' stated Gallardo.

More than 20 communities and of the indigenous Kishwa peoples, located along the border, would be at risk, she said.

Border authorities and non-governmental organisations have formed the Amazon Defence Front to monitor the consequences of Plan Colombia on the region's environment.

'We will not allow them to contaminate our ecosystem, because they have already caused enough damage with their oil spills,'' said Máximo Abad, mayor of Nueva Loja, capital of Sucumbíos.

Copyright 2000 IPS