Mr Anand Grover

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health                                                          

3rd February 2014 



Dear Mr Grover

Colombia is currently the only country in the world that employs aerial spraying of potent chemical mixtures as a component of drug supply reduction measures. Elsewhere, the tactic has been rejected. This has been happening for over three decades with support from the government of the United States and with no effect on the production of illicit crops.[1]

The practice involves spray planes, often accompanied by military helicopters, spraying largely unknown chemical compounds onto fields, villages and food crops as well as those deemed illicit, such as coca and opium poppy. This is known to affect peasant farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ health and food security. It has contributed to massive internal displacement. It is hugely damaging to the second most bio-diverse region in the world.

Multiple UN human rights mechanisms have already raised concerns about this practice, including the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health during his mission to neighboring Ecuador in 2007. The Special Rapporteur found

credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border damages the physical health of people living in Ecuador. There is also credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying damages their mental health. Military helicopters sometimes accompany the aerial spraying and the entire experience can be terrifying, especially for children.[2]  

As you are no doubt aware, Ecuador later sued Colombia at the International Court of Justice over this issue and received a $15 million out of court settlement.

The negative impacts in Colombia, where spraying is widespread and consistent, are considerably more serious. The Colombian and US governments claim that the chemicals used cause insignificant harm but the experiences of indigenous peoples, peasants and internally displaced people prove otherwise.

In September and October 2013 two US pilots engaged in spraying of coca were shot down. A halt on spraying was put in place until such time as the cockpits of spray planes could be reinforced. Colombian citizens have recently been informed through the press that aerial spraying campaigns in Colombia will be resumed starting February 15th 2014.[3]

Ceasing aerial fumigation is one of the most persistent, unanimous and heartfelt demands made by peasants, indigenous peoples and social organizations in the Peace Forums. It is also one of the ten FARC prerequisites for peace.

We are requesting the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health alongside other relevant thematic Special Procedures to call for a permanent hold on aerial spraying.

We request also that an open, transparent and consultative health, human rights and environmental impact assessment be carried out as a matter of truth, justice, and non-recurrence.



The first fumigations in Colombia were carried out with the aim of chemically eradicating 19,000 hectares of marihuana in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve [designated 1979].[4] At that time coca production was not seen as a threat. Today it is the focus of attention and spraying has increased in frequency and geographical coverage and has been significantly stepped up as a component of the US-funded Plan Colombia. There are no truly precise figures regarding the scope of aerial spraying campaigns between 1978 and 1995. The UNODC informs that solely in the last sixteen years, between 1995 and 2011, over 1,652,840 hectares were sprayed by the government.[5].

Colombia and the U.S. have experimented with highly dangerous chemicals[6] but according to the scarce public-official information that is available, the chemical used since 1984 is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready Ultra’)  and the toxic surfactant POEA compounded by the coadjutants Cosmo-Flux 411F and CosmoInD.[7] These coadjutants are used to render the corrosive effect of Roundup four times more potent thus making the “collateral” effects practically unforeseeable.

There persists a reasonable doubt as to what we are being fumigated with. No one really seems to know the mixtures, formulas, concentration, and volumes of the chemicals sprayed. In the (2008-2013) legal proceedings instituted by Ecuador against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, Colombia refused to reveal the exact components of the mixture used.[8] According to studies carried out in 2001 by the agronomist, biologist and chemical expert Elsa Nivia, the glyphosate concentration in the formula being used in Colombia is 26 times more potent than that allowed and used anywhere else.[9]

Colombians have been instituting legal proceedings against the National Police and Antinarcotics Agencies since 1986 without success.[10]  A complaints mechanism exists, but when local communities complain of the health and environmental damages suffered,[11] the entity that receives and decides on the complaints (only receivable since 2001) is the same entity that carries out the fumigation.[12]


Aerial spraying and the right to health

There is literature to suggest that glyphosate used for agricultural purposes can cause chronic health effects and birth defects when administered at high doses over prolonged periods.[13]  In Colombia, the same field may be sprayed up to four or more times and millions of hectares have been sprayed for over three decades. In addition, the health concerns stem not from glyphosate alone but the other chemical surfactants with which it is combined.

