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Bogotá Court Rules to End Aerial Fumigation

COHA Research Memorandum:

Bogotá Court Rules to End Harmful Aerial Fumigation Program

· A Bogotá court has ruled to end the harmful U.S. sponsored aerial fumigation occurring in Colombia until a study of the herbicide has been conducted.

· In spite of public health complaints and environmental maladies, the Colombian government plans to appeal the court’s decision and continue spraying throughout the process.

· The ruling comes after hundreds of documented Colombian health complaints and evidence of a lack of sufficient testing of the pesticide by the EPA.

A Historic Ruling

In what could be a momentous decision for the average Colombian, a Bogotá court ruled last Thursday to suspend the current aerial drug eradication program until a definite study has convincingly proven that the herbicide being used will not have any long-term negative effects on the environment or public health.

Aerial spraying has been conducted in the South American country for the past three years in conjunction with Plan Colombia, a program first drafted in Bogotá, and now part of U.S. policy aimed at eradicating coca cultivation and neutralizing the leftist guerrillas. Plan Colombia, introduced in 2000 to stem the tide of cocaine flooding into the U.S., has seen Washington contribute over $2.5 billion and 800 American military and civilian personnel to the effort to date.

The Colombian court’s ruling, unprecedented in scope, comes as an enormous relief to campesinos and indigenous peoples who have grievously suffered from fumigation, and who had notched a few notable victories against Plan Colombia already this year. On May 14, 2003, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government must forewarn indigenous reservations before the commencement of spraying on their territories—the result of a lawsuit on behalf of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon. However, at the time of its decision, the court also denied the indigenous nations’ petition requesting an end to the use of the pesticide. Instead, a three month moratorium to have conferences and to stage tests intended to explore the future of aerial fumigation with Colombian authorities was set, during which period spraying was to be continued.

Washington and Bogotá plan to continue eradication efforts in the face of health and environmental complaints, citing the great strides that they believe the program is making. The State Department has claimed a 15 percent decrease in coca cultivation in Colombia for the year 2003, while downplaying its much more significant three-fold increase from 1995 to 2003 and net 184 percent increase since 1995. It is also unclear whether the crop has been permanently eradicated, or whether it has merely been transferred to different regions of Colombia or to neighboring countries. Coca production demonstrably has increased in both Bolivia and Peru last year, and is being increasingly planted in departments throughout Colombia. In spite of this, Washington and Bogotá have chosen to disregard the evidence and continue with the widely criticized Plan Colombia. Even now, as the Colombian people celebrate a possible breakthrough, their time of easy breathing will be short-lived, as Bogotá plans to appeal the court’s ruling and continue spraying in the meantime, just as Plan Colombia will continue its pursuit of a multilateral solution to the country’s woes.

A Lack in Testing

Title II of the Foreign Operations Financing, and Related Programs Appropriation Act of 2002 obliges the State Department to show that, “the chemicals used in the aerial fumigation of coca in the manner in which they are being applied, do not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment.” The herbicide used—a mixture of water, glyphosate, and a surfactant, cosmo-flux 411f—is said to be highly toxic and harmful to the health of those who come in contact with it. One ingredient, Cosmo-flux 411f, is said to be even more toxic than glyphosate, the primary chemical used for such application.

Despite widespread apprehension over the fumigant’s formulation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency in charge of the investigation, admits only to testing glyphosate in less concentrated forms than those which are currently being applied in Colombia, and to having never tested the chemical compound in total and never in a realistic agricultural context. The EPA exposure estimates are not in the least credible because the tests were performed assuming that the pesticide would be applied by a helicopter, not by the Colombian fixed-wing aircraft which are normally used for such procedures. Moreover, a study has been produced showing that the toxicity of glyphosate doubles when water temperature is increased from 45 to 63 degrees, which is certain to prove problematic when moving from the North American testing areas to Colombia’s equatorial region. Even setting aside the aforementioned problems, the relevance of previous studies used to buttress fumigation would be obsolete, if not irrelevant, due to the fact that Colombia’s plants and animals are usually completely at odds with the flora and fauna of North America—with one-third of all Colombian species being endemic.

Effects on the Population and Environment

Bogotá and Washington maintain that the herbicide has no harmful consequences except perhaps for minor eye irritation, yet hundreds of Colombians in the affected area have complained of symptoms ranging from headaches to fever, rash, dizziness, diarrhea, respiratory problems and vomiting. Most of the complaints do not originate from direct contact, but rather from unintended drift from the targeted zones to surrounding sites. Because it is dropped from planes, the extent of the chemical’s diffusion is hard to estimate, but it may kill as much as 50 percent of young plants downwind of the spraying. The unintended destruction of crops and livestock recurrently has created food shortages, malnutrition and even starvation of local populations on occasion. The effects of the herbicide are so extensive that hospitals in Ecuador are treating patients with the same ailments as those whose land has been sprayed directly. The Ecuadorian government, afraid that its people will be affected in the same way as has been the case with Colombians, has also requested that Bogotá authorities conduct thorough studies on the herbicide.

Even if the EPA has denied any ill effects, the spraying has spurred an exodus of people intent on leaving areas which are being sprayed, in an attempt to protect their families’ health as well as their own. This creation of displaced peoples from all causes, now numbering in the millions, makes this one of the largest such populations of internal refugees in the world. Searching for a better place to live invariably leads to new development and consequent deforestation. Not only does this create a catastrophe for the environment, but also for the many indigenous people who have been displaced by spraying. In locating a new area in which to live, the domestic immigrants at the same time are leaving areas containing the traditions of their ancestors and cultures. Countless distinct indigenous communities—many of whose social identity is tied to the land and a specific location—are continually being forced to periodically move out of their communities, creating a catastrophic loss of cohesion and the viability of their societies.

A Decisive Moment in the Integrity of Washington and Bogotá

Faced with a decision to appeal the court’s ruling or to stop fumigation pending a complete study of the herbicide, Washington and Bogotá inevitably announced officially what is tantamount to indifference to Colombia’s rural population that they intend to put their Plan before the well-being of the Colombian environment and population, by catering to their program of aerial spraying.

This analysis was prepared by Kealan Sloan, research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 30 June 2003.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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