WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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7 Mar 2019 | Commentary

Restarting Aerial Fumigation of Drug Crops in Colombia is a Mistake

Colombia’s Constitutional Court met today to discuss the government’s plans to reinstate aerial spraying of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, using aircraft and the herbicide glyphosate. President Iván Duque was the first to address the high court; he asked the justices to “modulate” their past rulings to allow more spraying.

The U.S. government supported this “fumigation” program between the early 1990s and 2015, when the Colombian government, under then-President Juan Manuel Santos, suspended it. During those nearly 25 years, U.S. contractor pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate onto 4,420,000 acres of Colombian territory (1,790,000 hectares, an area larger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey). Colombia was the only country that allowed aerial spraying of glyphosate for counter-drug purposes.

The Santos government suspended the program in 2015, after a World Health Organization literature review found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court placed important restrictions on any future use of glyphosate from aircraft, but did not ban the practice. Since 2013, coca cultivation has increased sharply in Colombia; in 2017, more than 119,500 families made a living off of the crop, up from 61,700 four years earlier. Under pressure from the Obama and Trump administrations, the Colombian government has committed to reducing the nation’s acreage by half by 2023.

The Duque government plans to do so by stepping up forced eradication. It proposes to increase manual eradication—tearing coca plants out of the ground or spraying glyphosate by hand—along with renewed aerial fumigation. Today, Duque prodded the Constitutional Court to ease its standards to allow the maximum possible spraying.

Here are answers to some common questions about fumigation in Colombia, and what may come next.

Why did coca cultivation increase so much?

WOLA published an analysis two years ago laying out six reasons for Colombia’s current coca boom. No single cause bears a majority of the blame. They are:

  1. The Santos government suspended fumigation and did not replace it with any other policy, either punitive or assistive. Even alternative development spending declined.
  2. Colombia reduced other, ground-based forced eradication until a big increase in 2017.
  3. The price of gold fell, causing many to turn from illicit mining back to coca.
  4. The dollar became stronger, making the farm-gate price of coca leaf appear much higher in Colombian pesos.
  5. Word spread about the monetary benefits coca-growers would receive from the 2016 peace accords, encouraging some farmers to become coca growers.
  6. Coca-growers’ organized resistance halted manual eradication in several areas.

Is glyphosate dangerous?

This is not a settled question, but a body of findings has proponents of aerial spraying on the defensive. In addition to the 2015 WHO review, the state of California has issued a warning about its use, and several countries, including Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, have placed curbs on its sale and application. In August 2018, a California jury awarded $289 million—later reduced to $78 million—to Dewayne Johnson, a groundskeeper who sued Monsanto Company, the manufacturer of RoundUp, after he contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 42.

The U.S. government disputes these findings. A December 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report summarizes the state of the debate:

From 2002 through 2011, State formally certified to Congress that the glyphosate spraying program posed no unreasonable health risks to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency has also generally concluded that glyphosate exposure from aerial eradication in Colombia has not been linked to adverse health effects. Several other studies we reviewed discussed the potential health effects of glyphosate.

What restrictions did Colombia’s Constitutional Court put in place in 2017?

With rulings in 2015 and 2017, the Constitutional Court—Colombia’s highest judicial review authority—placed significant restrictions on coca eradication via aerial glyphosate spraying. These included:

  • Any future fumigation must avoid nature reserves, indigenous reservations, and campesino reserve zones—sites that host a significant portion of current cultivation.
  • Spraying can only proceed after an “objective and conclusive” scientific study showing a lack of health and environmental damage.
  • Colombia’s National Drug Council (CNE), a decision-making body incorporating several ministries and agencies, must agree on a set of regulations to govern future spraying, in a process that includes ethnic communities’ participation, and these regulations must be passed as a law.
  • An ethnic representative must be added to the CNE.
  • Colombia must undergo prior consultation with ethnic communities in areas where it plans to spray, although the Court allows spraying in the absence of consent if the CNE issues a finding.

President Duque has said he will respect those restrictions, but he is encouraging the Court to adjust them. He has not yet specified exactly how.

What do the peace accords call for?

Chapter 4 of the 2016 peace accord between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas proffered a “Solution to the Illicit Drugs Problem.” It established a new “National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Crops Used for Illicit Purposes” (PNIS). Under this program, coca-growing families have been offered packages of subsidies and technical assistance for cultivating licit crops, totaling about US$12,000 per family over a two-year period, in exchange for verifiably eradicating their coca.

By the time it left power in August 2018, the Santos government had signed preliminary framework PNIS accords with communities encompassing 124,745 families, and individual accords specifically committing 97,084 families. The UN had verified the voluntary eradication of about 25,000 hectares of coca.

Still, the PNIS program is on shaky ground. The Santos government was chronically late with payments, especially for the alternative development projects on which growers would depend after subsidies terminate. President Duque, who as a candidate had called the accords’ fourth chapter “disastrous” (nefasto), made clear upon taking power that the PNIS would not be enrolling new families. Though the Duque government has committed to fulfilling the commitments its predecessor made to coca-growing households, neither it, nor the Santos government, budgeted anywhere near what would be required to fund the PNIS.

The U.S. government will not make up any of the difference. The State Department has determined that, because former FARC members and FARC-aligned organizations are involved in the PNIS eradication pacts, laws banning “material support to terrorism” prevent any U.S. funds from going to the program. (The same obstacle affects some US-backed ex-combatant reintegration and rural development programs in Colombia.)

The model laid out in the accords’ fourth chapter may not work, anyway. Perhaps because of pressure to reduce coca crops quickly, the PNIS is being implemented even as most coca-growing zones continue to suffer from a vacuum of Colombian government presence. The accords’ first chapter (“Comprehensive Rural Reform”) includes a plan for filling that vacuum, but it has barely begun to be implemented.

By going ahead with Chapter 4 of the peace accords first, Colombia is essentially doing this backwards. What happens when the two years of PNIS assistance end, but farmers remain in zones with no land titles, no farm-to-market roads, and no police or other basic services? Many will turn back to coca. Still, Colombia’s government has made explicit commitments to 97,804 families, and its legitimacy depends on it keeping those promises.

What do US officials say?

U.S. officials continue to insist on the safety and effectiveness of aerially sprayed glyphosate. “I have always said, and I maintain, that the use of glyphosate is safe and effective,” U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said in September 2018. “It can be a very important tool in the fight against narcotics as part of eradication, which is only one aspect of a comprehensive program. Obviously there was a jury decision in California, and you have to respect that. But that decision does not change the science at all, and the science is clear.”

In August 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. government was standing by to re-start the fumigation program:

Seven or eight of the crop dusters that had worked the coca fields here remain in Colombia. In a few months, U.S. officials say, they could become operational again. “I told embassy personnel and the Colombians the same thing: We need to be ready for a restart,” said the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Whitaker.

Is aerial spraying effective?

The experience in Colombia between the early 1990s and the mid-2010s showed that fumigation could achieve short-term reductions in coca cultivation in specific areas. In the medium and long term, though, crops recovered as growers adjusted. They did so through replanting, growing more plants to minimize lost harvests, cutting back plants to save them immediately after spraying, and other strategies.

A section of the GAO’s December 2018 report (beginning on page 37) discusses these countermeasures. It further observes that the State Department “indicated that aerial eradication was becoming less effective prior to the end of the spraying program in 2015.”

A decade ago, coca cultivation actually increased during some of the years in which the fumigation program was most active. “I’ve explained to Vice President Pence that aerial spraying did not bring about the results everyone hoped for,” then-President Santos said in 2017. “In the year 2007—and I showed him the numbers—is when we did the highest volume of air spraying of illegal crops, and that is one of the years when coca production increased the most.”

Proponents of fumigation have begun to acknowledge that the strategy achieves little reduced acreage. They argue, however, that by forcing frequent cutting back and replanting, regular application of glyphosate keeps the coca-growers’ plants smaller in size, which reduces the amount of cocaine that traffickers can derive from each acre.

What other options are there?

On its own, no single strategy can reduce illicit coca cultivation in both the short term and the long term. WOLA contends that the U.S. and Colombian governments must put most of their investment in strategies that promise long-term reductions. WOLA laments that, at least until 2016 or so, the U.S. and Colombian governments have mostly invested in short-term, quick-payoff strategies that failed in the long term—like glyphosate fumigation.

Each strategy, from fumigation to manual eradication to the “Bolivia model” to alternative development, has upsides and downsides. In our view, though, the best outcome would be for Colombia to establish a functioning civilian state presence in the abandoned areas where coca flourishes: with basic services, low impunity for abuse and corruption, and enforcement of rules that a legal economy requires.

How else could we measure success?

Measuring hectares or kilograms tells us little about whether Colombia is progressing toward the good governance that its coca-growing areas need in order to stop being coca-growing areas. WOLA proposes “coca-growing households” as a more illustrative measure of progress. As noted above, in 2017 more than 119,500 families made a living off of coca, up from 61,700 in 2013. We find this four-year doubling to be the most troubling of all statistics, and support policies that aim to reduce it humanely and sustainably.

These policies will only succeed if they improve governance and foster equitable development in rural Colombia. Reducing the number of cocalero families, then, means progressing on established human development indicators.

Is crop eradication effective in any form?

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s World Drug Report includes a table (Excel spreadsheet) of the purity and inflation-adjusted price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets between 1990 and 2016. Following basic supply-and-demand economics, one would expect this price to go up if U.S. supply-reduction efforts were succeeding, because cocaine would be scarcer. Instead, the table shows a reduction over the years, and only a modest increase during the latter part of the “Plan Colombia” period of heaviest forced eradication (occurring, in fact, after fumigation started to decline).

It’s possible that crop eradication may be one of the least effective ways to reduce cocaine supplies. To understand why, think about profit margins.

  • The World Drug Report found a gram of cocaine averaging US$165 on U.S. streets. If that is accurate, then at a gram-for-gram price, a kilogram of cocaine (1,000 grams) would fetch US$165,000 at the street level.
  • In 2017, according to the UNODC’s annual report on Colombia, a kilogram of cocaine paste sold by coca-growing farmers (which weighs about the same as a kilogram of processed cocaine) cost US$554.
  • Using those numbers, US$164,446 in profits (165,000 minus 554) were captured by people downstream of the coca-grower: cocaine manufacturers, smugglers, and middlemen. These are people who don’t grow the crops, and who would never see a single droplet of glyphosate.
  • Now imagine that a future campaign of forced eradication is incredibly effective. It makes coca so scarce that the price of coca paste increases tenfold, to an unheard-of US$5,540 per kilogram.
  • All that would do is reduce the downstream traffickers’ profit margin to US$159,460.

Intensifying coca eradication, then, would have little effect on cocaine’s profitability for the world’s drug traffickers.