The Guardian • Issue #2078

Colombia’s “War on Drugs”

Environmental and human tragedy

Extracting the cacao beans after harvest.

Extracting the cacao beans after harvest. Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti, USAID – (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed).

The Colombian government’s “War on Drugs” has been encouraged by the US government since the 1980s. In February 2023 the government of President Gustavo Petro announced it would stop the eradication of illegal coca crops by aerial spraying, called fumagación in Colombia. Colombia is the only country in the world that permits aerial spraying of drug producing crops.

The fumigation of large areas of plants is banned in the USA and Europe. The use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is well known. Less is known about Colombia, because the government has repressed information about the areas sprayed during the past 40 years. Aerial spraying has done massive environmental damage and caused numerous ailments in humans and animals.

Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Sue Brandford in Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Cost of Coca Fumigation (2005) reveal that the US corporation Monsanto manufactures Roundup Ultra, a spray that contains 41 per cent Glyphosate, POEA (polyoxyethylene tallow amine), and Cosmo-Flux (an adjuvant product to create a fine mist). The Roundup used on home gardens has only one per cent Glyphosate.

Aerial spraying, has been used for more than forty years in an attempt to wipe out the production of cocaine. The consequences have been devastating with severe social impacts on Afro-Caribbean people, peasants, small farmers, and the Indigenous.

By 1999 the Department of Putumayo had 58,000 hectares under coca cultivation, out of a total of 160,000 hectares for the country, requiring large areas of deforestation causing a loss of biodiversity. The chemical processing of the coca leaves to produce a paste leaks into the soil and environment causing a further impact on birds, animals, fish and aquatic life. In 2004 an area of coca covering 136,555 hectares was sprayed, with 114,000 hectares surviving, showing the plants had adapted to the poison. Spraying over such a long period has created weeds which are immune to Roundup.

Vargas, Guardiola, and Almanza describe the environmental disaster created by cocaine production in Fumagación en Colombia (2003): “The indiscriminate felling of forests causes the loss of biodiversity, not only in the plant world but also as a result of breaking the chains of transformation and the life cycles that link together so many organisms, such as micro-organisms in the soil, birds and insects (which have a pollination function), reptiles, small mammals, and carnivores among others.” The coca fields are planted along the contours of the land and kept bare of all other plants, causing widespread top soil run off.

Intensive cocaine production is bad for the environment, but eradicating it from the air is horrendous. The signing of Plan Colombia in 2000 showed the government’s willingness to cooperate with the US in the militarised eradication of coca in the Putumayo, spraying an area of 12,836 hectares of coca plants. Soon there were thousands of health complaints, mainly respiratory, miscarriages, eye infections, gastro-intestinal, and dermatological.

The spraying destroyed maize, yucca, and fruit trees on farms and caused the death of 373,944 animals, mainly fish, pigs, horses, rabbits, and an unknown quantity of the native bird population. While the majority of small farmers have up to 18 hectares, 40 per cent of families survive on only 2.3 hectares. The loss of their farms’ capacity to grow food forced over 200,000 to leave for Ecuador.

The Colombian landscape is damaged through the constant deforestation caused by clear cutting fields for coca cultivation soil erosion, and the chemical pollution caused by aerial spraying of glyphosate herbicide. Aerial spraying has been repeatedly condemned by human rights and environmental activists, because of its effect on human populations and local soil and water systems.

The Dutch journalist, Marjon van Royen, found that plots denuded of coca plants are abandoned and cause serious problems with erosion during seasonal rains. Because of the continuous high demand for coca, once a plot is destroyed, planters simply move further into the forest, clearing new lands for coca production. This vicious cycle of unsustainable cultivation-eradication has caused the environment in coca producing zones to suffer substantial decline.

According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the area under coca cultivation in Colombia has expanded to 245,000 hectares, and cocaine production increased to 1010 tonnes a year. Colombia’s security forces confiscated 505 tonnes of cocaine.

Cocaine production programs have been a complete failure, creating an acute humanitarian crisis in impoverished rural areas. Those who have profited from the US-financed program have been the politicians, the paramilitary and security forces, and the drug cartels, who benefitted from the higher prices created by US anti-drug laws.

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