Innocent victims of war in the air



Posted on 25 September 1998  | 
Cali, Colombia: Air raids are a commonplace event in the lives of indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon. First, a helicopter will fly over an area and spray it with bullets. Afterwards comes a plane spraying something very different and potentially even more dangerous  a deadly herbicide.

The aim of these attacks is to destroy illicit crops such as coca and opium poppies, but as the indigenous people of the Alto Vaupes region discovered earlier this year, the spraying also affects pineapple, manioc, and banana trees, as well as parts of the tropical rainforest. Witnesses say that after the aerial fumigation they saw tons of dead fish in the nearby Vaupes river.

Before the policemen fumigate an area, they send a helicopter to spread bullets all over the region, said one. They do that to ensure nobody will attack the aircraft carrying out the fumigation. There are no statistics to show the environmental impact of this practice, but experts are deeply worried. Most coca crops in Colombia are grown in or near the Amazon jungle, while opium poppies are in or close to Andean montane forests and paramos  areas especially valuable for their capacity to produce and store water.

The Colombian human rights organization Defensoria del Pueblo has proof that herbicide from aerial fumigation of illicit crops has affected streams and ordinary farms in the Amazon. In one documented incident, lemon trees, pasture lands, palm trees, and a tomato-like rainforest fruit lulo are known to have been destroyed.

In spite of environmental supervision of some spraying raids, the Director General of Colombia's National Police, General Rosso Jose Serrano, has admitted in a letter that accidents happen, though he says they are not his responsibility.

Glyphosate is currently the weapon of choice against illegal drug crops, but under pressure from the United States, the government is considering use of a more powerful chemical. The most favoured candidate so far is tebuthiuron, a broad spectrum herbicide used to control weeds in non-cropland areas, rangelands, rights of way, and industrial sites.

The product label specifies that tebuthiuron must not be applied near desirable trees, but Mauricio Castro, Forestry Official at the Colombian office of WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature, points out that when it is applied from an aeroplane, there is a high probability that the chemical would get in contact with non-target plants. WWF Colombia says existing literature shows that tebuthiuron can cause extensive damage to fauna and flora and to humans if used incorrectly.

Such is the concern that even the US Congress has drawn attention to the dangers of potential use of tebuthiuron, stating in a report that: Prior to any decision on its use, the State Department should thoroughly test and evaluate the health and environmental impacts of such herbicide under the conditions in which it would be used. The product's manufacturer, Dow Elanco, has said it will not sell tebuthiuron to Colombia for use in aerial spraying, but the authorities decided to test it anyway. Elsa Nivia Quintero, from the pan-American Action Net Against Herbicides, believes the 18-month test in a specific area could result in a formal request to approve aerial use of tebuthiuron in the Colombian Amazon.

She asks: If Dow Elanco will not sell the tebuthiuron, where will the Colombian authorities buy the amount needed for the tests? Or is it that they already have it?

Apart from the environmental dangers of aerial spraying, the technique has been shown to be ineffective against drug crops. Klaus Niholm, of the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP), says growers simply move deeper into the jungle. They try to hide at least part of their crops from the fumigation aircraft and in doing so they destroy more tropical rainforest.

Figures from the Colombian Ministry of the Environment indicate that more than a million hectares of Amazon rainforest, Andean forests, and paramos have been destroyed over the past 24 years to establish illicit crops  some of which have been subsequently eradicated. And while in countries such as Bolivia and Peru, where aerial fumigation does not take place, the area of illicit crops has been contained or even reduced, official Colombian figures show an increase of nearly 400 per cent since 1974.

Juan Mayr, the Colombian Environment Minister, has admitted that We cannot just fumigate the country for ever and hopes that alternatives will be found before the tebuthiuron testing period ends. According to UNDCP's Klaus Niholm, Our experience in Latin America and Asia shows that if the farmers are given the opportunity to leave the illicit crops, most of them do so. But this only happens if they have a real opportunity to do it.

He suggests that land on which illicit crops are no more than a means of subsistence for farmers should not be fumigated and that attention should be focused on land used by real drug traffickers. A farmer that has two hectares of coca crops for his own subsistence is not a criminal, Niholm says. It is the trafficker who manages seven or more hectares of coca crops exclusively for commercial benefit.

In short, a crackdown on traffickers and support for subsistence farmers to grow different crops are likely to be both safer and more effective than simply sending out aircraft to spread ever more deadly herbicide.

(885 words)

*Vanessa Diago Garcia is Communications Officer at the WWF Colombia Programme Office

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