WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Feb 2008 | News

“Chemical Reactions”: A New WOLA Report on the Failure of Anti-Drug Fumigation in Colombia

Intensive aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops in Colombia has backfired badly, contributing to the spread of coca cultivation and cocaine production to new areas of the country and threatening human health and the environment, a report released today by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) shows.

Aerial spraying, or fumigation, has been a central part of U.S. drug control policy in Colombia for nearly a decade.  The new report, "Chemical Reactions," shows that after fumigation of more than 2 million acres of the Colombian countryside, coca cultivation and cocaine output remain undiminished.  The dispersal of coca and cocaine production is exacerbating threats to biological diversity in Colombia, one of the most ecologically rich countries on the planet.

"Fumigation is part of the problem," the report says. "The aerial spray operations tend to reinforce rather than weaken Colombian farmers' reliance on coca growing, prompting more rather than less replanting, thereby contributing to coca's spread into new areas of the country."

U.S. aid to Colombia has totaled more than $5 billion since 2000.  As fumigation intensified with an infusion of U.S. funds, officials portrayed the spraying as not merely innocuous to human health and the environment, but as environmentally beneficial because it would inhibit the loss of forests to coca crops.  On the contrary, the WOLA report shows that:

  • Fumigation pushes coca growing into new areas, spreading the ecological destruction that coca growing entails.
  • The adverse effects on human health and the environment due to exposure to the spray chemicals may be considerably more severe than has been officially acknowledged.

By pushing coca growing into new zones, fumigation also contributes to spreading the violence and corruption associated with drug production to more and more regions of the country.  Since 1999, as the spray program escalated, coca cultivation spread from 12 to 23 of Colombia's 34 departments.  Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been particularly hard hit by coca's dispersal, the depredations of illegal armed actors involved in the drug trade, and the damage caused by fumigation.

"If you listen to the State Department and the drug czar's office, the problem with fumigation is that we haven't done enough of it.  But fumigation is not merely ineffectual, it is counterproductive.  Persisting with it will only add to the damage," said WOLA Senior Associate John Walsh, the report's lead author.

Rather than continue on a counterproductive course, the report urges the U.S. and Colombian governments to refocus their drug control efforts on rural development, while targeting enforcement at drug traffickers and criminal organizations, not peasant farmers.  Cooperation with affected local communities is crucial to designing viable economic alternatives suited to their cultures and to local ecosystems.

Among the report's details:

  • The number of hectares fumigated in Colombia climbed from 60,700 in 1999 to 172,000 in 2006.  (One hectare is equal to 2.47 acres.)
  • In the same seven-year period, the area under coca cultivation in Colombia rose from 122,500 hectares to 157,200 hectares, according to U.S. government figures.
  • Cocaine production in Colombia rose from 617 metric tons in 2001 to 640 metric tons in 2005, according to UN figures, despite an increase in fumigation every year during that period.
  • A widely-cited study by the Organization of American States that found fumigation to pose only small risks to human health and the environment has come under sharp criticism from researchers for its lack of relevant field research, failure to assess economic and social impacts, and other shortcomings.

"Chemical Reactions:  Fumigation – Spreading Coca and Threatening Colombia's Ecological and Cultural Diversity" is a path-breaking study that will shift the debate on drug control policies and practices in the Andes and beyond.  A more detailed Spanish-language version of the report will be available in Spring 2008.

Both "Chemical Reactions" and the forthcoming Spanish-language version of the report were made possible through the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


Roger Atwood, Communications Director, ratwood@wola.org
John Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes and Drug Policy, jwalsh@wola.org
Gimena Sánchez, Senior Associate for Colombia and Haiti, gsanchez@wola.org
(202) 797-2171

To read the complete report, click here.