Health damages were documented by Ecuador in the 2008-2013 ICJ proceedings.[14] As noted above, your predecessor found “reliable and credible evidence” of both physical and mental health harms during his mission to Ecuador in 2007.

Colombian peasants and indigenous peoples consistently complain of abortions and birth defects in both humans and animals after fumigation operations, and also of skin rashes, respiratory problems, diarrhea, decreased weight gain in infants, nasal discharge and digestive disorders, among other health problems. [15]

Two genotoxic risk evaluations (1999-2005 and 2006-2007) at the request of local authorities and social organizations. But the visiting health assessment commission did not see the patients themselves. It stated that “... establishing a true cause for the conditions reported would require technical expertise the commission did not possess, as well as access to data on the dates and locations of spraying and the products used”.[16]

The US government’s private Dyncorp aerial spraying contractors,[17] certify that fields are not sprayed when people are present. Pictures taken during fumigation operations, and the experienced health effects, show this to be false. In any case, the persistent spraying of land, food crops and potential leeching into ground water alongside pollution of collected drinking water raise further health concerns beyond direct contact.

Mental health concerns, particularly in children, have also been raised given the fear generated by the chemicals and the military helicopters accompanying them.


Environmental damage, food insecurity and water contamination

Alongside the health harms there are consistent complaints form rural and indigenous communities of water pollution, cattle poisoning and the loss of food crops.

When Colombia was first threatened by fumigation in 1978, the Inderena (the Natural Resources Institute) warned the Colombian government of its obligation to carry out prior ecological studies.[18] This was not done. Indeed, a 2013 State Council ruling revealed that the Colombian State was spraying with Gramaxone (Paraquat) in 1997 [19] even though this had been banned since 1989. [20] Bar this ruling, to date activists and campaigners have been unsuccessful in requests that the government reveal what it is spraying in addition to when and where this will take place.

Spraying has been indiscriminate and widespread and has been proven to have killed non-targeted vegetation. This was shown in the 2013 State Council ruling which accepted the damage to forest lands and staple food crops.[21] Photographic evidence further illustrates the damage.

The effects on endangered species, fish and aquatic invertebrates, which are highly sensitive to glyphosate and its formulations, have not been transparently assessed.

Scientists warn the use of any agrochemical will make farmers more dependent on this particular agrotoxin.[22] In soils saturated with this particular pesticide, there will most probably be a need to cultivate crops resistant to this product. Glyphosate resistant genetically modified organisms are now common. Studies also indicate the risk of transgene flow to other plants, thus endangering Colombia’s biodiversity.[23]

Two environmental impact studies supporting aerial spraying were carried out in 2005 and 2009[24] (27 and 31 years after the first sprayings). These, however, were done by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission (CICAD, Spanish acronym) whose main interest is countering drug use and the drug trade. The CICAD researcher stated that the exposure, is “considerably below thresholds of concern[25] and added in 2009 that  Glyphosate spraying for coca control in Colombia poses negligible risk to humans and the environment”. [26] This far from consistent with what Colombians live and suffer on a daily basis. The veracity and independence of these assessments has therefore been called into question and demands open and transparent impact assessments to be conducted.


Impact on indigenous communities, peasant farmers and human displacement

The peasants that cultivate these illicit crops do so out of need. Most live in poverty with little infrastructure to support alternative crops. According to the UNODC, the average size of coca fields in 2011 is 0.67 has. The average net income per hectare of coca for a grower is equivalent to US$294 per month.[27] And yet these growers are persecuted as part of the drug traffic. A peasant family of 4 lives on less than USD $200/month which is less than the legal minimum wage in Colombia and, although they are increasingly testifying to the repercussions of agrochemicals on the quality of their living standards, they have, as of yet, not been informed of the potential hazards of chemical use in their children’s’ and their own future. Peasant proposals point to the reasonableness of investing the money wasted on aerial spraying in comprehensive rural development.

Aerial spraying has contributed to the enforced internal displacement in Colombia (there are over 3 million displaced in the country), though a reliable estimate of how many have been displaced by fumigation is very difficult to obtain.[28] Left with nothing to grow and fearing drug related violence many people flee their lands, which are bought up by large landowners or occupied by illegal armed actors.[29]

Indigenous communities have also been forced to move. In the town of San Jose in Guaviare, for example, it is thought that half of the town (the capital of the region) are displaced. Many are from the Nukak tribe, living in extreme poverty in a reservation by the local military base.


