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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Effects of Coca Spraying

Air Date: Week of

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The U.S. funded effort to destroy coca crops comes with some unanswered environmental questions. Host Steve Curwood talks with St. Petersburg Times correspondent David Adams about concerns over an untested chemical mixture being sprayed in Colombia.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

A few minutes ago, you heard our report on the environmental devastation in Colombia due to coca cultivation and processing. But controversy surrounds one of the main methods used to stamp out the coca trade.

The country’s herbicide spraying program--an effort funded by the U.S.--has been criticized for causing its own environmental problems. Some legitimate farmers say their crops are mistakenly destroyed by the fumigation effort. And some worry about the effects the chemicals may have on people and their livestock.

David Adams is the Latin America correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times. He’s traveled through the region targeted by the government sprayers. David, first, what exactly is being used to defoliate the coca crops?

ADAMS: Well, to be honest, no one is entirely sure. It’s called glyphosate. That is the main chemical ingredient that’s more commonly known to American gardeners as Roundup--the best-sold, most effective weed killer on the market.

But in Colombia it’s mixed with some other products. And that’s what isn’t entirely clear-- is, what are the other substances that are mixed in with it? And also, what kind of concentration the glyphosate is being used at in the Colombian mix.

The other ingredients that are added are known as surfactants. And these are soapy additives that are added to the weed killer to make it stick better to the leaf, and make it more effective in penetrating the plant.

CURWOOD: Has this glyphosate been tested in tropical areas, and with what results?

ADAMS: No. While glyphosate is widely used in the United Stated, that obviously came after it was properly tested. It has not been tested for the way in which it is being applied in Colombia--from the air, aerial spraying on a massive scale. Roundup isn’t used in that fashion in the United States. And that is the reason why it is causing concern, particularly in some of these areas where it is being used in Colombia which are tropical-subtropical regions of rainforest or jungle.

In actual fact, the makers of Roundup, Monsanto, noted that on the bottles of Roundup. It specifically says: “Do not add surfactants.” The reason for that, I believe, is that just as a surfactant makes the herbicide more effective in penetrating the leaf of a plant, it can also have the same effect on skin. It may well be that while glyphosate does not cause skin irritation, when it’s mixed with a surfactant it does.

CURWOOD: Now, Roundup--glyphosate--is used pretty close to the ground in the United States. What happens when this is sprayed from aircraft?

ADAMS: Well, again, that hasn’t been studied properly. In ideal conditions--i.e. no wind, or very light wind on a clear day--the mist of tiny droplets will go straight down and land on the target. Obviously, those conditions are very rarely encountered, and when there’s any kind of wind in the area, the spray is subject to drift.

Now, there’s all kinds of computerized mechanisms that are carried on board the spray planes to take into account the prevailing weather conditions. And so, the officials who run the program claim that it’s highly accurate and very scientific, and every step is taken to ensure that the area targeted is the area hit.

I didn’t realize this at first, but it became increasingly obvious to me--until it was acutely obvious--that while I had spent time visiting these areas, they had not. So the officials administering the program are forced to use, and rely upon, satellite imagery and over-flying the area in small planes or helicopters, which, I think, is a tremendous problem. It does beg questions about whether the government has sufficient knowledge, on-the-ground knowledge, of the area it’s dealing with.

CURWOOD: Well, tell me, you’ve been there, where this material has been used on coca crops. What does an area look like, that’s been sprayed?

ADAMS: Brown. They’ve been using it for almost a decade, and they’ve improved its effectiveness by playing around with the concentration and the mix and the surfactants. So what they have now is a very effective product. When it is sprayed over the target area, it will kill everything it touches, in terms of plant life.

CURWOOD: What happens to the farmer that wants to try to replant?

ADAMS: He can forget about the plants that he’s cultivating. He’ll have to dig them up and replant. And it’ll take a few months for the soil to clean itself of the chemical spray substance. But he can be up and producing again, if he so wishes, within nine months or so.

