Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Toxic Rain Kills More Than the Coca

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Toxic Rain Kills More Than the Coca

Article excerpt

The so-called "war on coca" in Colombia, backed by the United States, is destroying jungles and forests, and threatening the health of half a million peasants and indigenous peoples

At first sight, a coca leaf is nothing more than an ordinary light-green leaf that grows on a rather ugly bush. But if you hold one up to the light, it turns yellow and a system of veins appears that seems to carry a substance towards the centre. This is the narcotic over which 15,000 leftist guerrillas and 8,000 far-right para-military troops are fighting in Colombia. Each side's secret military structure rests on the underground economy of growing and refining coca leaves. Drug trafficking has set off a war in Colombia just as diamonds have in Sierra Leone.

Over the last 15 years, trafficking has turned Colombia into a top national security issue for the United States, the world's largest consumer of cocaine. As such, the U.S. has a direct influence on Colombia's fight against drugs through hefty budgets, military hardware and other aid, along with the threat of political and economic sanctions. American involvement has increased to the point that the so-called Colombia Plan, the main programme of President Andres Pastrana's government, now receives $1.3 billion in U.S. aid.

According to Pastrana's reasoning, if all the coca planted in the country is destroyed, there will be no money left to fight the war, allowing peace to be negotiated with the outlawed groups. No more cocaine would be sold on the streets of American cities. Washington supports this scenario. To achieve the goal within five years, a military offensive was drawn up, including the creation of three anti-drug battalions and a fleet of planes to spray the plants with a poison called glyphosate.

Is this a good thing? Environmental NGOs such as Accion Andina see it as a scorched-earth policy and the European Union criticizes the programme because it provides no long-term solution for the survival of communities that live off growing coca. The government says at least half a million people--450,000 peasants and 50,000 indigenous people--depend directly on the crop for their livelihood. Yet last December, the authorities began large-scale secret spraying of coca plantations with glyphosate, a pink liquid herbicide used against all crop diseases.

A desolate scene

Colombian officials from the antinarcotics directorate of the national police say 30,000 hectares of coca were sprayed with the poison last January. Glyphosate has been used since 1984 to kill marijuana plants. A decade later, the government authorized its use in the Andean highlands to eradicate a violet poppy whose buds produce a thick white liquid that forms the rubbery substance from which opium, morphine and heroin are refined.

Although glyphosate is banned in several U.S. states, including Florida, where it was rejected as a way to eradicate marijuana plants in the Everglades region "because of its unclear effects on the environment," the Colombian authorities cited research funded by the country's national farming institute that ensures the chemical does not pose a health risk to humans and is only slightly toxic for animals and plants.

To appease the growing chorus of criticism, the authorities promised to implement an environmental management plan that would limit use of the chemical to destroying illegal plants, without harming the rest of the environment or people. Six years later, this plan remains a draft document on the desk of environment minister Juan Mayr. Meanwhile, the poisonous rain has now been sprayed over more than 300,000 hectares of jungle and forest.

National watchdog bodies such as the office of the ombudsman have since shown that glyphosate causes irreparable harm to people and the environment wherever it is used. The ombudsman's most recent study was of the Colombia Plan's launch in Putumayo province, which borders Ecuador and where half the country's coca is grown. …

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