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

Anti-Cocaine Herbicides Impact Colombian's Health

Air Date: Week of

The war on drugs against coca plants and cocaine production includes the use of aerial sprayed herbicides on areas where plants can grow. Quil Lawrence reports from Colombia on the adverse health effects impacting some resident Colombians who come into contact with the chemicals used to kill the coca plants.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The illegal cocaine trade leaves plenty of human wreckage in its wake. In North America, cocaine cases clog the courts while the promise of easy cash corrupts officials and spawns inner city violence. In South America, cocaine holds entire nations hostage, especially Colombia, the world's biggest source of the drug. The US has pressured Colombia to cut cocaine production and destroy coca crops. Congress recently approved millions of dollars to spray the coca fields with herbicides. But as Quil Lawrence reports, the air war on the illicit crop is taking a toll on the Colombian countryside. And it's having some unintended consequences for its people.

LAWRENCE: San Jose Del Guaviare, south east of Bogota, is one of Colombia's jungle capitols. The dusty river port city is also the world's coca capitol. The waxy leaf shrub is not naturally abundant here, but in the last decade a growing number of small peasant farmers, many displaced by Colombia's civil strife, have begun to cultivate it.

(Motors and crickets)

LAWRENCE: About 15 miles out of San Jose Del Guaviare used to be coca country: vast fields of coca plants, often mixed in with corn and planting crops, towered 6 feet high in view of the rough dirt roads. Now the coca crop has moved elsewhere, but other crops aren't doing much better. That's because both the drug plants and the legal crops here were dusted with glyphosate, an herbicide which enters a plant through its foliage and disrupts its production of certain amino acids.

(An engine revs up; people speak in the distance)

LAWRENCE: In the blazing equatorial sun, Victor Vanegas and a few other farmers are using rented weed cutters to raze the brush in what used to be his pasture.

VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish]

LAWRENCE: Vanegas says that he never had any coca on his land here, just cows he husbands for a large rancher. But a few months ago, when government planes flew over, they sprayed his crops anyway. All of the grass he had seeded died within a few days, and he says 3 of his cows perished. Since then, he says, the brush has taken over.

(Footfalls through brush)

LAWRENCE: Vanegas's devastated pasture is evidence of how Colombia's drug problem has become an environmental problem. Maybe the spraying of his pasture was accidental, or maybe there was indeed coca growing here. But complaints like Vanegas's are frequent. Glyphosate is commonly used in the US, where it is known as Round-Up. Although it's considered to be one of the least toxic herbicides on the market, it is indiscriminate. It attacks any plant it's sprayed on, not just coca. Colombia is the only country that is currently using aerial eradication to fight drugs. The US-funded program has this year alone already dusted 120,000 acres of illegal crops. Nonetheless, the area under coca cultivation in Colombia has doubled in size despite 4 years of record spraying. Much of the new coca crops are planted in the rainforest cut down as growers push further into remote jungles, where they hope their crops won't be sprayed. Victor Vanegas's wife Ernestina explains.

E. VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: No one can plant coca so close to the town. They are doing it far, far away in the mountains.

(Helicopter rotors)

LAWRENCE: The turbo thresh planes and helicopters land next to huge metal tanks of glyphosate on the runway at the anti-narcotics police base in San Jose Del Guaviare. Spraying the coca crops is not as simple as barnstorming over the jungle and letting the dust go. Armed helicopters escort the planes, mostly because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerilla army of nearly 15,000 soldiers, control the south of Colombia, including almost all the coca-growing regions. One grower gave his name only as Antonio. He comes from Miraflores, a coca center where the rebels recently destroyed a narcotics police base.

ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The rebels came in and started to tell the coca growers that they shouldn't depend on coca. That they also had to grow enough food to live on.

