Cultivation of Illicit Crops

A large constituent of the US borne Plan Colombia is focused on the eradication of illegal coca crops by aerial fumigation carried out by the recently bolstered Colombian National Police (CNP), and the three newly created Counter-Narcotics Battalions of the Colombian Army. US State Department spray planes, protected by US Blackhawk ground attack helicopters, fumigate large areas with poisonous chemicals that destroy the coca as well as many other crops. However, the implementation of this part of Plan Colombia has far-reaching consequences that, so far, have received scandalously little attention.

Liam Craig-Best and Rowan Shingler report.


One of the claimed objectives of the more than one billion dollar US aid package Plan Colombia, which makes the Andean nation the third biggest recipient of US aid in the world, is to slash Colombia’s coca production by 50% before 2005. Yet the proposed method of aerial fumigation is not new to the jungles of Colombia, which are home the second highest biodiversity rate in the world after Brazil. During the `nineties huge areas of coca plantations were fumigated with the same chemical – Glyphosate – that is presently being used. Despite these large-scale operations illegal cultivation tripled in the same period, and it seems unlikely that the even larger fumigation programmes of Plan Colombia will prove more effective. The glaring problem with the whole policy is that very little attention is given to the economic and social reasons that force Colombian peasant farmers to grow illicit crops. 

The Colombian peasants - known as campesinos - that grow coca are not, in reality, the wealthy drug-traffickers that they are sometimes portrayed to be, but rather poor families desperately trying to provide for themselves. The prevalence of neo-liberal economic policies over the last decade has greatly increase the misery of campesinos in Colombia and it is well documented that the total number of people now living in poverty in Colombia, and indeed in Latin America as a whole, has increased during the same period. These new economic policies have led to the dwindling of traditional crop prices such as those for coffee, cacao and cassava – through price agreements, the decrease in trade restrictions, the abolition of subsidies, and so on – to such an extent that these crops, in many areas, cannot any longer provide even basic levels of subsistence. Reports recently out of Peru indicate that farmers in certain areas of the country receive $2.74 per kg for coca, but only $1.05 for coffee, $0.11 for cassava and $0.77 for cacao. 

The fate of Colombian coffee producers indicates perfectly the effect of neo-liberal economics on campesinos. After the International Coffee Agreement was signed in 1989 (which cut prices by a quarter) over 350,000 small coffee farmers, as well as a nearly two million strong workforce, saw a dramatic decrease in their incomes. As a direct result of this there was subsequently a 92% increase in opium poppy production in the following 3 years in the worst affected Colombian departments of Huila, Tolima and Cauca. And things don’t seem to be improving. Only two weeks ago coffee prices again fell to a record low. (It is interesting to note that despite the huge decrease in coffee prices on the world market, coffee prices in the cafes and supermarkets of the West have, if anything increased. The savings are not in anyway being passed on to the consumer as some would like us to believe and are certainly not being used to benefit the coffee producing communities of the developing nations). 

Decades of neglect by the governments of the Andean nations, particularly with regard to infrastructure programmes and social services, are also a reason for peasant cultivation of coca. The lack of a developed transport network (roads, bridges, ports, airports, etc) makes transferring produce very difficult and costly for peasants. In this respect coca cultivation is obviously more advantageous than legal crops – the buyers, who bring hard cash with them, collect the coca leaves directly from the peasant who in turn does not have to worry about transportation expenses. 

The lack of any kind of social services leaves campesinos (the majority of whom live below or near the poverty line), with little or no choice but to turn to coca – especially when a legitimate income is effectively unavailable, there is a lack of other employment opportunities or, as regularly happens, legal crops fail due to climatic conditions, disease, etc. The absence of an education system and social programmes (providing loans, advice, local cooperatives, etc) also makes it very hard for the peasants to drastically change their way of life, and therefore most remain scratching out an existence in the guaranteed-to-be-commercially-viable cultivation of coca. 

Furthermore, the austerity measures implemented as part of the 1999 IMF-agreed $2.7 billion dollar loan has only increased the isolation of rural communities. As a result of the IMF conditions on the new loan, government farming subsidies were cut back, education spending was cut by $350 million dollars, and other federal expenditures on rural departments and municipalities were trimmed. This has only been detrimental to rural communities – where, in areas of conflict, the state already fails to provide 2/3 of children with secondary education. This scenario is no doubt set to worsen with the forth-coming US-imposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. 

Effects of Fumigation

One of the chemicals used to fumigate in Colombia is Fusarium EN-4, a descendent of a defoliant used by the US in Vietnam that, even after 30 years, is still leaving babies severely deformed and handicapped. There is a lack of information available publicly about the semi-secret research project that the US conducts with EN-4 chemicals and little evidence is available to show exactly what the effects of such chemicals are on human beings. However, after a mysterious outbreak of an EN-4 based chemical in Peru (of which the US government denied all knowledge) campesinos reported widespread sickness among livestock. On top of this Colombian researchers have shown that the mortality rate for humans subjected to EN-4 is 76%. Also, far from attacking the coca plant specifically, and contrary to reports put out by the White House-based Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are over 200 other species of plants whose genus are targeted by EN-4 and are therefore susceptible to attack.

The other chemical currently being used in Colombia is Glyphosate, which is promoted as a “mild” herbicide by its producer Monsanto, but is classified as “extremely poisonous” by the World Health Organization. In an irresponsible effort to make Glyphosate more effective, the US have chosen to add the chemical Cosmo-flux to the Glyphosate, which, according to Dr Elsa Nivia, the regional director of Colombia’s Pesticide Action Network, increases its biological activity permitting improved results with smaller concentrations. Yet reports by Accion Andina, indicate that the new Glyphosate-Cosmo mix is being used in concentrations of five times the recommended level of one litre per acre. The result is a highly concentrated herbicide, which has increased cohesiveness and stickiness, making the chemical much harder to breakdown or remove. 

The effect on the health of people living in fumigated areas has been devastating, particularly among the young and elderly. In areas such as Putumayo and Bolivar, departments of Colombia where there has already been widespread fumigation, there have been mass reports of ill health and sickness following the spray runs by US-piloted State Department fumigation planes. After a recent visit to some of the effected areas, the US-based NGO Witness for Peace reported that peasants became extremely sick after spray planes had passed overhead, with symptoms including vomiting, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, skin rashes and even hair-loss. Edgar Perea, a doctor at the hospital in the Putumayo village of La Hormiga, told the visitors, “I have treated people with skin rashes, stomach aches and diarrhoea caused by the fumigation. And I have treated five children affected by the fumigation in the past 25 days.” A journalist investigating the fumigation-induced illnesses reported that 80% of children fell ill after spraying in some areas. 

This evidence is contrary to the official view that Glyphosate is not harmful to humans or the environment and its continued use is very worrying. The long-term consequences of these chemicals on human health are unknown, and there is fear of sterility of the population and deformity of children conceived in polluted areas. 

The effect on livestock is also severe: pigs and chickens have died in large numbers and cattle have suffered from hair-loss and, on occasion, are found dead after contact with contaminated grass or water. Fish are more vulnerable and there are reports of the complete extinction of local fish stocks when water is polluted as a consequence of fumigation. As a direct result of this, food and economic resources are lost, further isolating and impoverishing families and rural communities, thus increasing their reliance on coca. As the governor of Putumayo department, who recently went to the US with three other governors of affected departments to call for an end to fumigation, said, “This is an attack on the people.” 

Fumigation of legal crops, an ever-increasing scenario, is also posing huge problems to rural communities and, in some areas, is threatening their very existence. Nearly 100,000 gallons of Glyphosate has been sprayed over Putumayo alone in the ongoing eradication program and spray planes regularly release their cargo from over 100 feet despite Monsanto’s recommendations that it should not be applied from anywhere above 10 feet. Discharging the chemical from higher altitudes can lead to what Monsanto describe as ‘drift’, which in turn contaminates water and legal crops nearby thus destroying food supplies. 

However, there are also reports that legal crops and water sources have been purposely sprayed, and in an article printed in the Washington Post on January 7th 2001, entitled ‘Aerial Attack Killing More Than Coca’, several witnesses reported that their town itself was sprayed. In the same article inhabitants of the village of La Hormiga said that legitimate crops had been targeted even more than coca. The results of crop destruction are so severe that Flover Edmundo Meza, the mayor of one of Putumayo’s municipalities (whose own farm was fumigated), foresees widespread hunger throughout the area as a consequence. The mayor predicted that up to 35,000 people in his municipality alone could be effected. 

Hunger will ultimately lead to a large increase in the numbers of displaced people in Colombia – adding to the over 2 million that already exist. Yet both the US and Colombian authorities have denied the claims, even when backed up with irrefutable evidence, of the fumigation of legal crops. In an interview with the Dutch journalist Marjon van Royen, General Socha, head of the Colombian police’s anti-narcotics unit, when asked to look at photos of the destruction (due to fumigation) of the Indian reservation of Aponte in southern Colombia, responded, “It is false. The proof you want to hand over to me is false”. This sentiment seems to be the official government line as Dr. Josi Tordecilla, who works in the reservation, found when he asked for more medicine from central government to treat symptoms of spraying. He was refused on grounds that spraying-related illnesses were all “lies”.


The displacement of thousands of people and the immense suffering that this causes, as a direct result of the US fumigation program, has already occurred and the numbers can be expected to increase as the fumigation effort is stepped up. Exact figures are very hard to calculate although the State Department itself has estimated that the number of people displaced by the actions of the Counter-Narcotics Battalions in Putumayo will be in the tens of thousands and, logically, this estimate is obviously going to be an extremely conservative one. It is believed that approximately 10,000 Colombians have already crossed into Ecuador and a much larger number than that into the departments of Narino and Caqueta which border Putumayo. 

Very little financing has been allocated to help these displaced people and only a minuscule amount of what has been promised has actually materialised. This leaves the majority to fend for themselves, or else to rely on small and under-financed local NGOs and charities, which, as Putumayo farmer Senor Livardo explains, far from solves the problem, “If they fumigate here, I will go elsewhere, Ecuador or wherever. We have to do what we can to bring our kids up.” Officials in neighbouring countries, particularly those in Ecuador and Peru, worry that the concerted push against Putumayo’s coca farmers will force thousands more refugees into their territory, and regionalise many of Colombia's problems. In the last seven months alone an estimated 3,000 Colombian refugees have arrived in Ecuador and recently the Ecuadorian army have found at least two cocaine processing plants in the northern province of Sucumbios that borders Putumayo. 

There is also evidence that Colombian paramilitaries have begun operating over the border in Ecuador and last year there was actually combat in northern Ecuador when guerrillas interrupted a paramilitary death squad that was committing a massacre in Putumayo and subsequently pursued them over the border into Ecuador and attacked. However this appears to be the objective of the US, as the Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in March this year “The new administration will try to regionalise the Colombian conflict.” The political ramifications of regionalisation will give the US a precedent to involve themselves more closely in the internal affairs of other Andean nations.

The effects of the fumigation, and particularly the government’s broken promises to aid the victims, have further soured the already stretched relations between the authorities and the campesinos. Families that agreed to join voluntary manual eradication programs, pulling up their coca and replacing it with other food crops, have, according to Lisa Haugaard of the US-based Latin American Working Group “not received a penny of the promised subsidies”. Indeed, hardly any aid has actually reached those who have been affected most severely by the fumigation part of Plan Colombia and many are doubtful if it will ever appear. As one campesino leader in Putumayo put it, “They were quick to come up the massive amount needed for the planes, the helicopters, the troops and the chemicals but when it comes to the money for helping people, which costs much less, they just seem to have forgotten about it. Nobody here really believes they are ever going to come up with it. It was all just empty promises.”

Environmental Destruction

The environmental implications of the fumigation also represent a serious attack on the people, as well as the biodiversity and ecology of Colombia. The chemicals used to fumigate indiscriminately destroy flora and fauna and pollute the already fragile rainforests of Colombia – rainforests that contain approximately 10% of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species. 

Of major concern are the Canangucha Palm trees, which form strange oasis-like growths sustaining other plants and an array of different animals and are a unique part of the Amazonian ecosystem. The Palms also support local indigenous people, providing fibre for clothes and roofing, as well as food and water. Clouds and rainwater containing Glyphosate have contaminated the Palms leaving them without their useful sponge-like properties, which in turn causes them to dry out and destroy the surrounding eco-system that depends on them. The indigenous people that are reliant on the oases created by the tress are subsequently forced to abandon their lands only adding to environmental the damage when they move on to other areas of the forest.

The chemicals used contaminate sprayed areas for at least 6 months rendering the terrain infertile and turning it into land that is of no use to the campesino. As described above, without a livelihood the campesino is forced from the land, and in many cases will then use the ‘slash and burn’ technique to create new land for cultivation – deeper and deeper into the rainforest. This is a hugely destructive influence on the forests of Colombia as July 1999 statistics from the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate, “The cultivation of the coca plant alone has since its inception destroyed between 160,000 and 240,000 hectares of tropical jungle in the Orinoco and Amazon basins; and…[is responsible for] 30% of annual deforestation estimated in Colombia.” This rate of deforestation is surely set to increase rapidly alongside the massive increase that is projected in the US fumigation program in coming years. 

Even more worrying is that the deforestation of land in Colombia, as a result of fumigation, is a repetitive cycle. As fumigation reaches further into the forest to destroy coca cultivation and pollutes ever-greater areas, the campesinos will be forced to search for new land even deeper in the jungles. The fumigation planes will no doubt eventually find them there too and the process will be continued. This pattern is threatening already endangered plants and animals as many wildlife and environmental pressure groups have already pointed out.

The environmental effects of the fumigation programme in Colombia have also been reported in Ecuador and it can be safely assumed that Peru and Brazil are already, or will in the near future, face similar scenarios. The transport of chemicals by waterways is a particular worry for regional contamination, especially as much of the spraying goes on near rivers that flow down into Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Accion Ecologica, an Ecuadorian environmental organisation, stated that crops and livestock are suffering negative effects in northern Ecuador as Glyphosate, moving in water and the wind, reaches soil in the departments bordering Colombia. 

D espite all the eradication efforts – and the related suffering caused to the people and environment in the effected areas – the US fumigation programme has, as of yet, made little ground. A joint UN and Colombian survey recently indicated that in 2000 the area devoted to cultivating coca actually increased to over 400,000 acres. In comments earlier this week, Mathea Falco, the director of the US-based non-profit research group Drugs Strategies, pointed out that “heroin and cocaine are cheaper and more available than ever before and it [the ‘War on Drugs’] has not decreased or reduced either the supply of drugs not the number of hard-core drug addicts.” 

Reality of US Motivations

The US-administered fumigation programs in Latin America are backed by sophisticated satellite and targeting equipment that makes, as Ricardo Vargas (a fumigation expert at Accion Andina) agrees, the possibility of a “mistake” very slim. Yet the effects of the opening stages of aerial spraying (as indicated above) have had devastating consequences on humans, livestock, and the ecology of Colombia and the surrounding regions. Towns, legitimate crops, and water sources have been repeatedly sprayed, with the unpleasant conclusion, as Ricardo Vargas stated in an interview with the Dutch journalist van Royen, that “spraying” could be being used “as a strategy to consciously affect the survival of communities”.

This, as a central objective of Plan Colombia, is not as far-fetched as it sounds especially when one understands the way in which the US government and various multinational corporations would benefit from such a policy.

Various oil corporations, for example, including both Occidental Petroleum and British Petroleum, were fervent supporters of Plan Colombia whilst it went through Congress and this is without doubt because they saw it as being favourable to their interests in the region – Occidental indeed spent $350,000 in the US Congress ensuring that Plan Colombia was passed. The departments of Putumayo and Bolivar, both primary targets for fumigation, have huge, and as yet unexploited mineral and oil deposits. The effects of fumigation, and the paramilitary activity that preceded it (see below), have forced thousands off their land – terrain that is now conveniently open for speculation by multinationals, free from the annoyance of concerned local environmentalists and residents. A further, and no doubt intentional effect is to deprive the guerrilla movements in these areas of their civilian support bases. This has obvious benefits, as the guerrillas are generally hostile to both US foreign policy objectives and the exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources by foreign companies.

When one looks at the losses taken by companies such as Occidental Petroleum as a result of guerrilla attacks it is clear to see that the weakening of the insurgency, by displacing local communities and thus destroying their base among the civilian population, is an effort to secure the profits of corporations and create the conditions for future multinational exploitation in Colombia – something that is especially important in the light of the IMF-imposed economic reforms.

A fundamental part of Plan Colombia is to create the image of ‘narco-guerrillas’ being deeply involved in drug trafficking and then use this as the justification to heavily militarise the region and subsequently blur the lines between counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations. However, the theory of the ‘narco-guerrilla’ is highly dubious and there is in fact no hard evidence to suggest that guerrillas are involved in the drugs business at any level above the taxation of coca cultivation and processing. Even the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) admits to the fact that “To date, there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves, either by producing cocaine HCL and selling it to Mexican syndicates, or by establishing their own distribution networks in the United States.” 

The north-western region of Latin America is, however, of strategic interest to the US – an area that the War-Peace Studies Group (which consisted of the US State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations) referred to as a “Grand Area”, meaning a “region whose economic subordination is necessary for world domination”. 

More specifically at the moment it is the oil of the north-western region that is of primary interest to the US. The energy debate was high on the agenda during the US elections and with this in mind, and as the world’s biggest consumer of petroleum, developments over the last few years in Latin America must worry the US. The recent loss of the Panama Canal, and increasingly strong radical movements in Ecuador and Bolivia, are emerging as firm threats to the hegemony of the US and the neo-liberal policies that go it. The nationalist government of Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela (which is the single largest supplier of oil to the US), is sympathetic to the Colombian guerrillas, is very anti-imperialist and, furthermore, is tremendously close to socialist Cuba, with Chavez calling Fidel Castro his mentor. 

On top of this and of most concern, the Colombian insurgency, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP), continue to strengthen themselves and there is now serious fear in both the US and among the Colombian elite that a revolution is in the making. Plan Colombia and the ‘war on drugs’ is obviously an attempt by the US to ‘pacify’ the region and regain control – a strategy which closely resembles US operations in Central America in the 1980s when the alleged Soviet threat was the covering pretext. 

A closer look at the destination of much of the US military aid included in Plan Colombia reveals where other interests of the Clinton administration lay. The vast majority of the money will never be seen by Colombia, but instead go straight to the manufacturers of the military hardware that the US is donating to the Colombian military. These companies lobbied hard for the passage of Plan Colombia, with those profiting most including Textron (manufacturers of Huey military helicopters), Lockheed Martin (manufacturers of radar systems), United Technologies (manufacturers of Blackhawk ground attack helicopters), Northrop Grunnman (manufacturers of airborne reconnaissance aircraft) and the now notorious mercenary company DynCorp (fumigation and training contracts). 

It is no coincidence to note that these five companies between them donated nearly $4 million to members of the US Congress during the period that Plan Colombia was being debated in Congress, nor is it surprising to find that the companies that make the fumigation chemicals (Monsanto and DuPont) also donated around $600,000 during the same period. It is also no coincidence that the equipment and services provided to Colombia by these companies will probably do little to decrease world cocaine production but at the same time will do much for the economic interests and profits both of these companies and others that have an involvement in Colombia. 

Paramilitary Death Squad Involvement

Another interesting point with regards to the reality of US motivations in Colombia, and specifically with regards to fumigation programs, is that the well-documented involvement of the army-backed paramilitaries in the drug trade, extending much further than taxation, is seemingly being ignored. Fumigation has largely excluded paramilitary-controlled coca plantations and although a few well-publicised operations have been carried out against alleged paramilitary processing facilities it is believed that the vast majority of these have remained untouched. It is no surprise to discover that these very same paramilitaries have a long history of clandestine relationships with US covert agencies such as the CIA and DEA and that they are alleged to be partly financed by various multinationals operating in Colombia. It is also important to note that these paramilitaries are violently opposed to any efforts aimed at slowing or halting the IMF-demanded privatisation programs and other economic ‘reforms’ that would benefit the multinationals. And, as a result of this stance, they have killed hundreds of unionists and other activists that have been involved in anti-privatisation and other campaigns. 

Although it seems logical to suggest that the paramilitary death squads are being conveniently ignored by the US and Colombian government as in reality they are relatively supportive of US aims and objectives, there is much more disturbing evidence that suggests that the paramilitaries do in fact have a strategic role to play in Plan Colombia. This is not as fanciful as it may seem when one takes into account the Thai and Laotian heroin lords during the Vietnam War, the Mojahedin heroin producers in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the Contra cocaine smugglers in Nicaragua also during the 1980s and the heroin trafficking KLA in Kosovo of the 1990s – all of whom were paramilitary outfits that, for as long as they fitted in with US foreign policy strategies, received substantial support and cooperation from US government agencies 

In Colombia the evidence suggests that almost without exception the US fumigation has been preceded by heavy paramilitary activity in the areas in question – activity that has resulted in hundreds of deaths and other human rights abuses. The ex-ombudsman of the city of Puerto Asis in Putumayo department puts it clearly: “The paramilitary phenomenon in Putumayo is the spearhead of Plan Colombia.” This view is corroborate by Commandante Wilson, a paramilitary commander in Putumayo, who recently told the Boston Globe newspaper that “Plan Colombia would be almost impossible without the help of the [paramilitary] forces...[the military] sprays where they know we have consolidated zones.” 

There is also, as demonstrated by both the USO oil workers union and the SINTRAMINERCOL mine workers union, an astoundingly direct correlation between the location of natural resources and the intensity of paramilitary activity. Activity by the death squads in these regions secures the much-coveted resources for multinational corporations and this too would seem to be evidence in favour of the argument that the US, if indeed their true objective is to consolidate control of Colombia’s natural resources, would be at least covertly willing to allow the paramilitaries to participate in the ‘pacification’ of Colombia.

It is safe to say that the US is at the least indirectly responsible for the recent growth of the death squads in Colombia by aiding and abetting a military that is clearly linked to the paramilitary forces. As US Senator Patrick Leahy recently stated, “Since the human rights waiver [allowing US military aid to start arriving] was granted the paramilitaries have doubled in size. The numbers of massacres have also increased.” Furthermore, Amnesty International has recently filed a lawsuit against the CIA accusing them of improperly withholding information on their relationship with national paramilitary death squad commander Carlos Castano. 

Should the CIA be forced to divulge such information, it is highly likely that it would prove the existence of a much more direct relationship between the US and the death squads such as those that existed in El Salvador, Chile and other places. However, it is of course highly unlikely that, should it exist, the US government would reveal such information regarding Colombia at such a sensitive time – it is much more probable that they will choose to wait (using the pretext of National Security) for twenty-odd years before allowing their complicity to become public knowledge. By that time of course, as was the case in the other examples cited, the media will not be so interested and it will all be over and done with anyway. 

  Alternative Policies

The consequences of the US and Colombia fumigation programmes are having, and will continue to have, a large and adverse effect on the ecology and people of Colombia, as well as helping to breed instability and conflict in the surrounding countries. As in the cases of Peru and Bolivia (both used by the White House as proof of the effectiveness of the eradication policy), the causes of such high levels of coca cultivation have not been addressed and cultivation has merely moved geographically, as it did from Peru to Colombia in the early `nineties. Last year evidence suggested that despite the huge eradication program and the militarisation of coca-producing areas, cultivation of the illicit crop has returned to Peru. As Winifred Tate, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, concluded: “[Fumigation is a] completely ineffective way of reducing drug production and trafficking. Drug production in the Andes has remained constant. The [anti-drugs] programmes have just moved it into other areas.” 

There are many and cheaper alternatives that the US government is failing to take into account. One major criticism of the current policy is that it focuses more on the supply of cocaine rather than the demand. A study by the RAND institute in Santa Monica, California, indicates that every $1 dollar spent on rehabilitation and treatment gives a return of $7 by decreasing the costs of criminal justice, lost productivity and health care. Experts also regularly call for a greater emphasis on education of young people – something that, despite the rhetoric, the US government has still failed to invest in sufficiently. These alternatives alone are surely more productive than the $30 billion plus, spent over the last two decades, on diminishing the supply of cocaine – a policy that anyone with any knowledge of European or US society can see has clearly not worked.


In conclusion it is safe to say that despite the US and Colombian governments’ insisting to the contrary, there is definite evidence that fumigation seriously damages the environment, legal crops and, at least certain types of animals and fish. It is also highly probable that fumigation is damaging the health of people, especially children, in the areas that are being fumigated. Furthermore it is known that large numbers of people are being displaced by the spraying, that it is going to lead to further deforestation and that it will almost certainly regionalise some of Colombia’s problems. 

The question therefore must be asked, why, if alternative policies exist, is the US insisting on conducting a fumigation campaign in Colombia that is causing such immense damage to that country and it’s population? The question is even more important when one takes into account the fact that many seasoned observers, and indeed world-renowned experts on anti-narcotics strategies, state that the present policy of fumigating coca fields will simply not work.

The reality of the matter is that there are other motives behind the US ‘war on drugs’ in Latin America, motives that benefit US corporate interests at the expense of the environments, and the lives of the people, in the countries effected. It is simply implausible that corporations such as DuPont, Philip Morris and Occidental Petroleum would donate hundreds of millions of dollars to see Plan Colombia pass through the US Congress if they did not believe that they were going to gain something from the whole affair – they are not charities after all. 

In short Plan Colombia, as well as the recently announced Andean Regional Initiative aid package, is an effort to reassert US control in the Andean region and the first step towards this objective is the annihilation of all forms of resistance – the most potent of which is surely the FARC guerrilla movement.

The objective of fumigation is to remove the grass-root support and recruits that the peasants of Colombia provide for the guerrillas and to destroy one of the guerrillas’ sources of income – taxation on drug production. As part of this policy the Colombian guerrillas, with the complicity of the corporate media, are also being vilified (beyond anything that is applied to the murderous US-backed regimes that function not only in Colombia but also in such countries as Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia), so much so that many people now use the ‘narco-guerrilla’ term and other like it as if they had some factual basis. 

It is therefore also interesting to note that the US mass media – media outlets which in many cases are owned by the same corporate interests that are behind much of the US strategy in the Andean region and Plan Colombia in particular – are noticeably silent on the whole issue of fumigation never mind the possibility that there is something more than the ‘war on drugs’ behind the whole thing. The corporate media also neglects to mention the root causes that drive poor peasant farmers in Latin America into growing cocaine – unfair trade practices, IMF fiscal ‘reforms’ and the disgraceful indifference of the Latin American elite to the plight of their impoverished rural compatriots.

Fumigation is also employed to clear the land of people for the exploitation of natural resources by transnational corporation that are predominantly US-owned. This is achieved through the forced displacement of people by intentionally poisoning their land, water and livestock. Yet it is not only the fumigation that is displacing people in Colombia. By far and away the largest cause of displacement in the country is paramilitary death squad violence against rural civilian populations and it is here that we find the most worrying aspect of US policy in Colombia. The US, whatever the State Department and White House claim to the contrary, is silently complicit 

As Doug Stokes, a Colombia expert at Bristol University Politics Department in Britain says, the relationship is based on “the mutual desire to increase access to Colombia’s markets (and thus increasing US power in the region), but also in eliminating the rebels… whose very presence destabilises this crucial oil region.” The only real debate is how deeply the US government, and in particular its covert agencies, are involved with the paramilitaries. 

It appears that Jesus Gonzalez, the head of the human rights department at the CUT trade union federation and one of Colombia’s most high-profile human rights activists, is right when he says that “Plan Colombia is a plan for death”. However, this is secondary to the concerns of the US and its multinational allies, whose Plan Colombia and ‘war on drugs’ has done a great deal, according to the Economist magazine, to “undermine democracy, human rights and the environment in much of Latin America”.


The authors, Liam Craig-Best and Rowan Shingler,  are freelance journalists based in Colombia and specialising in human rights issues. Send a message to if you would like to  be added to their Colombia News free mailing list.

Liam and Rowan have asked Spectre to pass on a request specifically to activists in the US to send the following letter to their local Senator: 


Senator  ___________

United States Senate

Washington, DC 20510


 Dear Senator,  

I am writing to express my horror at the U.S. supported aerial fumigations in Southern Colombia.   The herbicide sprayings are now well documented to be harming the people who live there, their animals and food crops, and the surrounding Colombian Amazon rainforest.  Although the U. S. State Department recently claimed that the herbicides being used are "less harmful than aspirin," this disingenuous statement ignores the fact that in Colombia the herbicide glyphosate is sprayed from the air, mixed with other chemicals to make it more powerful and toxic, sprayed at higher concentrations than the recommended dose, and is sprayed over rivers and lakes where it enters the water supply.  

The fumigations are harmful for the following reasons:  

They are targeting the forests of a country that is number two in the world for biodiversity.

They create more deforestation as peasants either in Colombia or in other countries are simply going further into the rainforest to continue to grow the one crop that they have a ready market for.  

They are causing more displacement in a country with almost two million displaced people.  

They are causing serious health problems, especially among children. Doctors are reporting skin problems, eye irritations, breathing problems and other conditions, after an area is sprayed.  There are reports of miscarriages and birth defects.  

They include a form of glyphosate, Roundup Ultra, which is mixed with the surfactant polyoxyethylamine (POEA) and the he antifoaming Cosmo-In-D, and the adjuvant Cosmo-Flux 411F, substances whose health effects have not been tested.  

Glyphosate is water-soluble, so it is contaminating rivers and lakes in the forests and has already destroyed fish farms and other alternative development projects.

  Crops are being sprayed indiscriminately.  Coca is sometimes missed while food crops get sprayed.  Farmers who do not plant coca are harmed along with those who do.  

Instead of supporting further fumigations, I urge you to listen to the four governors from Southern Colombia who recently traveled to the U.S. on behalf of their beleaguered constituents.  The governors asked for a halt to aerial fumigations, and for the Colombian government to reign in the paramilitaries who have descended on Southern Colombia in the wake of the U. S. sponsored Plan Colombia. The governors urged support for alternative crop programs and for the peace process.  Only these positive steps will improve the lives of the civilians of Southern Colombia, an area heavily affected by the U.S. sponsored military aid.

In turn we suggest that citizens of other countries write either to their own governments, protesting any involvement in the plan, or to their own elected representatives. EU member state citizens might also write to the European Commission, which, although it has been asked by an almost unanimous vote of the European Parliament not to support Plan Colombia, has the power to ignore this request.