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11 Feb 2020 | Commentary

The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia

On February 10, the Colombian government said it planned to eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca this year, using techniques that will possibly include the spraying of herbicides from aircraft. 

There is currently a judicial ban against doing so, in place since 2015. However, with the U.S. government placing significant pressure on Colombia to reduce coca plantings, President Iván Duque’s administration is pushing to restart aerial sprayings. Before it can do so, the government has to meet various health and environmental conditions imposed by the Colombian Constitutional Court. 

The Ministry of Justice has produced a draft decree, dated December 30, explaining how the government plans to meet those conditions and restart aerial herbicide fumigation. 

The decree includes some important protections and procedures to avoid some of the excesses and errors that characterized aerial spray programs from 1994-2015. But even with the protections and mitigations outlined in the draft decree, aerial herbicide spraying is a counter-drug strategy that carries few benefits—none of them long-lasting—and several serious risks and harms.

When assessing the wisdom of restarting aerial spraying, it’s also paramount to consider how this policy will impact Colombia’s obligations under international human rights law. The pursuit of drug control objectives does not relieve governments of their fundamental obligations to protect and promote human rights, including people’s rights to live in dignity, to be free from hunger, and to enjoy an adequate standard of living. 

For hundreds of thousands of farmers in Colombia and in other countries, cultivation of crops declared to be illicit—coca, poppies, and cannabis—represents a fundamental economic survival strategy. Forced crop eradication campaigns undertaken in the absence of viable alternative livelihoods violate growers’ human rights.

In this context, let’s review the potential resumption of aerial spraying according to six criteria: short-term effectiveness, long-term effectiveness, cost, risk of health or environmental damage, risk of social discord, and risk to eradicators or program participants.

Short-term effectiveness of aerial spraying: potentially high

In 2000, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected 163,000 hectares of coca in Colombia. By 2012, that number declined by 115,000 hectares, to 48,000. 

During those twelve years, aircraft sprayed herbicides over 1.4 million hectares of Colombia. By this measure, 13 hectares were sprayed for each hectare reduced. This figure may be too low, as it includes hectares eradicated through other methods: a 2016 study by Daniel Mejía found that 32 hectares had to be sprayed to achieve a one-hectare decrease.

Nor does aerial spraying not stop coca cultivation beyond a limited, short-term timeframe...

This is a poor ratio. However, relentless, repeated levels of spraying ultimately did bring some short-term decreases in coca cultivation. Colombia’s experience showed that mass herbicide spraying can reduce coca-growing in a specific area for a specific time period. It also lowered per-hectare yields of cocaine alkaloid, because the bushes cannot grow as tall between applications of the herbicide.

But aerial spraying does not stop coca cultivation beyond that area; in fact, we’ve repeatedly seen how aerial spraying displaces coca crops elsewhere. Nor does aerial spraying not stop coca cultivation beyond a limited, short-term timeframe; in fact, we’ve seen coca-growers apply countermeasures to minimize the spraying’s impact while remaining in the same geographic area.

Long-term effectiveness of aerial spraying: low

Short-term gains are the only criterion for which aerial spraying has any advantage over other methods. Its performance according to all other criteria is mediocre to abysmal. In the medium and long term, even large amounts of aerial spraying do not reduce coca cultivation.

Charting eradication and cultivation estimates since the 1990s shows this quite clearly. The 2003-2007 period saw aerial spraying increase to levels never again reached. During that same period, Colombia’s coca crop increased, according to both U.S. and UN estimates. During the 2008-2013 period, coca cultivation went down even as aerial spraying declined, suggesting that the correlation between spraying and reduced cultivation is weak.

Click on the graphic to view a larger version.

In an absence of state presence, basic services, and alternative sources of income securely in place, coca-growers used several strategies to respond to spraying. They replanted elsewhere, either migrating to new zones out of reach of the planes, or moving just a few hundred meters away. They replaced large plots with smaller, harder-to-detect plantings. They planted in shade, or mixed in with weeds, to evade detection. They quickly cut plants back after spraying, so that they would recover within months.

The post-2013 increase in coca cultivation shows with abundant clarity that 20 years of aerial spraying did not dissuade growers from replanting. UNODC finds that 82 percent of coca cultivation in 2018 occurred in territories that had been “historically affected” by the crop. Rather than expanding to new communities, the plant recovered in the same communities, where growers were clearly not disincentivized by past spraying, because coca cultivation remained by far their most viable economic survival strategy.

