Putumayo's Last Believer

A Report from the Field on Plan
Colombia's Chemical War

by Phillip Cryan


In the May 2002 issue of the Global Pesticide Campaigner, I reported on the impacts of Plan Colombia, a multibillion dollar, U.S.-funded aerial herbicide spraying campaign focused on the southern Colombian province of Putumayo. The article described the spraying's impacts through the experiences of one Putumayan farmer, Don Fernando Castillo.(1) After eradicating his coca crop by hand in 2001 and taking out loans from three different banks to invest in seeds and equipment to grow black pepper plants, Castillo was surprised in the fields one morning by crop dusters decimating his family's fields with herbicide. The chemicals -- a "cocktail" blend of a Monsanto non-selective Roundup product (active ingredient glyphosate) with added surfactants -- killed all 2,000 of his new pepper plants, as well as papaya, yucca, fruit trees, corn, coffee and other crops.

The ostensible target of Plan Colombia's herbicide spraying (or "fumigation") program is coca, the raw material from which cocaine is manufactured. However, the principal effect, especially in Putumayo, has been the displacement of thousands of farmers. The May 2002 article quoted Colombian sociologist Teófilo Vásquez arguing that human displacement was "not a consequence but a strategy" of Plan Colombia,(2) and that the presence of so many peasants on the land was a hindrance to future resource extraction by oil companies and other multinationals. To date, conflict has impeded exploitation of Putumayo's tremendous natural resource wealth.

Leaving coca behind

Because coca is the only crop providing enough income for survival in the infrastructure-poor and conflict-riddled region, many Putumayo farmers moved further into the jungle or to neighboring provinces to plant coca after their fields were sprayed in the Plan Colombia fumigations. Don Castillo did not go back to planting coca. Instead he and his family stayed on the land they have farmed for 38 years and tried to get by growing only food crops.

Blackhawk helicopters and crop dusters sprayed destruction on their food crops, not once but twice in the two years since those first damages. The family was forced to sell their land bit by bit, watching it shrink from 43 to 13 hectares in two years. Yet they remained committed to not growing coca and filed repeated complaints of wrongful fumigation with government authorities, hoping for restitution from a system everyone else judged useless.

Plan Colombia

U.S. taxpayers have provided over $3.1 billion in "aid" to Colombia from 2000 to 2004, with close to $700 million more proposed in the Bush administration's 2005 budget.(3) Roughly $1 billion has gone into the fumigations program, providing helicopters, spray planes, training, security, pilots and chemicals.(4) The cost of operating each Blackhawk is nearly $3,000 per hour.(5) Approximately 254,586 hectares (629,096 acres) of coca were sprayed between December 2000 and December 2002,(6) with a record number of acres reported sprayed in 2003. Also in 2003, the U.S. Congress agreed to authorize sprayings in Colombia's national parks.(7)

Many thousands of rural Colombians say their legal food crops were destroyed even though they were not growing coca, reported illness after being exposed to the chemicals and animals made sick or killed. Farmers say they have no viable economic alternatives to growing coca, and that the fumigations harm irreplaceable Amazonian flora and fauna. The government Ombudsman's Office received over 6500 formal complaints of such damages prior to October 2002.(8)

In June 2003, a high court in Colombia's Cundinamarca province ruled that the government must suspend sprayings throughout the country until it conducts tests to determine whether the damages reported are related to the sprayings. The Colombian government has disregarded the ruling. The day after its release, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez declared, "As long as I'm president and there are drugs, I can't stop spraying."(9)

In response to the damage reports, concerned members of the U.S. Congress have added conditions to the bills authorizing fumigation expenditures. Among the conditions:

Broken promises for alternative development

In 2002, after watching his coca-less fields sprayed twice and destroying the black pepper plants he had bought on credit, Don Castillo planted six hectares of heart of palm as part of an alternative development program. In May of that year his government-funded heart of palm crop was also sprayed. When I visited in August 2003, damages were still evident. On Castillo's farm and others in the area, some heart of palm plants were strong enough to survive spraying. However they stopped growing and yellowed, producing greatly reduced harvests. While coca is far more resilient than any other plant grown in the area, many farmers were grateful for heart of palm's toughness.*

Castillo was not alone in having U.S.-funded alternative development crops fumigated by U.S.-supplied planes. In just one round of sprayings -- those in August and September 2002 -- the Colombian government's Ombudsman's Office received over 360 official complaints of wrongful fumigation from farmers participating in alternative development programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).(11)

Between December 2000 and July 2001, the Colombian government signed agreements with over 37,000 Putumayo families to provide alternative development aid in exchange for manual eradication of coca crops.(12) Yet fourteen months after the first of these pacts were signed, the government had delivered aid to less than 5% of those farmers.(13) A former neighbor of the Castillo family, José Ospina(14) was one of the few signatories to receive aid promptly. He was given two cows in 2001 and manually eradicated his coca crop. The pasture he prepared for them, however, was destroyed by fumigations in January 2002.

