Ecologists Warn of Disaster as U.S. Sprays Glyphosate in Threatened National Parks

by Daniel Leal and combined sources

In the past few months, the people of Quibdo, capital city of the Colombian Pacific coast department of Choco, have observed daily the landing at their local airport of helicopters and small aircraft, packed with “gringos” from Plan Colombia and their Colombian associates.

They have come with one objective: to spray the illicit crops located in the huge territory of Choco. In the Feb. 11 edition of the Colombian news magazine Semana, Choco journalist Alejo Restrepo, writes that biodiversity and watersheds of the region are threatened by this chemical assault.

For centuries, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians have preserved the natural environment of Choco, one of the richest areas in flora and fauna of the country. Their way of life, based on fishing and small-scale cultivation of yucca and banana, is now threatened. Restrepo especially protests the decision to approve the spraying of glyphosate without an environmental impact study.

Bismarck Chaverra, director of the Choco-based Institute for Environmental Studies of the Pacific, interviewed in that same issue of Semana, reported 347 documented cases of people with acute respiratory and dermatological diseases in Choco, with 70% of the affected children under three years old.

Chaverra’s group is part of a coalition of Colombian and international environmental and human rights groups that oppose the spraying. A February petition against the spraying in Choco has been signed by Friends of the Earth Latin America, the Open Society Institute, Washington Office on Latin America and the biodiversity protection organization Grupo Semillas, as well as several Colombian groups.

Also of special concern is potential damage to Colombia’s 50 national parks, which cover 10 million hectares, according to Ecolombia, a network of Colombian environmental groups. Ecolombia also notes the irony that this threat comes just as the parks are increasingly being opened to “eco-tourism” interests. Ecolombia protests this policy as a “privatization” of the nation’s parks. The group writes that “the national parks are the genetic bank of Colombia. To privatize them or bombard them with poison would be much more grave than to put the National Library to the flame.”

In late March 2004, Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of Independent Workers Revolutionary Movement (MOIR) led a significant number of Colombian legislators in issuing a formal statement of protest against the spraying. The Transnational Institute, a global group of activist scholars, notes that spraying in the national parks would constitute a violation of several treaties to which Colombia is signatory, including the Biodiversity Convention, ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples, the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, and articles 97 and 80 of the Colombian constitution, which protect natural resources.

Under such pressures, the administration of President Alvaro Uribe agreed to suspend spraying in the parks last March pending further study. In the 2003 Colombia aid package approved by the US Congress under the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, conditions were also imposed mandating protection of water sources and protected areas, and restitution for damaged property and legal crops. The measure required that funds for the aerial eradication only be made available if the Department of State certified to Congress that certain condition are being met. In December 2003, the Deparment of State issued a study to Congress, “Report on Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia,” officially certifying that the conditions were being met. In February 2004, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), a hemispheric alliance of environmental law professionals, issued a statement contesting the certification and urging Congress to “withhold funding for the chemical eradication program until DoS demonstrates full compliance with the conditions.” AIDA stated: “A thorough look at the DoS report demonstrates that the…conditions have not been satisfied. For example, DoS fails to demonstrate that the spraying does not pose unreasonable risks of adverse effects on the environment, or that complaints of harm to health or legal crops are appropriately evaluated and fair compensation provided.”

But Congress did not act, and the Uribe administration has just announced its intention to resume spraying in three national parks: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a northern park declared a biosphere reserve in 1986 by UNESCO; and Catatumbo and La Macarena, both in the cloud forests of the eastern Andean slopes.

Colombia’s deputy interior minister Mario Iguarán told reporter Yadira Ferrer of Tierramérica, a Mexico-based trans-American environmental journal, that the renewed spraying is permitted by Resolution No. 0013, issued in 20003 by the Colombian National Narcotics Council (CNE). The Resolution allows fumigation of nature reserves where there is evidence of illicit crops and little possibility of eradicating the drug plants by hand.

Colombian environmental groups have filed a motion to annul the resolution before the Council of State, the highest juridical body for administrative decisions, but Iguarán argued that it does not have the power to suspend the operations. In Ferrer’s May 14 account, Iguarán also noted the March study by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), an OAS body, finding that glyphosate does not have significant environmental impacts.