Few strategies offer hope of long-term effectiveness in the absence of state presence. As long as government representatives are not physically present in territory to offer services, promote equitable economic development, and enforce laws, coca and other illegal economies will offer strong incentives for households to participate. There is ultimately no substitute for a comprehensive effort to bring the state into ungoverned territories. Such an effort, while indispensable, takes many years to implement, though, and will not yield short-term results.

Cost of aerial spraying: moderate

Compared to establishing state presence in ungoverned territories, aerial eradication is relatively inexpensive. But it is not a bargain. 

Spraying 50,000 hectares would cost about US$120 million. Most of that would come from Colombia’s budget...

There is no agreed estimate on how much it costs per hectare, and the Defense Ministry (2 million pesos or US$600) and Presidential Substitution Directorate (72 million pesos or US$21,000) gave sharply conflicting estimates during the Constitutional Court’s March 7, 2019 hearing on aerial eradication. The 2016 Mejía study estimates a cost of US$2,400 per hectare, including “the costs of airplanes, herbicide, protection, et cetera.”

Using Mejia’s relatively low $2,400 estimate, spraying 50,000 hectares would cost about US$120 million. Most of that would come from Colombia’s budget: at the extreme height of the spray program’s activity in 2006, when the program sprayed 170,000 hectares, the U.S. government contributed US$82 million to eradication, plus a similar amount for aviation and flight safety, much of it related to aerial spraying (page 66). That is a very approximate U.S. contribution of US$1,000 per hectare, well under half of Mejía’s cost estimate. Colombia would have to pay the rest.

Risk of health or environmental damage associated with aerial spraying: high

Many studies exist about the health and environmental risks associated with spraying of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide mixture that Colombia used in the past and proposes to use again. 

WOLA is not a scientific organization and cannot evaluate these studies’ methods and results. However, there are enough conclusions to raise serious concerns:

    • The 2015 suspension of the spray program was prompted by a World Health Organization literature review finding that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
    • A Columbia University study (cited here) found that glyphosate use in Brazil between 2000 and 2010 may have increased the probability of child deaths.
    • A comparison of datasets in a 2017 Camacho and Mejía study found a statistical correlation between glyphosate spraying and skin disorders, respiratory ailments, and even miscarriages.
    • El Espectador reported last year on a Colombian government study that found the following:

“‘In humans, evidence of glyphosate exposure was considered as a risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, lymphomas, multiple myeloma, and miscarriages.’ In addition, it notes that ‘other outcomes reported as an adverse effect from exposure to glyphosate, with statistically significant estimates, were beta cell lymphoma and attention disorders and hyperactivity.’” 

The study was produced by Colombia’s National Health Institute, which would assume a role in evaluating claims of spraying’s harm to human health, according to the Ministry of Justice draft decree. 

    • A Colombian National University study finds damage to the nervous and respiratory systems of fish when glyphosate is added to standing water.
    • The spray program received 99 health complaints between 2003 and 2015, according to Health Minister Juan Pablo Uribe. According to El Espectador, Uribe told the Constitutional Court in March: 

“The main symptom found in 15% of the cases was dermatological.  The symptoms reported were ‘pruritus, irritation, scaly lesions or ulcers, without a common clinical picture, and that, occasionally, the individual manifests direct contact with the spray mixture.’  There were also other types of complaints. 8.6% were gastrointestinal syndromes, 3.2% poisoning and 2.2% kidney-related.”

In U.S. courts, at least 50,000 people have joined lawsuits against Bayer, the company that purchased Monsanto, the developer of glyphosate, claiming health impacts including non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 

In the state of California, three juries have now awarded tens of millions of dollars in damages. In these cases, the plaintiffs had prolonged, regular exposure to glyphosate. With aerial spraying of coca, exposure to glyphosate is more intermittent. However, this less frequent exposure still involves a higher concentration of glyphosate than what is available for household use, along with different surfactants and coadjuvants.

Just about every other method of attempting to reduce cocaine production... poses fewer risks than aerial spraying...

