Protected Areas Threatened by Coca-Killing Herbicide
By Yadira Ferrer
Colombia's environment minister is to appear before her country's Congress to explain why glyphosate herbicide is being used in protected areas.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- Fumigation with glyphosate herbicide in areas of Colombia that are under protection for their biodiversity is part of the joint Colombian-U.S. effort to eradicate illegal drug crops. But it has come under fire for endangering the environment and the people who live in those areas.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide, which makes it particularly inappropriate for use in areas that seek to protect species, say critics of the fumigation operations.
The U.S. Congress approved funds in December for spraying illicit drug crops in Colombia's natural parks.
In February, the Colombian National Police reported to the media that aerial fumigation with glyphosate had begun in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the north, and Chiribiquete, in the southeast.
These regions form part of the 49 protected areas that cover a combined total of 10 million hectares, or nearly 10 percent of Colombian territory. Colombia is second only to Brazil in terms of biodiversity.
The Colombian government gave the green light to U.S. support for fumigation in protected areas when it approved Resolution 0013 of the National Narcotics Council, which establishes the policy for eradicating illicit drug crops, says Ricardo Vargas, an expert with Acción Andina, a non-governmental group that investigates drug trafficking in the Andean countries.
The resolution authorizes the application of glyphosate in protected areas, "taking into account that there is evidence of illicit crops within those areas, which are harmful to their conservation and sustainability," Vargas told Tierramérica.
The fumigation effort, said the expert, is part of the government's strategy to fight drug trafficking, through programs supported and financed by the United States and which have not been successful.
According to Vargas, since 1978 Colombia has been conducting aerial fumigation operations to eradicate illegal drug crops like coca (the raw material for cocaine), marijuana and poppies (used to produce opium and heroin).
Several different chemicals have been used, such as paraquat in 1978, triclopyr in 1985, tebuthiuron in 1986, and glyphosate since then.
For Senator Jorge Robledo, of the leftist Independent Labor Movement, fumigation in nature parks is just one more step in the aggressive policy that Colombian territory has been subjected to by the U.S.-led anti-narcotics fight.
Robledo called Environment Minister Sandra Suárez to appear before a congressional commission on Mar. 30 to report on the government's position on the glyphosate issue.
"The gravity of a decision of this kind does not escape any Colombian or any democrat who is concerned about the environment."
Amidst this controversy, the Alvaro Uribe government announced in February that it asked the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) to conduct "an independent and impartial evaluation" of the environmental and human health impacts of glyphosate fumigations.
The aim of the study by CICAD, an agency related to the Organization of American States, will be to provide well-founded answers to the drug eradiation policy being carried out in Colombia, according to the foreign ministry.
The government estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 hectares planted with coca bush in the country's nature parks, part of the total of more than 100,000 hectares of this illicit crop nationwide. Figures are not available on the number of hectares of marijuana and poppy.
In addition to glyphosate's potential harm to the biodiversity of the protected areas, there are the socioeconomic problems confronting some 800,000 indigenous peoples and peasant farmers living in those areas, said Robledo.
"They are families that are cornered by the lack of alternatives, who have to grow illegal crops, facing the risks of breaking the law. And the government aims to fumigate as if they were insects," said the lawmaker, who stressed that the bulk of the profits for drug traffickers come from sales in the industrialized consumer countries, led by the United States.
The decision to fumigate the parks, says Robledo, is also illegal, because it violates the environment ministry's own management plan, which expressly prohibits this type of activity in protected areas.
The decision also violates several international treaties, like the Convention on Biodiversity, ratified by Colombia in 1994, and convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which protects the integrity of indigenous communities, as well as other instruments related to the protection of forests and wetlands, he said.
Camilo González, former health minister and now director of the non-governmental group Indepaz, says it is true that the chemicals used to process coca into cocaine are extremely harmful to ecosystems, but that fumigation of the parks cannot be defended as a means to protect them.
Indepaz and the NGO Mama Coca convened a forum for Mar. 24 to discuss with experts the issue of applying glyphosate in protected areas.
Glyphosate has been the center of controversy in recent years because it is the active ingredient of the herbicide Roundup, of the transnational Monsanto, which has developed transgenic crops that are resistant to this herbicide and sells both on a massive scale.
* Yadira Ferrer is a Tierramérica correspondent.