La carta de iniciativa de Adam Isaacoson /Ciponline/, WOLA y el Open Society Insititute al Presidente de Afganistán, Amir Karzai diciendo que el modelo colombiano de fumigación ha hecho mucho daño en Colombia, y que repetirlo en Afganistán será un error trágico. Como hemos visto en Colombia, fumigar sin lanzar una política bien financiada de desarrollo rural debilitaría al Estado afgano sin tener ningún efecto en la oferta de opio.

January 15,2005

Dear President Karzai:



It is our understanding that the United States intends to spend $145 million in 2005 for an aerial herbicide spraying program to eradicate illicit opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. We further understand that this spray program could begin as early as March. We are writing to share some of our experience with drug eradication efforts in Colombia, since it is being used as a model in Afghanistan.


We strongly advise against aerial spraying in Afghanistan, which we are overwhelmingly convinced will fail to meet counter-narcotics goals, and will undermine many other governance and stability objectives. We understand that reducing poppy cultivation is of urgent importance.

However, a spraying campaign risks making things far worse. We base this judgment on lessons learned in the only country where the United States has maintained a “fumigation” program: Colombia.


Colombia now accounts for the vast majority of the world’s cocaine supply.

Colombia has a history of extremely weak central government control, regional warlordism, and high rural poverty rates in a neglected countryside that lacks the infrastructure and rule-of-law necessary to market most legal crops. Colombia has been embroiled in violent conflict for decades, with leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. Colombia faces a dilemma similar to Afghanistan: while illegal armed groups depend on income from the drug trade, so do desperately poor rural producers, who have virtually no other viable economic options, and whose support is necessary to govern vast zones that have seen little state presence.


* Colombia is the only country in the Andes that has permitted aerial spraying.


Other coca-source countries like Peru and Bolivia have refused to allow aerial spraying, citing health and environmental concerns. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. contract pilots accompanied by Colombian police escort aircraft have sprayed “Round-Up” (active ingredient glyphosate, plus surfactants) over vast expanses of Colombia’s ecologically fragile jungles and savannahs. Every year since 1998, the United States has sprayed well over 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of Colombian coca – and more than 120,000 hectares each year since 2002 – for a total of over 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) sprayed in seven years.


* The spray program has proven to be a terrible obstacle to any effort to win “hearts and minds” in rural Colombia.


Colombia’s coca-growing zones are generally marginal rural areas, often colonized by recent arrivals fleeing violence or seeking land, with virtually no presence of the state. Residents go for long periods – or even lifetimes – without seeing police, judges, road-builders, medical professionals, or other government representatives. Their resulting isolation, insecurity and lack of access to credit makes it too costly even to attempt to bring most legal crops to market. Coca, with a criminal network offering easy credit and good prices, offers a modest income – UNODC estimates that a hectare of coca gives a net income of $199 per month, or just over $6 per day. In most of Colombia’s neglected rural zones, no other crop comes close.


Alternative-development efforts now underway in some parts of Colombia are seeking to create conditions to make legal crops viable. The spray program, however, is better funded and covers many times more of the national territory. Expanded spraying, led by the imperative to show impressive numbers of hectares sprayed, routinely leaves slower-moving alternative-development programs far behind.


* Spray planes often end up eradicating legal crops, including crops that peasants depend upon for food.


The UNODC warns “It is not technically possible to limit the aerial spraying only over coca fields and to avoid overlaps”. Complaints of unjust spraying have proliferated throughout Colombia. As of June 2004, a compensation program had only repaid ten of the 4,535 individuals who had submitted complaints. Thousands of peasants have complained of adverse health effects from the spraying after planes pass over their houses, schools and standing water sources: chiefly gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin conditions.


* After spraying, drug production moved to more regions in Colombia.


The net result of the aerial spraying strategy in Colombia has been an aggressively punitive “all-stick-and-no-carrot” approach to the local population. Anonymous pilots in spray planes – often the only government presence rural inhabitants see – do away with peasants’ income source, and replace it with nothing. In Colombia, this has too often led drug cultivators to migrate to other zones, or has caused the loss of young people – who see no other economic opportunities – to guerrilla and paramilitary recruitment efforts.


Within Colombia, spraying has repeatedly brought reductions in specific zones only to see new coca-planting proliferate in new regions. In 1999, coca only appeared in twelve of Colombia’s thirty-two departments (provinces). In 2003, 23 departments had coca.




Coca-growers have adapted to spraying in other ways. In order to avoid detection or present a smaller target, plantings have become much smaller; the average size of a coca field declined by 40 percent – from 2.05 to 1.24 hectares – between 2000 and 2003. According to interviews with local leaders in coca-growing zones, other adaptations include rapid replanting (nurseries and seeds are a booming business), increased planting in shade, sowing plants closer together, and adopting varieties that can be harvested within months and yield more cocaine. In the case of opium poppy, an annual plant grown on minuscule plots, adaptation to aerial spraying will doubtless be even quicker.


This punitive approach, accompanied by insufficient efforts to improve governance and offer development alternatives, is hugely counterproductive in zones where illegal armed groups, terrorists, or other anti-state actors vie with the government for the local population’s support. Afghanistan has no shortage of such zones.


* Aerial spraying has not reduced drug supply.


While the spray program appears to have significantly reduced the measured area of coca cultivation in Colombia, from 169,800 hectares in 2001 to 113,850 hectares by the end of 2003, the amount of spraying required to achieve a reduction – 8.5 hectares sprayed for each hectare reduced in 2003 – is large and growing.


By one key measure of success – the price, purity and availability of Colombian cocaine in the United States – the spray program has failed utterly. If the aerial spraying were in fact making the product scarcer, the law of supply and demand tells us that cocaine would be more expensive on the streets of U.S. cities. But that has not happened.


Citing data from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (the “Drug Czar”), the Washington Office on Latin America has documented declining cocaine prices and steady cocaine purity levels since the mid-1990s. In 1997, the year significant spraying got underway, the average price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets was $145. By mid-2003, it had fallen to $106. In Colombia’s local coca markets, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has documented a similar decrease, in dollar terms, in the price of the basic paste that peasants make from the leaves of the coca plant.


It is worth noting that this kilogram of cocaine, after crystallization and shipment to the United States, can be sold, gram by gram, for roughly $100,000 on U.S. streets. Though Colombia’s coca-growing peasants have borne the brunt of aerial eradication, the real profit is elsewhere, further upstream – and the spraying has failed to make a dent in it.


The U.S. experience in Colombia has proven that aerial eradication can show quick results, as measured by numbers of hectares sprayed. It also proves, though, that this “body-count” approach, if applied in Afghanistan, will have no impact on the amount of ill-gotten money going into warlords’ coffers.


In the end, the only answer is governance, which is expensive and requires more than just an increased military presence. True governance would require Afghan government representatives to be present in poppy-growing zones, in an atmosphere of sufficient security to guarantee that state employees can confront poppy-growers face-to-face, explain to them that they are doing something illegal and risk being brought to justice, and offer them well-funded alternatives in exchange for voluntary eradication. Forced crop eradication should be postponed until rural development programs can offer an alternative.


If Colombia is any example, fumigating fields anonymously will only weaken the Afghan government, strengthen the United States’ enemies, and prolong the country’s heroin crisis. The bitter experience of aerial herbicide spraying in Colombia must not be repeated in Afghanistan.





Adam Isacson

Director of Programs

Center for International Policy

1717 Massachusetts Ave NW Ste 801

Washington DC 20036

(202) 232-3317 fax 232-3440


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