WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

19 Dec 2020 | News

Colombia Poised to Restart Coca Spraying, a Failed ‘Drug War’ Policy

Colombian officials have said that within two months, a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones—suspended for public health reasons in 2015—will restart (following exhortations from President Trump: “You’re going to have to spray”). 

On December 19, environmental licensing authority ANLA will start holding public hearings with representatives from communities that would be directly impacted by the return of glyphosate spraying on coca crops. If, at the end of the hearings, ANLA signs off on the Iván Duque administration’s plan for dealing with the environmental impact of spraying a “probably carcinogenic” herbicide, then it’ll be up to a national drug control council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes, CNE) to make the final decision on whether fumigations can restart. 

Aerial fumigation is a failure of drug control policy. In 22 years, Colombia has fumigated 800 million hectares of coca, without significantly diminishing the rate of coca production. Spraying herbicide from planes may stop coca cultivation in certain areas in the short term, but over time, without strong state presence and few other viable economic alternatives, coca growers return to the crop. 

For recent WOLA resources on why restarting aerial fumigation of drug crops in Colombia is a mistake, see: 

  • WOLA and five Colombian organizations sent a letter to U.S. and Colombian Members of Congress, rejecting the restart of fumigation, given the lack of proper consultations with the rural and ethnic communities that would be most impacted, the risks to human health and ecosystems, and the widespread evidence that spraying is both costly and ineffective at ending coca cultivation in the long term. (Read in Spanish here). 
  • WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh participated in a December 9 international conference, hosted by the Colombian Senate. The conference analyzed different perspectives on drug policy, peace, and human rights, and sustainable development, using fact-based evidence and a focus on human rights implications. 

Watch Adam Isacson discuss how aerial fumigation is an inefficient and detrimental approach to curbing coca crop cultivation, explaining how the fumigation approach fails to effectively curtail cultivation because there’s no substitute for having a functioning government presence on the ground. Isacson also notes the history of the U.S. role concerning illegal drug markets in Colombia, observing that for a more effective U.S. strategy, the incoming Biden administration should support the full implementation of Colombia’s 2016 peace accords (which seeks to address the root causes driving coca cultivation), and supporting Colombia’s efforts to increase state presence in target territories and holding those guilty of corruption accountable.

Watch John Walsh discuss the need for the United States to work with Colombia, and with Latin America as a whole, as allies to create a path to broader drug policy reforms and regulation policies. Walsh notes the strategy of prohibition—the so-called “war on drugs”—was created in a different time and ethos, one rooted in colonialism and racism. With 15 states and two territories in the United States having now legalized cannabis for adult use, this complicates U.S. efforts to continue pushing traditional “drug war” strategies in Latin America. “The risk outlier is to continue with a system that we know doesn’t work and is vastly harmful,” Walsh said, adding, “Sensible regulation is moving on from a historical mistake.”