BOGOTA - A Bogota judge Friday suspended aerial fumigation of coca leaf plantations in six departments in southern Colombia, which could jeopardize the future of the US-backed anti-drug and reform Plan Colombia.
The judge upheld a motion by the non-governmental "Paz Colombia" to cease the fumigations, claiming they were damaging both the health of local residents and the environment of the region, planted with 50 percent of the country's coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana responded immediately that the judge's decision would be subject to judicial review by the authorities.
"We are not going to reach agreements with drug traffickers to suspend the fumigations of the industrial drug culture," Pastrana told reporters.
The suspension of fumigations in the departments of Cauca, Narino, Putumayo, Caqueta, Guainia and Guaviare, comes amid fractious debate in the Andean nation whether the US-sanctioned aerial disbursement of herbicides by plane or helicopter is dangerous to health and the environment.
Opponents of the coca-leaf defoliation, led by Eduardo Cifuentes, are becoming increasingly more numerous and vociferous, despite assurances from the United States on the inoffensive nature of the herbicides. They would prefer the plants be pulled manually and alternative crops planted.
To put concerns about the herbicides to rest, the US embassy in Bogota will "soon" conduct a toxicology study on Colombian subjects to study the long-term effects of the aerial fumigations on health, a US diplomatic source here said even before the judge's decision.
"We have a moral obligation to verify that the fumigations have no risk for the population," the source said, explaining that the health of two groups of men, women and children, one within the region and the other outside, would be monitored for a still-undetermined length of time.
The only herbicide used in the aerial eradication program is glyphosate, one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals in the world, according to the US embassy's website.
The embassy said a recent comprehensive review of studies on glyphosate concluded there is no indication of any human health concern.
Fifty percent of the country's 160,000 hectares of coca-leaf plantations are located in the south of Colombia, the world's leading producer of cocaine with 580 tons per year, three-quarters of which is bound for the United States.
Plan Colombia, adopted in July 200, includes a 1.3 billion-dollar tranche of aid from the United States, mostly in military assistance.
Three Blackhawk helicopters -- among the 16 promised by the United States -- were delivered to Bogota Friday, the embassy said. Two will be operated by Colombian police and one by the military, to ensure better maneuverability for the aerial surveillance team.
Over the first six months of 2001, 51,000 hectares of coca leaf plantations were destroyed.
An additional 676 million dollars in US aid for Colombia and neighboring countries is up for consideration in the US Congress. It was agreed to Tuesday by the House of Representatives and must be approved by the Senate before being passed to President George W. Bush to become law.
Copyright © 2001 AFP