U.S. aerial spraying continues in Colombia despite court-ordered suspensions.



Drugs & Democracy Info drugs@tni.org

Dec 04, 2003

By Peter Gorman

Anti-narcotics police signal to a Bell 212 helicopter to land next to a Colombian poppy field. The folks who worry about Colombian people and food crops being poisoned by United States-sponsored spraying of coca and poppy fields should be happy.


Two Colombian court rulings in the past year have ordered that the aerial spraying program known as Plan Colombia -- carried out by major Fort Worth employer DynCorp and protected with Fort Worth- produced Bell helicopters -- be suspended. But the environmentalists and Colombian rural people are as angry and frightened as ever.


Why? Because, despite the rulings, Colombia continues to spray Monsanto's Roundup-Ultra on fields, and U.S. officials continue to maintain an eerie silence on the issue. The most recent ruling came on June 13 in a lawsuit brought by a group of citizens who argued that Plan Colombia spraying violates their right to a healthy environment. The Administrative Tribunal of Cundinamarca, the second-highest court in Colombia, agreed and ordered the immediate suspension of all narco-crop fumigation nationwide, until environmental and human impact studies can be carried out.


The verdict supplemented two earlier court decisions ordering that spraying on indigenous peoples' land be suspended, and that Plan Colombia comply with the country's environmental management plan. An almost nationwide cheer went up after the verdict. Yamile Salinas, a Colombian government lawyer who works on behalf of farmers and indigenous people, said the court order "formally adopts many of the requirements for environmental and human protection that the Colombian Ombudsman and Comptroller General, along with both national and international non-government organizations have been demanding for years."


"Unfortunately," said Astrid Puentes, a Colombian human rights attorney with Earthjustice, the legal branch of the Sierra Club, "while that decision should have been enough to protect the health and human rights of the environment and people of Colombia, the U.S. and Colombian governments insist that the spraying is not harmful, and so it continues. The Administrative Court recognized the harm to health and biodiversity, soil, and water that the aerial fumigation is doing, but those with vested interests choose to ignore that." Among those with vested interests are Fort Worth's Bell Helicopter, which provides helicopters used to protect the spray planes, and DynCorp (now Dyncorp/CSC, headquartered in Reston, Va., but with a large recruitment center in Fort Worth), the company with the $600 million contract to actually do the spraying and maintain the spray planes and helicopters. At issue is the core of the U.S. assault on cocaine and heroin trafficking in the Western hemisphere.


When former President Bill Clinton initiated Plan Colombia in 2000, its aim was to eliminate the coca and poppy plants in Colombia used to make cocaine and heroin. If the plants went, not only would much of drug traffic in this country disappear, but the funds generated by that traffic in Colombia, which support both paramilitary and rebel groups involved in that country's brutal civil war, would dry up as well ("Scorched Earth Policy," Fort Worth Weekly, March 13, 2003).


The plan was expanded by President George W. Bush into the Andean Initiative. But while the plan looks good on paper, it has caused widespread

and severe health and economic problems for farmers and others. Moreover, the program, which the U.S. intended to improve human rights in Colombia, may be actively worsening the human rights situation there. The lawsuit that brought about the June ruling was filed by a group of concerned Colombian citizens. It hinges on the fact that in 2001, a binding environmental management plan was put into effect by Colombia's minister of the environment.

One of the stipulations of that plan was that a battery of studies would be conducted to determine whether the fumigation is harmful to the environment and humans. Because those studies have never been done, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez -- who happened to be the mayor of Medellin during the Medellin cocaine cartel's heyday -- interpreted the law as permitting the spraying to continue while his administration's National Directorate of Narcotics appeals the decision to his country's highest court. In the U.S., funding for the spraying program can only be released if all fumigation is done in compliance with Colombian law. U.S. officials claim that requirement is being met, based on a March 2002 letter from the Colombian

minister of exterior relations, which certifies that the aerial spraying program indeed comports with each and every applicable Colombian law.


That might have been close enough for government work a year ago. But continuation of the spraying in light of the June court decision and other recent events brings the legality of continued U.S. support for the spraying into question. In October, under pressure, according to Earthjustice's Puentes, the Colombian environmental minister modified the environmental management plan. "They eliminated and weakened environmental conditions of the plan," she said.


One of the changes governed the height at which spray planes could fly. Texas crop-dusters have said that the old legal spraying altitude of 100 feet was already absurdly high, allowing poisons to drift for miles. But the modifications raised that allowable altitude even higher. Another change allowed spraying, for the first time, in national parks -- something that Puentes said, "had been going on illegally but which overnight became legal." U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy,

a Vermont Democrat who has long questioned the Plan Colombian fumigation, bristled at the thought of in-park spraying and attached an amendment to the 2004 Foreign Operations Bill that would prohibit the use of U.S. funding to spray Colombia's national parks.


At press time, an agreed version of the bill was pending before both houses of Congress. Ironically, the Bush administration, according to Time magazine,

has declared that exempting the parks would be "an invitation to the growers to destroy the forests and their natural resources." In Colombia, Uribe has raised the stakes considerably, announcing on several occasions that anyone objecting to fumigation in any part of Colombia or "working to protect human rights and the environment" would be viewed as a sympathizer with terrorists, according to Anna Cedarstav, a staff scientist with Earthjustice.


Further stacking the deck, Uribe in early November appointed Sandra Suarez, the former director of the Plan Colombia office, as the new minister of the environment. Perhaps the Uribe administration's worst assault on human rights sensibilities in connection with Plan Colombia occurred on Nov. 2, when an

international environmental commission studying the effects of recent fumigations in the Colombian department of Arauca was stopped by a U.S.-trained Colombian anti-narcotics battalion and had their film, cameras, and notes confiscated.


The commission, which included Colombians and representatives of France, the United States, England and Spain, had previously met with Colombian Vice-President Carlos Frank about their work. The State Department and other Bush Administration officials have not responded to frequent requests, both by phone and in writing, to address these issues. Considering the way Uribe has been flouting Colombian law, continued U.S. funding of the fumigation program

may not just be harmful -- it may be illegal.


That the coca produced in Colombia is making its way to the streets of the U.S. is not in question. That the growing and processing of that coca into cocaine is ravaging the environment of Colombia as well as fueling a civil war there is also not in question. What is in question is the way in which the fumigation is being carried out. Every study but the two carried out officially by the United States and Colombia has shown that the fumigation is having a major

impact on both human life and the environment.


(The U.S. study not only evaluated the wrong chemical -- regular Roundup, rather than the much more powerful Ultra version being used in Colombia -- but it relied exclusively on data provided by the State Department.) One recent study carried out by the respected Dr. Adolfo Maldonado of Ecological Action showed the presence of genetic damage among people exposed to the Plan Colombia fumigation. American toxicologist Mark Cherniak recently presented

a paper reporting that "the exposure to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) represents a risk in expectant mothers."


And the problems don't end there. Food crops have been destroyed, rainforest ravaged, and tens of thousands of peasants have been displaced because their crops, livestock, and water sources have been poisoned. What would be harmed by a temporary suspension of the fumigation until environmental and human impact studies can be made, and safety guidelines put into place?


The U.S. government isn't saying. Some in Colombia and here are willing to hazard a guess, however. "We know that the U.S. trained Colombian forces to protect the Occidental Oil pipeline in Cano Limon from rebel attacks," Puentes said. "And we know that some of the land being explored for oil is indigenous land. Some people think the fumigation will clear the land for oil exploration as well."


Peter Gorman is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.


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