LAWRENCE: While the rebels publicly advocate alternative development and environmentalism, they finance their insurgency with the help of coca production. They tax coca paste about $15 per kilo. At the same time, they limit the number of acres a peasant can grow, and forbid the disposal of waste chemicals in watersheds. They also sometimes shoot at the crop dusting planes as they fly by.

MAN: I thought we were using cotter pins.

(Clanking signs)

MAN 2: Yeah, cotter pins is what we're using.

LAWRENCE: The American advisors, technicians, and pilots who work at the base are even more at risk, as the guerillas have declared them a military target. In the last year right-wing death squads have arrived, working with the tolerance of the Colombian Army. They have also gotten in on the coca act, taxing the precursor chemicals which pass through San Jose.

ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish]

LAWRENCE: Antonio says that despite the taxes from all the armed groups, the violence of the drug trade, and the risk of losing their crops, peasants in Colombia continue to grow coca because they have no alternative.

ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Many people have left for the urban center of the country, but by the end of 6 or 8 months they come back to the jungle. Despite the crossfire, they say it's better to be in Miraflores, where at least we can earn enough for food.

LAWRENCE: Making coca paste isn't cheap. Antonio says that in Miraflores, a 60-gallon drum of gasoline, one of the most important processing agents, can cost up to $800, a bag of cement up to $50. Many of the small growers who have lost their crops to spraying have found themselves with no better option than joining the ranks of the guerillas or paramilitaries. Antonio says that Colombian farmers are at a crossroads.

ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The idea thing would be to take advantage of this moment. Now that coca isn't so easy, it would be a good time to present alternatives to substitute for coca.

LAWRENCE: But without alternatives, many of the growers follow the large coca plantations as they relocate further into the jungle, beyond the range of the crop-dusting plains, cutting down more of the Amazon rainforest as they go.

ZULETA: [Speaks in Spanish]

LAWRENCE: Claudia Zuleta, Colombia's Vice Minister of the Environment, says that for every acre of coca the growers want to plant, they cut down at least twice that to let light in through the high jungle canopy. She estimates that 100,000 acres of rainforest have been cut down for coca cultivation, and that that number is rising.

ZULETA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the government tries to eradicate their crops, the farmers don't stop growing them. What they do is they simply move. And so, they become the front line of the colonization, which in the end destroys the forest.

LAWRENCE: Colombia's new president, Andres Pastrana, says more must be done to protect the country's environment. While he stops short of calling for an end to aerial eradication, he has strongly criticized it and has put more emphasis on crop substitution. In one of Colombia's first acts of defiance of US drug policy, Pastrana's government has tabled a plan to begin using a more powerful herbicide called tebuthieron. US officials had argued that the environmental damage of coca production was worse than the damage the new herbicide would cause. Colombia's new Environmental Minister, Juan Meyer, disagrees.

MEYER: It takes time to disappear in the environment. And in this time, it runs to the watersheds and it's a high-toxic product. So, it has great implications on human health, and on other kinds of life forms.

LAWRENCE: The product's manufacturer, Dow Agrichemical, opposed tebuthieron's use in southern Colombia, and it appears US officials have stopped pushing the new herbicide. However, Pastrana's crop substitution plan is facing immense challenges. United Nations estimates suggest that it could cost up to $1 billion to implement alternative development. And right now, no other harvest can give so many of the country's impoverished farmers a living wage.

(Footfalls through brush)

LAWRENCE: Few Colombians have learned that lesson as well as Victor Vanegas, as he mows down the weeds in the pasture that was once his livelihood.

VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: With a kilo of coca anybody can make a million pesos, but the poor farmer who brings a load of yucca or rice to San Jose won't even make back his costs.

(Clacking sounds)

LAWRENCE: Colombian peasants call coca "the blessed plant." It's not just that coca is so resilient, or that the leaves can be harvested once a month. There are few roads to get other products to market, and the coca growers know that once they get their kilo of paste, the buyers will come deep into the jungle to find them. For Living on Earth, this is Quil Lawrence in San Jose Del Guaviare.



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