Published on Monday, May 1, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Colombians Say US Drug Spraying Is Creating A Health Crisis
by Larry Rohter
Rioblanco de Sotara, Colombia -- The children and their teachers were in the schoolyard, they say, playing soccer and basketball and waiting for classes to begin when the crop-duster appeared. At first they waved, but as the plane drew closer and a gray mist began to stream from its wings, alarmed teachers rushed the pupils to their classrooms.

Over the next two weeks, a fleet of counternarcotics planes taking part in a U.S.-sponsored program to eradicate heroin poppy cultivation returned here repeatedly. Time and time again, residents charge, the government planes also sprayed buildings and fields that were not supposed to be targets, damaging residents' health and crops.

``The pilot was flying low, so there is no way he could not have seen those children,'' said Nidia Majin, principal of the La Floresta rural elementary school, whose 70 pupils were sprayed that Monday morning last June. ``We had no way to give them first aid, so I sent them home. But they had to cross fields and streams that had also been contaminated, so some of them got sick.''

In fact, say leaders of this Yanacona Indian village high in the Andes, dozens of other residents also became ill during the spraying campaign, complaining of nausea, dizziness, vomiting, rashes, blurred vision and ear and stomachaches. They say the spraying damaged legitimate crops, undermining government efforts to support residents who have abandoned poppy growing.

Such incidents are not limited to this village of 5,000, say critics, but have occurred in many parts of Colombia and are bound to increase if the fumigation program is intensified, as the Clinton administration is proposing as part of a $1.6 billion emergency aid package.

Critics say they frequently receive reports of mistakes and abuses by the planes' Colombian pilots that both the U.S. and Colombian governments choose to ignore. State Department officials deny indiscriminate spraying takes place, with a U.S. Embassy official in Bogota describing the residents' claims of illnesses as ``scientifically impossible.''

But to local leaders, the situation brought on by the spraying remains a crisis. ``The fumigation was done in an indiscriminate and irresponsible manner, and it did not achieve its objective,'' said Ivan Alberto Chicangana, who was the mayor when the spraying occurred.

``The damage done to the physical and economic well-being of this community has been serious,'' he said, ``and is going to be very difficult for us to overcome.''

He and other local leaders say that people were sick for several weeks after the spraying, and in interviews a few residents complained of lasting symptoms. Three fish farms with more than 25,000 rainbow trout were destroyed, residents said, and numerous farm animals, mostly chickens and guinea pigs, died, while others, including some cows and horses, fell ill.

In addition, fields of beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, corn and other traditional crops were sprayed, leaving plants to wither and die. As a result, community leaders here say, crop-substitution projects sponsored by the Colombian government have been irremediably damaged and their participants left impoverished.

Peasants in the coca-growing region of Caqueta, to the southeast, last year complained to a reporter that spray planes had devastated the crops they had planted after abandoning coca, and similar reports have emerged from Guaviare, another province to the east.

U.S.-financed aerial spraying campaigns have been the principal means by which the Colombian government has sought to reduce coca and opium-poppy cultivation for nearly a decade. The government fleet has grown to include 65 airplanes and helicopters, which fly every day, weather permitting, from three bases. Last year, the spraying effort resulted in the fumigation of 104,000 acres of coca and 20,000 acres of opium poppy.

Yet despite such efforts, which have been backed by more than $150 million in U.S. aid, cocaine and heroin production in Colombia has more than doubled since 1995.

In an effort to reverse that trend and weaken left-wing guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups that are profiting from the drug trade and threatening the country's stability, the Clinton administration is now urging Congress to approve a new aid package, which calls for increased spending on drug eradication as well as a gigantic increase for crop-substitution programs, to $127 million from $5 million.

Critics, like Elsa Nivia, director of the Colombian affiliate of the advocacy organization Pesticide Action Network, see the eradication effort as dangerous and misguided. ``These pilots don't care if they are fumigating over schools, houses, grazing areas or sources of water,'' she said in an interview at the group's headquarters in Cali. ``Furthermore, spraying only exacerbates the drug problem by destabilizing communities that are trying to get out of illicit crops and grow legal alternatives.'' The U.S. Embassy official who supervises the spraying program said in an interview in Bogota that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide used here, is ``less toxic than table salt or aspirin.'' Calling it ``the most studied herbicide in the world,'' he said it was proven to be harmless to human and animal life and called the villagers' account ``scientifically impossible.''

But in an out-of-court settlement in New York state in 1996, Monsanto, a leading manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, though not necessarily identical to those used here, including one called Roundup, agreed to withdraw claims that the product is ``safe, nontoxic, harmless or free from risk.'' The company signed a statement agreeing that its ``absolute claims that Roundup `will not wash or leach in the soil' is not accurate'' because glyphosate ``may move through some types of soil under some conditions after application.''

In the United States, the EPA has approved glyphosate for most commercial uses.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle