BOGOTA - IPS/* Tierramérica -- Tensions are simmering as
indigenous communities, legal experts and scientists in Colombia,
and government authorities both here and in the United States
await a September court ruling on the controversial aerial
spraying of the herbicide glyphosate in government-led efforts to
eradicate illegal coca and opium poppy crops.
The case has been on the legal and environmental agenda in
Bogotá and Washington for more than two decades, a period in which
Colombia went from being a mere processor of the basic paste for
cocaine production - using coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru -
to the world's leading grower of the coca bush.
As far as the illegal poppies, 'papaver somniferum', which
produce a sap that is used in making the narcotics morphine, opium
or heroin, US government figures indicate that this Andean-Amazon
country has become the world's second-ranked producer, after
Fumigations returned to the forefront of political debate last
month as the result of a claim for legal protection filed by the
Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon
The native group requested that a Bogotá court issue a stay on
the aerial spraying of anti-narcotic herbicides in indigenous
territories, arguing that the glyphosate is endangering the health
of the human population and livestock, has toxic effects on food
crops and on local flora and fauna, and is poisoning local water
OPIAC invoked Colombia's constitutional mandate that indigenous
peoples have the right to participate in government decisions that
affect their territories or endanger their survival.
The fumigations were called off, but a subsequent appeals court
ruling reversed the decision in the OPIAC case and the government-
sponsored aerial spraying resumed.
On Aug 9, the native group took the case to the next level,
filing an appeal with the Constitutional Court, which is to issue
a definitive ruling next month.
In parallel, a civil action filed with a court in Cundinamarca -
the department whose jurisdiction includes Bogotá - called on the
institutions of the Environment Ministry to study the effects of
the fumigations and to issue a public statement on their findings.
But the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and
Environmental Studies, the Von Humboldt Institute and the Sinchi
Institute of Amazonian Studies responded that the case does not
fall under their jurisdiction, but that of the National Narcotics
Directorate, which has until November to assess the environmental
impact of the glyphosate sprayings.
''No thorough study of the effects of glyphosate is available
in Colombia,'' complained agronomist Tomás León, professor at the
Institute of Environmental Studies of the National University of
However, a study has been completed on the high concentration
of herbicides used on illicit crops, León told Tierramérica.
According to that report, in 1998 more than 148,000 tons of
agro-chemicals were used over an area of 78,000 hectares of drug
plantations, 18 times more than was used in standard fumigations
of legal - mostly food - crops in the rest of the country.
The quantity is the sum of the pesticides used by the growers
of coca and poppies to protect their crops from infestations and
the glyphosate sprayed by government forces to eradicate the
fields, he explained.
The National Anti-Narcotics Council of Colombia reports that
the glyphosate mixture used in drug eradication sprayings is of a
concentration 26 times greater than what is recommended for
Both the US ambassador in Bogotá, Anne Patterson, and
Colombia's Interior minister, Armando Estrada, have given the nod
in favor of the anti-drug fumigations.
Patterson told the Colombian Congress on Aug 6 that suspending
the drug-eradicating fumigations would mean putting President
Andrés Pastrana's Plan Colombia on hold, the axis of the anti-
narcotics policy agreed by Bogotá and Washington.
The plan bears a price tag of 7.5 billion dollars, with 1.3
billion coming from the United States, largely in military
equipment for Colombia's bases in the south and southeast, two
areas where there is a high guerrilla presence.
The decades-long armed conflict in this country, involving
leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government
forces, complicates the fight against narcotics production as the
irregular armed groups are said to have ties to the drug trade as
a means to finance their operations.
Two days after Patterson's speech, Ricardo Vargas, an expert in
drug-trafficking issues and member of the non-governmental
organization Andean Action and of the Transnational Institute,
sent an open letter to the US ambassador in which he outlined a
scenario without fumigations.
''By suspending the fumigations and the armed forces' actions
in the coca-growing zones, in a very short time there would be an
over-production of the coca leaf, and subsequently a spectacular
drop in the price of the basic coca paste,'' Vargas stated in the
first of the 15 points in his letter.
''This would produce an effect that 25 years of fumigations in
Colombia have not achieved: reducing the area of coca
production,'' he wrote.
The number of hectares in Colombia planted with illegal crops
has continued to rise. Indigenous leader Floro Tunubalá, governor
of the southern department of Cauca, is an outspoken anti-
fumigation activist because the practice ''is harmful, costly and
ineffective.'' He cites reports that the area planted with drug
crops nationwide has expanded from 20,000 hectares in 1976 to
Parmenio Cuéllar, governor of Nariño, another southern
Colombian department, met with lawmakers in Washington last month
to seek support for halting US financing of anti-drug aerial
spraying at least until health and environmental impact studies
have been completed.
For his part, Interior minister Estrada maintains that the
priority is to halt drug trafficking, which he described as ''the
fuel of violence, origin of corruption and responsible for the
rise in drug addiction among Colombian youth.''
''To confront this scourge the government has a variety of
policies,'' fumigation, prohibition and the voluntary and manual
eradication of illegal crops, said the minister.
* Tierramérica is a specialized news service
(www.tierramerica.net) produced by IPS with the backing of the
United Nations Development Program and the United Nations
Copyright 2001 IPS