In one famous case, chickens were flown into Putumayo by airplane to be distributed as part of an alternative development program. The chickens had been de-beaked, like most industrially raised chickens. None of the special food needed by beakless chickens was provided, nor was any available in rural Putumayo. Farmers receiving the chickens had no choice but to slaughter the tiny birds, since there was no way to feed them.(14)

Hard-line President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who took office in August 2002, has simply abandoned most previous alternative development agreements. In their place, Uribe instituted a "Forest Guardians" program that pays farmers eradicating coca to make sure no one cuts down sections of native forest. Whatever the environmental merits of this program may or may not prove to be (many Colombian analysts see the program as a political move designed only to quiet criticism of the fumigations from international environmentalists), it cannot be characterized as "alternative development." After the program ends and payments stop coming, farmers will not be any closer to having a viable agricultural alternative to coca.

While U.S. legislation unequivocally requires that alternative development programs accompany aerial eradication in coca-growing regions, U.S. officials in Colombia have made it clear since early 2002 that they have no intention of providing alternative development programs for most Putumayo residents. With great consistency, a range of U.S. officials has described a need to focus development assistance in other parts of the country and encourage what one official called "migration."(15) U.S. Drug Czar John Walters even pointed to human displacement rates from Putumayo as an indicator of Plan Colombia's success.(16) It is difficult to establish numbers with certainty, but, in a country with the world's third largest population of internal refugees, as of August 2002 approximately 10% of Putumayo's population had been displaced.(17) In the village of Los Angeles, near Castillo's home in El Placer, 70 of 140 families fled after heavy fumigations in late 2002.(18) Many went to plant coca elsewhere.


Defiance of label restrictions

Plan Colombia fumigations spray a commercial herbicide product mixed with additional chemicals to increase potency and adhesion. The resulting "cocktail" sprayed in Colombia has never been tested, as far as the public knows. Therefore, the label guidelines for the commercial product are unlikely to provide adequate protection for the mixture being sprayed.(19) But even according to Roundup product labels, the spray program is in gross violation of label restrictions.

The labels state, for example: "Do not apply directly to water [or] to areas where surface water is present."(20) Mr. Castillo and his family, like countless other residents of Putumayo, take all their water for bathing and drinking from creeks and small pools of surface water that have been sprayed repeatedly.

Other Roundup label restrictions include:

  • "Do not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift. Only protected handlers may be in the area during application. ...Do not enter or allow worker entry into treated areas during the restricted entry interval (REI) of 4 hours."

  • "Avoid contact with...desirable plants and trees, because severe injury or destruction may result."

  • "This is an end-use product. Monsanto does not intend and has not registered it for reformulation." (21)

No one tells rural Colombians when the planes will come. Castillo, for example, was caught underneath the chemicals all three times the planes sprayed his fields. Protective gear is not available or affordable in the isolated rural areas being fumigated. People harvest and consume sprayed crops before damages are evident. Livestock and pets are also exposed, as grazing animals continue to feed on fumigated pasture during the few days between spraying and the appearance of visible damage.

According to the U.S. State Department, Colombia is now "the only country that allows aerial spraying of coca and opium poppy."(22) In 2001, after nearly twenty years of fumigation, the Colombian government produced an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for the spraying, but few people in Putumayo have even heard of the plan. For anyone who has spent time in fumigated areas, the EMP's stipulations bear no relation to actual practice.

Compensation for wrongful spraying

I was struck many times by Castillo's faith that things would improve, even though he had seen the lush Amazon turned brown, had seen rashes develop on kids caught under the planes, and his complaints were met only with official silence. Somehow, he maintained hope.

Most people gave up on compensation a long time ago. During the first year of Plan Colombia, thousands of farmers filed formal complaints that they were wrongfully sprayed. With each round of sprayings, fewer made the trek into town to fill out and file the forms once previous complaints received no response. The local government Ombudsman receiving complaints in the nearby city of La Hormiga tells farmers that filling out the forms is "a lost cause" and "waste of time." "No one ever gets compensated," he explained.(23)

Only four farmers in the entire country had received compensation as of mid-2003.(24) Castillo was determined to become the fifth. Since the first time his fields were sprayed in November 2001, he had painstakingly documented losses. He sent information on crops damaged, quantities and costs to local authorities and to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. In the documents he submitted in 2003, he put total losses from the three fumigations at 60 million pesos (about $20,000). "It was really much more than that," he said. "But I wanted to only state the losses I could document."(25)

One day in July, five helicopters approached the farm. "I thought 'well, they're going to fumigate again,'" said Castillo's wife Lucia.(26) Instead, the helicopters touched down in their fields and a group of soldiers ran out, forming a perimeter. Then several Colombian and U.S. government officials stepped down and approached, saying they were there to verify the damages Castillo had alleged and they were only permitted twenty minutes on the ground in such a dangerous conflict zone.

After two years documenting damages and sending complaints, long after most everyone else had decided the process was futile, Castillo was offered 5 million pesos (about $1,800) in compensation. They said they could only verify damages from the third fumigation (in May 2003). When he asked whether he could appeal their decision, seeking the full 60 million pesos, they warned that he might have to wait five years for his appeal and that "the process could turn against you." The officials did not explain, he says, what they meant by "the process could turn against you."

