WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
30 Sep 2015 | Commentary

Twilight Hour of Coca Fumigation in Colombia Shows its Injustice, Ineffectiveness

By Adam Schaffer and Coletta A. Youngers

Thursday, October 1, will mark the end of Colombia’s aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops, representing a hard-fought victory against an ineffective, unjust, and destructive drug control policy.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia’s Innovative Coca Policy Secures Major Drop in Cultivation

Since 1994, Colombia—with the financial support and encouragement of the United States—has sprayed coca with the herbicide glyphosate. In March of this year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate “probably causes cancer,” leading Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to call for an end to aerial spraying with the chemical. For a government to deliberately spray its citizens and their crops with a chemical considered likely to be carcinogenic is just plain wrong. Beyond that, it is also abundantly clear that fumigation—along with many forms of forced coca eradication—only exacerbates the problems of poverty and exclusion that lead many poor farmers to cultivate coca, perversely deepening their reliance on coca growing and ensuring renewed plantings and ever-more environmental devastation.

In September, WOLA visited Guaviare, a rural department in southeastern Colombia, to see first-hand the continued harms spraying has wrought. What we found was heart wrenching: indiscriminate and widespread spraying of licit food crops as the October 1 deadline to cease the spraying loomed.

With their limited funds, local governments in Guaviare have helped to finance some agricultural projects, providing technical, financial, and in-kind resources to local farmers to cultivate crops such as cacao, rice, and rubber. Yet in one of these fields in the community of Puerto Gaviotas, instead of bountiful crops, we found shriveled rice and cacao plants and dead rubber trees. The aerial spraying program—run by the Ministry of Defense and financed by the U.S. government—had killed acres of a poor family’s crops weeks earlier. We saw not a single coca crop, dead or alive, and the family assured us coca had not been cultivated on these lands in years.

“I was in the fields when I heard the planes overhead,” said Blanca Martínez, the owner of the plot who has lived in the region for decades and serves as president of the local community association. “It will take years to recuperate the losses,” she lamented. “How are we going to survive now?”

In meetings with other local farmers, we heard the same story; food crops including rice, yucca, bananas and beans had been sprayed and destroyed in recent months, though many of the people we talked to were members of local producer associations. Others complained of losing cows that drank contaminated water. “They are fumigating people’s food,” was the refrain we heard over and over again. “It’s an injustice … these are villages where no coca has been grown for some time but now they are fumigating here.” The maps of coca plots that guided the fumigation, community members maintained, were out of date, leading pilots to target areas for spraying where coca plants may have once existed but had long since been replaced with legal crops.

Tomorrow, Colombia will at last cease fumigation, its misguided and ineffective strategy to curb coca cultivation. But what will actually replace the aerial spray program remains unclear. The Colombian government has presented an “Integrated Crop Substitution Plan” (Plan Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos), which requires that farmers immediately eliminate all coca cultivation in order to qualify for government assistance. But for poor farmers this is unrealistic, since prior eradication leaves them without any income for the time it takes to plant and harvest new crops or to develop other sources of income.

Fumigation has provided decades of cruel evidence that a strategy of immediate crop destruction that ignores the plight of the many thousands of people who actually cultivate coca may foster an illusion of effectiveness but in fact exacerbates the difficulties of achieving sustainable reductions in coca. An effective coca policy will require everything that fumigation is not: an emphasis on long-term, sustainable development gains, and government presence that goes beyond the security forces. Moreover, economic development programs must extend beyond government offices and budget line items, and reach the communities on the ground—something that both USAID and the Colombian government have struggled to accomplish.

A long-term, development-centered approach to containing coca must also be based on a clear recognition that the intensity of coca cultivation is affected by numerous factors, so coca production levels should be expected to continue to fluctuate. If and when new increases are reported, the Colombian government will no doubt come under heavy pressure to renew aerial spraying, either with glyphosate or a new chemical. It would also be a mistake for the Colombian government to continue using glyphosate through other application methods, or spraying other chemicals, as has been suggested in the media.

The Colombian government should stay the course. For the past 20 years, fumigation has failed on every front. Lasting coca reductions have yet to materializefamilies have been forced into poverty, and cocaine prices remain near all-time lows. As Colombia nears a peace accord, now is the time put an end to the senseless war on Colombian campesinos, and exchange spray planes for economic development assistance.

We thank Pedro Arenas of the Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared to be Illicit – INDEPAZ for organizing our trip to Guaviare. Adam Schaffer is a Program Officer at WOLA, and Coletta Youngers is a Senior Fellow at WOLA.

Adam Schaffer
Program Officer, WOLA
+1 (202) 797-2171