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Fumigation induces further planting of illicit crops in Colombia

Elsa Nivia[1]

Aerial fumigation over areas planted with crops used for illicit purposes began in Colombia not 10 years back but over 20 years ago. Growing of crops for illicit purposes began in Colombia in the 1970s with marihuana in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and this is where the first aerial fumigation with paraquat was carried out towards the end of the 1970s, with disastrous environmental and social consequences.

These fumigation measures where harshly criticized by US citizens due to concerns regarding contamination of marihuana by residues of paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide which causes pulmonary fibrosis. This pressure is probably the reason why the use of this herbicide was banned for use in eradication of crops used for illicit purposes. Paraquat is, however, apparently still being used on marihuana crops in Mexico. Marihuana crops became less significant in Colombia not due to fumigation measures, but because they shifted to the US, where marihuana is being planted in significant quantities without the equivalent of forced eradication strategies by aerial fumigation.

In Colombia marihuana was substituted largely by coca and poppy in the 1980s and 1990s. Legally-authorized chemical eradication began in Colombia in 1984 with the approved use of Roundup[2] (glyphosate + POEA[3]). Later, the use of other herbicides such as tebuthyiuron and imazapyr, has been proposed and there have even been proposals to disperse the pathogenous fungi Fusarium oxysporum., these have not been authorized thanks to quick alerts by civil society..

Colombia, the only American country where forced eradication strategies with aerial fumigation of Roundup and other surfactants such as CosmoFlux and CosmoInD has been permitted, is the country where crop cultivation has spread the most, particularly, in 1999 the year that President Pastrana announced the Plan Colombia.

It would be pertinent to establish a comparison between the market of agro toxic substances, which are extremely hazardous to our health, environment and economies, but which have government licenses everywhere under the reigning profit rationality; and their makers are not treated as criminals.

Fumigation induces further planting

Upon analyzing the dynamics of the areas planted and the areas eradicated from 1992-2001, one can conclude that, under fumigation, yearly plantings have increased since, sooner or later, the number of hectares eradicated has been substituted or even surpassed.

In order to estimate new plantings throughout a certain decade, we have assumed that each year begins with the net number of hectares carried over from the previous year  (planted minus eradicated) to which are added the newly cultivated areas which substitute those eradicated plus those hectares which, when added, give us the total sum for the year studied. The possible impact of fumigation measures on new coca plantings is shown in the following table and graphic:

New hypothetical yearly coca plantings and new theoretical plantings without eradication


Identified Coca (hectares)

Eradicated Coca  (hectares)

Carried over to the following year*

New yearly plantings with fumigation**

New theoretical plantings without eradication ***






























































  *   Planted minus eradicated.

  ** Difference between total number of hectares identified during the year and those that carry over from the previous year

  *** Difference between identified hectares for one year and for the previous year.

New hypothetical yearly coca plantings under fumigation and new theoretical plantings without eradication

The tendency observed is that increased fumigation for one year coincides with increases in planted areas identified for the following year —or years— probably due to the time required for displacement, the search for new lands, felling of trees, and the growth required for plants to be detected by satellites.

If this preliminary analysis is correct, impact on new coca crops of fumigation carried out during 2000 and 2001 can only be assessed after 2002 and 2003. This might mean that, if the new government does not suspend fumigation in order to urgently implement a strategy different from that which has been applied for the past 20 years, it will lose the opportunity to innovate as regards this old, painful and growing problem; and it will not have the time needed to carry out effective sustainable alternative development programs, which do not prosper under fumigation and do not show results in the short term.   

These suppositions hope to contribute elements so that a more profound analysis and debate might be carried out in Colombia regarding the true impact of chemical eradication stipulated in the Plan Colombia, the expansion of crops used for illicit purposes, the narcotics traffic and violence, in Colombia and its neighboring countries.

Directives of the Controller General (Contraloría) and Ombudsman (Defensoría)

In response to growing concern regarding program effectiveness and the severe health and environmental impact remarked, the Colombian Controller General, through its Environmental Delegate, assessed eradication policies and the Plan Colombia's implementation for the period ranging from 1992 – 2000. The report begins by clearly summing up the issue: “In Colombia crops used for non licit purposes arise under structural conditions which favor their development:  marginality and the permanent crisis of the agrarian sector tied to factors such as access to the land and land possession and use. Peasants and frontiersmen inhabiting regions without government protection, with low standards of living, no public services nor infrastructure to promote development, in their search for survival and considering the low profits to be gleaned from traditional agriculture, look to this alternative which does not require marketing nor distribution infrastructure since these activities are carried out by others in the chain, all under the impulse of a demand for narcotics.”

Complaints lodged with the Municipal Authorities (Personerías Municipales) and other entities, and which have been channeled to the Bogotá Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), indicate that fumigation with glyphosate formally geared at eliminating coca and poppy plantations have been highly destructive for the people of these regions and their environment. Thousands of persons and hectares of subsistence crops have been destroyed. These people's health has been sorely impaired. Furthermore, there might be long-term effects which are unpredictable and of which we have no inkling..

As concerns the Plan Colombia, it has been remarked that funding destined for alternative development is insignificant (8% of US funds). This makes stated objectives rhetorical and the measures taken mere welfare and, thereby, not sustainable and limited to an emergency aid which does not generate long-term income. Furthermore, up until now, forced eradication has not stemmed the expansion of crops for illicit purposes, quite the opposite, it has stimulated them. As refers to the environmental component of the Plan Colombia, the report quoted concludes that it has not “been duly taken into consideration.”

Embezzlement of funds destined for fumigation

In May of 2002, the US government revealed the embezzlement of 2 million dollars from the monies destined for fumigation measures. The investigation detected irregularities such as unauthorized trips, non-existent companies, unjustified import of food rations, excess expenditures on spare parts and petrol, waste, overhead, and inefficient use of resources. These irregularities were clearly explained by Phillip Chicola —Director of Andean Affairs at the US Sate Department— in an interview on the RCN TV program “La Noche” on the 15th of August 2002. Chicola seemed calm and confident that, with one or two administrative changes, controls would improve in the future. He even seemed to consider that a sum of US$2 million was small compared to the whole US package, of which  80% to 90% is made up of equipment such as helicopters and others supplied directly by the US; some of of the social assistance programs are managed in close cooperation between the US and de different.

Monies destined for useless chemical eradication and corruption, even if they don't mean much to the US government, would definitely be more useful if geared towards improving living standards for rural communities, with a total ban on fumigation.

[1] Engineer in agronomy. Degree in Biology & Chemistry. Executive Director of RAPALMIRA. PAN-Colombia. Cali.

[2] The commercial brand Roundup covers a family of Monsanto herbicides, based on the active ingredient glyphosate and the surfactant POEA. The difference between the product formulas lies in the concentration of glyphosate and/or of POEA, or in the proportion of amines. Other surfactants may even be included without any warning, and are considered a business secret.

[3] POEA is the acronym for surfactant polyoxyethylamine, included in all formulas of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides. POEA is a mixture of etoxyled amines derived from animal fat, with a toxicity five times greater than that of glyphosate.

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