"Without being educated," said Castillo during a conversation in November, "you don't know how to defend yourself from that, so you just get scared and take whatever they're offering."(27)


Most protections and restrictions written into U.S. law in an attempt to mitigate Plan Colombia's damages have had no effect whatsoever on the ground. Huge tracts of food crops have been sprayed and destroyed where no coca grows, displaying a total disregard for human and environmental health, and possibly the intent to displace people from the region. The scale of destruction is scarcely believable. Because conflict inhibits travel to the region, those in Washington D.C. and Bogotá know almost nothing about the actual damages.

Instead, the policy's functionaries pore over satellite images and fly over the region in Blackhawks. It was one such U.S. official who, early in her time in Colombia, compared the fumigations program to the movie Space Cowboys. "It's kinda cool," she said excitedly, describing a fumigations mission on which she'd gone along for the ride.(28)

It was possibly the same official that offered Castillo a vague threat and a fraction of the money he deserved in compensation. The small sum was also only a fraction of what it cost to fly there and view his decimated fields.

Castillo seemed older and more tired after he had met with the officials and had come away with so little. In addition to the massive destruction caused by the spray program, Plan Colombia appears to have succeeded in breaking the will of Putumayo's last believer.

Phillip Cryan is a columnist for Colombia Week (http://www.colombiaweek.org). He worked for Witness for Peace in Colombia in 2002-2003, and he was a Fellow at PANNA in 2002.


  1. Not his real name.

  2. Teófilo Vásquez, National Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP). Quoted in Phillip Cryan, "Devastation in Putumayo and an Expanding War: The Effects of Plan Colombia" Global Pesticide Campaigner, PANNA, San Francisco, May 2002.

  3. Center for International Policy, "U.S. Aid to Colombia since 1997: Summary Tables" http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/aidtable.htm, on February 23, 2004.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Representative Bob Barr, "The Barr Report on Plan Colombia and the War on Drugs." Washington, D.C., House Government Reform Committee, January 2003.

  6. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, "South America" International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2002, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., March 2003.

  7. Colombia Week, "U.S. to fund fumigation in national parks." December 15, 2003.

  8. Colombian Government Ombudsman's Office, "Resolution #26: Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Framework of the Armed Conflict and Fumigations of Coca Crops in Putumayo Province" Bogotá, D.C., October 9, 2002.

  9. Reuters, "Colombia's Uribe says drug spraying to continue." July 1, 2003.

  10. The language for these conditions has changed each year. For 2000 - 2003, see Center for International Policy, http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/legis.htm, on February 23, 2004. For 2004, see Latin America Working Group, "Going to Extremes: The U.S.-Funded Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia" Washington D.C., February 2004.

  11. Colombian Government Ombudsman's Office, "Resolution #26: Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Framework of the Armed Conflict and Fumigations of Coca Crops in Putumayo Province" Bogotá, D.C., October 9, 2002.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Transnational Institute, "Alternative Development and Eradication, A Failed Balance." Amsterdam: March 2002. Cited in Latin America Working Group, "Going to Extremes: The U.S.-Funded Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia" Washington D.C., February 2004.

  14. Not his real name.
    Personal communication with Teófilo Vásquez, National Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), January 2002. And Phil Stewart, "Coca Farmers Say Colombian Crop Substitution Fails" Reuters, December 12, 2001.

  15. Meetings with U.S. officials in Colombia, January 2002 - November 2003.

  16. John Walters, "Overview of U.S. Policy Toward the Western Hemisphere." Testimony before House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. February 27, 2003.

  17. For this and other information on displacement in Putumayo, see Colombian Government Ombudsman's Office, "Resolution #26: Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Framework of the Armed Conflict and Fumigation of Coca Crops in Putumayo Province." Bogotá, D.C., October 9, 2002. And: Witness for Peace, "Plan Colombia's first two years: An evaluation of human rights in Putumayo" Washington, D.C., April 2003.

  18. Witness for Peace, "Plan Colombia's first two years: An evaluation of human rights in Putumayo" Washington, D.C., April 2003.

  19. See for example Ted Schettler, "Comments on U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Consultation Review on the Use of Pesticide for Coca Eradication in Colombia." Boston, September 18, 2002. Also: Peggy Shepard, Chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, "Letter to Administrator Christine Todd Whitman" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. July 19, 2001. Also: World Wildlife Fund, "Letter to Senator Russ Feingold regarding herbicide spraying in Colombia" Washington, D.C., November 21, 2001.

  20. For example, Monsanto Corporation, "Roundup Ultra" label, 2003.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, "Policy and Program Developments." International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2002, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., March 2003.

  23. Interview with Witness for Peace. La Hormiga, November 2002.

  24. Meetings with U.S. officials in Colombia, January 2002 - August 2003.

  25. Interview with Witness for Peace. El Placer, August 2003.

  26. Not her real name. Interview with Witness for Peace. El Placer, November 2003.

  27. Interview with Witness for Peace. El Placer, November 2003.

  28. Meeting with U.S. officials in Colombia, August 2002.

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