CURWOOD: I’m sure that the people doing this are just going after coca. But at the end of the day, I suppose, mistakes do happen. An annihilated field of coca is one thing, but a destroyed plot of corn is quite another. How common is it for a law-abiding farmer’s land to be hit?

ADAMS: Well, in my experience, it’s quite common. The Colombian government, and the United States government, would argue that, on the contrary, it’s not very common and that it receives very few complaints. I would, I think, say that these are very remote, rural areas. And so, the idea of somebody actually picking up the telephone, or going around to the local office of the government to complain, is somewhat far-fetched.

But I have spoken to farmers, and I’ve seen from my own eyes where mistakes have been made. I interviewed a man who was running an internationally funded alternative agriculture program, producing hearts of palm. And his small plot had been completely wiped out. We also interviewed an organic coffee grower. His product had been wiped out. And there was no coca or opium poppies in those two areas--unless he’s lying, and you can never be sure about these things. Both those cases were pretty clear-cut, as far as I was concerned.

CURWOOD: Now I know that there have been health complaints by people who’ve been hit by the spraying. What effect do they say the chemicals have on them?

ADAMS: Skin rashes, pink eye, diarrhea, vomiting, intestinal complaints. I would say the most common would be the skin rashes.

Again, the health studies are very superficial, the problem being these are remote, rural areas. Many people don’t actually go to the local clinic or the hospital for treatment because it’s too far away. And most of these illnesses are not long-lasting. They go away. The skin rashes, for instance, disappear in three or four days…likewise, the vomiting.

What people are concerned about is the possible--and I emphasize possible--long-term health effects of being exposed to this kind of spraying. And that’s the main focus, I think, of some of the activists who are involved in this issue. It’s that they feel that this kind of massive spraying shouldn’t take place until really serious environmental and health impacts studies are conducted.

This kind of spraying would be impossible under U.S. legislation if it was being conducted in the United States. Because it’s Colombia, the United States. doesn’t have to worry about its own legislation. That’s up to the Colombian government.

But obviously, we all know that the Colombian government is under a good deal of pressure from the United States to adopt these programs and to make them work.

CURWOOD: So, David, how effective has this spraying been at dealing with the reason that they’re doing the spraying, the coca problem?

ADAMS: Well, I suppose that’s really the $64 million dollar question. And, to be fair, I think probably one should say that it’s too early to tell. While spraying has been going on in Colombia for nearly a decade, it has not been at this level of intensity for very long. That only really has been happening in the last three years.

And the latest figures do appear to indicate, for the first time, a significant drop in coca cultivation--down this last year from 358,000 acres being cultivated to around 250,000 acres. That’s a drop of 29.5 percent, according to the United Nations Drug Program, which monitors the spraying through the use of satellite imagery.

Also, last year we had, apparently, a significant drop in coca production--i.e. the finished product--down from 617 tons in 2001 to 480 tons in 2002.

CURWOOD: If you look at the figures that the government gives us about spraying in the coca areas in Colombia, it looks like it’s working. What’s your opinion?

ADAMS: There is concern that the satellite imagery that is used to estimate--and it really is an estimate--how much coca is being grown, doesn’t have a complete picture. While large areas of the country are covered by the satellite imagery, there are areas that are not. And the drug traffickers are pretty canny. And when areas are being hit, they will move. And so now we are seeing production moving away from the areas that are being intensively targeted in the south of Colombia, like Putamayo, to new areas--like, for instance, Arauca in the northeast of the country. There, production has grown dramatically.

CURWOOD: David Adams is the Latin America correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times. Thanks for taking this time, David.

ADAMS: A pleasure.

CURWOOD: There’s much more to hear from David Adams at our website, livingonearth.org. We also have photos and a reporter’s notebook from Angela Swafford’s experiences in the Colombian Amazon. That’s www.livingonearth.org.



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