WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 May 2016 | Commentary | News

Colombia’s Contradictory Return to Coca Fumigation

By Pedro José Arenas Garcia, Observatory of Crops Declared to be Illicit (OCDI)

On April 18, the Colombian government restarted use of the harmful and ineffective herbicide glyphosate to destroy coca crops, months after the government suspended aerial spraying because the chemical was found to likely be carcinogenic. While spraying will continue on the ground instead of from the air, the move will still harm the health and welfare of rural Colombian farmers involved in the cultivation of illicit crops. The new practice also undercuts President Juan Manuel Santos’ calls for drug policy reform—most recently, at the April United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy in New York.

Last year, the Colombian Ministry of Health accepted the evaluation from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, that found sufficient evidence to state that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This finding comes after more than 30 years of aerial spraying of coca, cannabis, and poppy crops, during which local communities repeatedly denounced the negative effects the chemical had on humans and animals alike. In addition to the health effects, the practice puts local  food security in jeopardy due to the fact that spraying campaigns have destroyed licit and illicit crops alike. Following the IARC’s announcement, the Colombian Health Ministry called on the National Drugs Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes, CNE), to suspend fumigation. The CNE ordered a stop to fumigation in August 2015, and the practice ultimately ended in October.

Meanwhile, however, Colombia’s counter-narcotics police began to explore alternative chemicals and techniques to continue forced coca eradication—a policy long-supported and funded by the U.S. Department of State.

Strangely, this shift back to an ineffective, harmful policy comes as the Colombian government plays a leading role in the global drug policy reform debate. Since the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, President Juan Manuel Santos has vocally called for a review of the results of the war on drugs. As the president has noted, misguided attempts to curb drug production have only fueled  a real humanitarian, social, political, and environmental disaster throughout the country. In interviews and speeches throughout the world, and in April at the UNGASS, President Santos has called for an exploration of drug policy alternatives.

Yet even as Colombian officials—and later Santos himself—spoke about the need for drug policy reform at UNGASS, in Bogota, the Defense Minister announced that the policy of spraying with glyphosate would begin again. The dueling announcements revealed an ongoing contradiction—and division—in the Colombian government regarding drug policy, which illustrates the challenges in translating Colombia’s lofty rhetoric into reforms that can benefit those most harmed by punitive drug policies.

The newly restarted fumigation—which will now be done on the ground, plant by plant, rather than from the air—still does not protect rural workers, farmers, campesinos, or indigenous people. Like aerial spraying, it fails to address the underlying economic situation of farmers, instead eliminating their sustenance without first offering a viable alternative. According to Julian Wilches, the former drug policy director at the Colombian Ministry of Justice, “it is worth remembering that the results of past attempts at manual spraying led to abandoning the model, given its logistical challenges, health risks to operators, and low efficiency (as a factor of time and acreage sprayed).”

The failure to first provide “alternative livelihoods” contributed to the ineffectiveness of past aerial spray campaigns, and will likely again with manual spraying. Investments in infrastructure, sustainable development projects, and a respect for human rights must form the basis of drug control policies—not forced eradication. Manual spraying is not an “innovative solution” to the glyphosate problem, but rather the continuation of a failed policy under a new name.

This analysis was edited by Adam Schaffer, WOLA Program Officer.