The report, requested by the US, Colombia and the United Kingdom, investigated the human health and environmental effects of the glyphosate mixture used for drug eradication in Colombia. The report concluded that human health risks from exposure to the spray mixture–glyphosate mixed with a surfactant, Cosmo-Flux–were “minimal,” while the risk of direct effects for wildlife were judged to be “negligible.” But the US Office on Colombia, a coalition of NGOs, notes that buried deep in the 121-page report are concerns about the impact of the spraying on aquatic organisms and amphibians. The report points out that the environmental “toxicity of the mixture of glyphosate and Cosmo-Flux was greater than that reported for formulated glyphosate itself.” (This contrasts with the toxicity of the mixture for humans, which was found to be consistent with the levels reported for glyphosate alone.) The report states that “aquatic animals and algae in some shallow water bodies may be at risk” from “direct overspray of surface waters.” The report recommends the eradication program “identify mixtures of glyphosate and adjuvants that are less toxic to aquatic organisms than the currently used mixture.” There was no immediate response from US or Colombian governments to this recommendation. Colombia praised the report. “This scientific study shows us the way. We are doing the right thing and we are going to continue the spraying program,” said Colombian Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt.

Ferrer’s story questioned the report’s findings that the herbicide’s risk for the environment “is not significant.” Santiago Salazar Córdova, coordinator of a commission of Ecuador’s Environment Ministry that advises the Foreign Ministry on drug fumigation policy, protested to Ferrer that the report failed to define what would constitute a “significant” threat. Spraying in Colombian areas near the Ecuador border has been a source of tension with Quito, which has formally protested to the Uribe government.

Salazar also said the study was conducted between September and March, “too little time to talk in terms of cancer-causing effects, for example…”

Iguarán admitted the ideal option would be manual eradication of drug crops, a method the government hopes to use on some 3,000 hectares of protected areas. But he insisted that it is necessary to fumigate some 75,000 hectares, which include areas of the national parks where the presence of armed groups impedes access by land.

The decision to fumigate in the parks may cost Colombia development aid from EU countries. The Colombian daily El Espectador reported April 28 that the Netherlands asked the national parks director, Julia Miranda, to confirm the decision to fumigate in the protected areas, because the measure “could be motive to request the suspension of activities financed by this Embassy.”

Juan Mayr, a former environment minister, told Ferrer the 2003 CEN resolution has created “one of the gravest situations that can happen in regards to the environment in Colombia” and is “an attack against the collective heritage of the Colombian people.”

Peasants and Bari indigenous peoples who inhabit the threatened areas are also protesting the planned fumigations. The Bogota daily El Tiempo reported May 16 that 11 peasant organizations from the Rio Guayabero region and La Macarena National Park issued a statement calling for manual eradication rather than spraying. Gustavo del Rio, spokesman for the Association of Peasant Environmentalists of the Ariari and Guayabero Rivers (ACARIGUA) said that spraying will only cause the peasants to start planting coca in other areas, destroying more forest. He said that the peasants would be willing to eradicate the crops manually if the government were to provide them with alternatives for survival and eventual relocation outside the park area, where farming is officially forbidden.

Spraying has apparently already begun in Sierra Nevada National Park. Elber Dimas, a community leader from the corregimiento of Guachaca, located on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, told El Tiempo that that children are suffering from diarrhea and skin problems as a result of exposure, and that some Kogui and Wiwa Indians have been forced to abandon their communities due to the spraying. Col. Oscar Atehortua, commander of the Counternarcotics Police North Region, assured that the spraying is taking place outside the national park and the indigenous reserves.

There are two opposite international perspectives on what has to be done in Colombia to address the roots of the coca phenomenon. The first, dictated by the US, calls for simple eradication of the crops, by force and by chemical spraying. The second, promoted by the European Community, is to address the injustice of the Colombian social structure, and investing in the needs that drive peasants to plant coca. But Uribe is now jeopardizing relations with the EU to pursue a national agenda that calls for privatization and free trade as well as forcible eradication of illicit crops. Free trade and the eradication program were said to be the top items on the agenda in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s five-hour meeting with Uribe in Bogota April 26.


Alejo Restrepo Mosquera in Semana, Feb. 11

Bismark Chaverra interview in Semana, Feb. 11

“El Choco Tambien es Colombia,” petition online at Rebelion

Ecolombia page on threat to national parks

TNI Drugs and Democracy program page on Colombia

Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) statement

AIDA homepage

Yadira Ferrer in Tierramerica, May 14

US Office on Colombia Info-Brief on the CICAD report

CountryWatch summary of article from El Tiempo, May 16


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution