Washington, D.C.—On March 5, the United States and Colombian governments reaffirmed a bilateral agenda aimed at halving the cultivation and production of coca in Colombia by 2023. The announcement, which reflects growing alarm about record-high rates of coca cultivation and cocaine production, pushes an anti-drug strategy that includes the aerial herbicide spraying of coca-growing zones from spray aircraft dispensing the herbicide glyphosate. This policy risks causing serious harm: it may push some of Colombia’s poorest citizens deeper into poverty, generate violence and unrest, harm the environment, and detrimentally impact efforts to implement Colombia’s 2016 peace accords.
“It’s clear that the United States is pushing for aerial fumigation, and that they’ve found a willing partner in Iván Duque,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “What both countries are ignoring is the lack of evidence supporting aerial fumigation as an effective long-term drug control strategy. The plan also ignores the very real possibility that restarting fumigation will result in grave consequences for communities in vulnerable situations.”
For public health reasons, Colombia suspended a U.S.-backed aerial fumigation program in 2015, after 21 years and 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) sprayed. But from 1994 to 2015, mass campaigns of aerial fumigation in Colombia were the cornerstone of U.S. drug policy in the region. It took at least 13 acres of spraying (some estimates go as high as 32 acres) to reduce coca-growing by one acre—and years of evidence show those gains were not permanent. In areas absent of government presence, with no farm-to-market roads, land titles, or even basic security, replanting happens quickly after spraying, even if there is an initial reduction in coca acreage. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in 2018 found that coca farmers had adopted easy ways to counter mass campaigns of aerial spraying.
“Aerial fumigation is a short-term tactic with no long-term results, like losing weight on a crash diet only to gain it again,” said Isacson. “The regions where families plant coca need basic government services: roads, food security, an effective police force. Sending police and contractors to anonymously spray herbicides from overhead is the direct opposite of what those government services should look like.”
The potential costs of aerial fumigation are significant. Past WOLA research in the region has documented how aerial fumigation displaces ethnic communities and destroys food security. Another concern is social discord in coca-growing areas: about 120,000 Colombian households currently make a living from growing coca, earning an average of $130 per month. There is also the question of environmental harm and potential health damage, as a growing number of studies point to a potential link between glyphosate and forms of cancer. A 2015 literature review published by the World Health Organization found that glyphosate, the chemical used in aerial fumigation, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“The accords already provide for crop substitutions, economic opportunities in rural areas, and social development. The Duque government needs to uphold these commitments, not restart a failed and risky aerial spraying program,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at WOLA. “Rather than pressure Colombia to fumigate, the United States should instead encourage President Duque to quit dragging his feet on the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating. We have this historic opportunity to provide avenues for economic and social development thanks to the 2016 peace accords, and both President Duque and the United States are ignoring it,” added Sánchez-Garzoli. “Instead, they want to bring back fumigation. Imagine, for some of the people living in these regions, a police plane dropping glyphosate on their communities could be the first evidence of state ‘presence’ they see since the accords were signed in 2016.”