In late January 2020, a German newspaper reported that Bayer is considering taking the popular glyphosate-based weedkiller RoundUp off of the market, as part of a court settlement with its tens of thousands of plaintiffs. If that happens, it should compound doubts about the health impact of glyphosate’s use in aerial coca spraying.

According to the Ministry of Justice draft decree on resuming aerial spraying, two Colombian government agencies, the National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA) and the National Health Institute (INS), will be charged with performing initial studies and processing complaints of environmental or human health damage. A major question is whether these agencies have the resources, capacity, and budget to take on these new responsibilities effectively. In some cases they will have to depend on the National Police for logistical support necessary to perform their oversight work. Their capacity to handle a large docket of complaints and monitoring requests is far from assured.

Just about every other method of attempting to reduce cocaine production and supplies—from manual eradication to increased interdiction to introducing a functioning state presence—poses fewer risks than aerial spraying to the health of the affected populations and to the local environment.

Risk of social discord as a result of aerial spraying: high

A study of opinion polls by Miguel García, cited in Colombia’s Razón Pública, found that trust in the police fell significantly in municipalities where aerial spraying was carried out. Colombia already lived through massive campesino protests in 1996, when the spray program first expanded, and cocalero organizations say that they are ready to mobilize on a large scale if the program re-starts.

In September 2018, the director of the UNODC office in Bogotá estimated that 119,500 Colombian families were living from coca cultivation. These families reportedly receive an average of 410,500 pesos (US$130) per month, about 56 percent of Colombia’s minimum wage. With a population already living in poverty or on the edge of doing so, uncertain coordination between eradication and alternative development efforts, and the possibility that farmers whose legal crops are damaged by aerial spraying won’t be promptly compensated for their losses, the probability of large-scale mobilization is high.

There’s a real possibility that the social discord that could result from the re-launching of an aerial spray program could be violent. While protesters may not all be peaceful, there is equal reason for concern about the security forces’ potential reaction. Recent incidents (Tumaco in October 2017, Bogotá in November 2019), show that Colombian security forces have been quick to escalate violent responses to social protest, including through use of lethal force.

Risks that aerial spraying poses to eradicators or participants: moderate to low

The program with greatest risk to the safety of eradicators is manual eradication. Last year, Colombia’s defense minister wrote that landmines, explosive devices, and attacks had killed 33 manual eradicators or security-force escorts over the previous five years, and wounded another 268. Spray pilots are somewhat safer, though some have been killed or injured. In 2013, two spray aircraft were shot down. Shootdowns also occurred in 2003.

After 2013, more armor was added to the spray aircraft. This reduces the probability of future shootdowns, but does not eliminate it, and spray planes will continue to be accompanied by police escort and search-and-rescue helicopters, at significant cost.

A better way forward than aerial spraying

Instead of aerial spraying, a better mix of policies would rely on building state presence, promoting equitable economic development that allows small farmers to develop other sources of income, and putting more effort into drug interdiction and curbing illicit financial flows. Such efforts focus the state’s scarce enforcement resources against individuals and groups engaged in higher-level criminal conduct that poses genuine challenges to democratic governance and the rule of law. 

The first would require a “Marshall Plan” for vast ungoverned areas in Colombia’s countryside. Colombia already has a plan and a commitment in place for that: Chapter 1 of the 2016 peace accord, on “Comprehensive Rural Reform.” Unfortunately, investment in Chapter 1 priorities are small and falling ever further behind schedule.

The second would require far more positioning of security forces at ports, rivers, and areas of heavy maritime traffic, in order to increase the probability of interdiction. The presence of such forces is remarkably low on the many rivers, from the Mira to the Naya to the Atrato, that get used heavily for cocaine trafficking. 

Local populations denounce a lack of effort to confront riverine and maritime traffickers in these areas. Worse, WOLA has heard recent testimonies alleging outright collusion with local security forces in several areas. Any interdiction strategy, then, must come with a greatly stepped up anti-corruption effort carried out by brave and well-protected prosecutors, investigators, and judges.

Without these two strategies in place—state presence with economic development that promotes alternative income sources, and interdiction with anti-corruption efforts—an aerial spray program will do nothing but bring short-term, easily reversible gains. These gains, meanwhile, would come with great potential risks of health and environmental damage and social discord, along with myriad human rights violations.