International standards

Multiple international legal standards are being violated by the aerial fumigation in Colombia. These include, inter alia:


·       International drug control legislation

Colombia is a party to the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Article 14(2) on eradication of illicit crops explicitly requires that such measures should ensure conformity with human rights and ensure protection of the environment. Indeed, a Constitutional Court Ruling (No. C-176/94) noted that:

“...the Colombian State should reserve itself the right to assess the ecological impact of drug control policies since persecuting the narcotics traffic cannot be translated into a disregard of the Colombian State’s obligation to protect the environment, not only for present generations but for future generations as well.” [30]


·       Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Colombia is also a party, requires a range of precautionary measures including impact assessments on activities that may affect biological diversity. Colombia has fallen are short of these requirements.[31]


·       International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights

Colombia was reviewed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2010. The Committee was clear in its concerns about aerial fumigation and its impacts on the right to health (article 12) and the right to an adequate standard of living (article 11):

The Committee also notes with concern the resulting drug violence; large-scale internal displacement; widespread corruption; negative consequences of anti-narcotics measures such as the effect of aerial fumigation on food security, adverse health impacts and denial of livelihoods; and that profit from this illicit economy finances all sides of the armed internal conflict in the State party  (arts. 11, 12).

The Committee called for accountability and transparency in these efforts.


·       Convention on the Rights of the Child

In 2006 Colombia was reviewed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Echoing the above concerns it called for an impact assessment of aerial spraying.

“The Committee, while acknowledging the State party’s legitimate priority to combat narcotics, is concerned about environmental health problems arising from the usage of the substance glyphosate in aerial fumigation campaigns against coca plantations (which form part of Plan Colombia), as these affect the health of vulnerable groups, including children.

The Committee recommends that the State party carry out independent, rights-based environmental and social-impact assessments of the sprayings in different regions of the country and ensure that, when affected, prior consultation is carried out with indigenous communities and that all precautions be taken to avoid harmful impact of the health of children”

As previously noted, the previous Special Rapporteur on the right to health has raised similar concerns.


·       ILO Convention 169

Colombia ratified the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO Convention 169) in 1991. It has failed to live up to the requirements of consultation within that treaty. Indeed, as noted by the current Special Rapporteur, it is now a generally accepted rule in international law that indigenous peoples must be consulted on issues that affect them.[32] The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples raised concerns about aerial fumigation without free, prior and informed consent as far back as 2005.[33]


There are, of course, a range of other thematic concerns engaged given the breadth of harms noted above such as the right to food, the right to to water and the rights of people living in extreme poverty.

In your thematic report on drugs policies to the UN General Assembly in 2010 you have previously raised concerns about “extremely harmful eradication methods used to limit production”.[34] Our urgent apeal relates to the most egregious example anywhere in the world.

We trust that you will accept the urgency and seriousness of the situation, and we seek your assistance in bringing this to the attention of related Special Procedures.[35]


Yours sincerely,








[5] UNODC -Colombia Coca Cultivation Surveys

[6] For example: Paraquat (a pulmonary toxin whose aerial use is currently banned world-wide) 2,4-D tebuthiuron, hexazinone, tetrabromofluorescein (Eosine Yellowish) and Imazapyr (which poses high risks to rare and endangered plants).




[10] The  all of these rulings are documented on:  and


[11] Compendium of 8,000 local complaints from April 1998  to September 2003 in Putumayo, Guaviare and Caquetá

[12] “The National Drugs Directorate (DNE) and the Anti-narcotics Department of the National Police are the authorities in charge of receiving and processing the claims lodged” [Res. 017 2001]






[17] It is worth noting that the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries raised cocnerns about such private contractors in aerial fumigation in XXXX CHECK, REF














[31] Article 14 ‘Impact assessment and minimizing adverse impacts’


[33] REF

[34] UN Doc No A/65/255 para 75

[35] Based on the harms caused by aerial spraying these include:

·        The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples

·        The Special Rapporteur on the right to food

·        The Independent Expert on human rights and the environment

·        The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

·        The Special Rapporteur on the rights of internally displaces people

·        The Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-occurrence

·        The Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations.