The rising tide against aerial fumigation of coca in Colombia

Posted on Mar 20 2014 - 8:47pm by Rico
(Photo: Mama Coca)

The aerial fumigation of illicit crops is one of the most heavily criticized methods in Colombia’s fight against drug production; however, a number of political factors are converging which could go a long way toward removing the method from anti-narcotics policy.

A combination of proposed reductions in US aid to Colombia’s drug fight, the Colombian state’s ongoing peace negotiations with guerrilla group FARC, and a government stance that seems receptive to meaningful drug policy reform could mean an end to the aerial fumigation of illicit crops.

The process of aerial spraying involves the release of the herbicide glyphosate from planes over areas that are believed to be sites where illicit crop cultivation takes place. One of the primary concerns in Colombia is the cultivation of coca leaf, the active ingredient that produces cocaine.

Controversial strategy

Fumigation has been criticized on grounds that it causes environmental damage and risk to human health, as well as destroying the livelihoods of farmers that have no viable alternatives.

The most telling evidence of these risks was brought up by the Ecuadorian government who filed a lawsuit against Colombia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2008 after the herbicide drifted across the border onto Ecuadorian territory. Ecuador based their complaint on the grounds that “the spraying caused serious damage to people, crops, to animals and to the natural environment.”

In September 2013, the Colombian government acknowledged Ecuador’s complaints and the two sides reach a settlement of $15 million compensation for the damages.

MORE: Colombia pays Ecuador $15 million for damages from aerial spraying

The Washington Office on Latin America has long campaigned for the termination of aerial spraying on numerous other grounds. Senior associate at the NGO, Adam Isacson, told Colombia Reports that it also fuels “anger and disillusionment towards the state” as farmers’ livelihoods — illegal or not — are destroyed by fumigation without being given suitable alternatives or compensation.

Growing Colombian autonomy

At the beginning of the month US president Barack Obama released his budget proposals for 2015 fiscal year which included a reduction 12% reduction in aid.

MORE: Obama proposes reducing US aid funds to Colombia in 2015

The proposed budget includes a reduction of almost 20% for the anti-narcotics program known as Plan Colombia — a strategy devised by the US to fund Colombia’s fight against drugs.

While there has been criticism for the reduction, the US State Department confirmed that they “maintain and adjust the levels of funding as needed in the counter-narcotics and anti-crime areas, while remaining firmly committed to our partnership with the government of Colombia.”

US funding to Colombia has been declining since 2003 with intention of gradually bringing more autonomy to Colombia in relation to their anti-drug strategy.

US Military aid to Colombia

Juan Manuel Torres from the Center for Research on Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH) told CR that it is important for the Colombian government to “achieve objectives primarily of donors.”

While Peru and Colombia cannot be directly compared in terms of drug policy, Torres added that Peru “enjoyed some degree of autonomy ” in its drug policy which in part was due to the significant dwindling of funds from the US.

The FARC and Fumigation

One crucial factor affecting the future of aerial fumigation is ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla army, the FARC, attempting to end the country’s 50-year armed conflict.

The FARC are a primary figure in Colombia’s drug trade and are based in much of the country’s regions where illicit crops are grown.  In December 2013 they released a ten point proposal for drug policy reform: one of these points was the immediate suspension of aerial fumigation.

MORE: FARC proposes to legalize coca cultivation and decriminalize drug consumption

While some of the points made in the proposal are ambitious, especially within the context of international drug policy, fumigation is specific only to Colombia and so an agreement on this issue will certainly be easier.

Coletta Youngers of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) told this website that “in the context of the peace negotiations, there is a good chance aerial fumigation could be phased out.”

“There is a large amount of evidence to show that [fumigation] doesn’t work as an anti-drug strategy.  It creates a lot of environmental and health problems and damages the perception of individuals and government authorities.”

Shifts within the government

Aerial spraying has continued for 20 years in Colombia, which has “traditionally harbored the most pro-US governments in the region,” according to the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center.  However, the government’s stance is starting to digress from traditional drug policy doctrine.

Daniel Mejia is an expert on Colombia’s anti-narcotics policy and is the president of the Colombian government’s special advisory commission on drug policy. Mejia told CR that “there is a large amount of evidence to show that [fumigation] doesn’t work as an anti-drug strategy.  It creates a lot of environmental and health problems and damages the perception of individuals and government authorities.”

While some sectors of the government have “attacked” Mejia’s research, others are beginning to take it on board.

Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez is one of these people ,and has publicly acknowledged a need to reshape drug policy.

Speaking to the international community at last week’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the minister said “despite [Colombia] employing corrective measures, like the rest of the world, the expected results have not been achieved.”

He added “we call on more effective ways to achieve objectives, in the framework of the autonomy of states.”

“Colombia has been like the patient and followed all the doctor’s orders but the fever continues.”

MORE: Colombia asks US to shift from aerial drug fumigation efforts

After his account in Vienna, the minister traveled to the United States on Tuesday to discuss the nature of current drug policy; “Colombia has been like the patient who followed all the doctor’s orders, but the fever continues,” according to the minister.

He discussed with representatives from the US State Department to redirect funding away from fumigation operations towards alternative development policies.

Individually these factors may not provide much indication that aerial fumigation could be removed but collectively they do help present Colombia with an opportunity to end the controversial program more so than at any other point in the “war on drugs.”


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