Colombia's other war

Sue Branford
14 November 2005

“We were sitting chatting outside our home, when two small planes flew over very low. We went down to our fields to see what was happening. My husband said: ‘Look, they’re dropping poison on our land’. It went all over the food crops – the cassava, banana, beans, rice – and the pasture. We lost everything. And the poison went on us too. I had no coat on, so it went all over my arms. It was sticky, just like cooking oil. I washed it off as soon as I could but even so it made my skin itch. For several days we all felt ill. We had fevers and eye infections. My youngest child hasn’t been well since.”

The speaker is Graciela, a 36-year-old peasant woman living in the province of Putumayo in the south of Colombia. For five years, United States aeroplanes have been spraying a powerful chemical defoliant on peasant holdings as part of Plan Colombia, the US-inspired and funded plan to eradicate coca, the raw material from which cocaine is extracted – which, since its implementation in 1999, has cost $1.7 billion and turned Colombia into the third largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt.

The result of the spraying is that thousands of Colombian peasant families have been going to local hospitals to complain of eye infections, diarrhoea, vomiting and other illnesses. It is tragically reminiscent of the Vietnam war, when US pilots doused land controlled by the Vietcong with a powerful defoliant, known as Agent Orange, to destroy “cover for enemy forces”.

Also on Colombia in openDemocracy:

Ari Paul, “Colombia’s agony, Coca-Cola’s responsibility, Americans’ solidarity” (August 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit” (October 2005)

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The immediate impact of the fumigación (fumigation) as it is known in Colombia, is evident to everyone in the region. But several non-governmental organisations are worried that, just as in the case of Vietnam, the peasant families may also be suffering less visible but even more serious long-term damage to their genetic make-up. After denying for decades that Agent Orange caused lasting damage to the health of Vietnamese families, the US authorities have been forced to admit that the dioxin in the herbicide is “likely to present a cancer hazard to humans”. Vietnamese citizens are attempting to sue the US chemical companies that produced Agent Orange (including Monsanto, the bio-tech company that also manufactures the Roundup herbicide applied in Colombia) for compensation that could run into billions of dollars.

A toxic spray

So far, the Colombian authorities have refused to carry out a thorough, on-the-ground investigation into the impact of the spraying, saying that the violent conflict between Colombia’s armed forces and the left-wing guerrillas, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc), means that they could not guarantee the safety of the researchers. They refer critics to a recent study carried out by a team of international scientists under the auspices of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (Cicad), an agency of the Organisation of American States (OAS), which concluded that the risk to human health from the use of Roundup was “minimal”. But Colombian campaigners have been quick to point out that the study was based on secondary sources, that half of the data came from Monsanto, and that no effort was made to look at the particular way the herbicide was being applied in Colombia.

Two independent researchers have been able to investigate the issue in very difficult conditions, each arriving at highly disturbing conclusions. Adolfo Maldonado, a Spanish doctor working in neighbouring Ecuador, has examined women from Colombia and Ecuador (where families living near the frontier have been affected by herbicide blown over by the wind). Comparing them with a control group of women living outside the affected area, he has found that they have cells with, on average, five times more genetic damage. This, he says, would make them far more likely to develop cancer and other illnesses.

Elsa Nivia, the director of the Colombian branch of the Pesticide Action Network also examines the herbicide from her laboratory in Cali. Her tireless work has faced the difficulty that the authorities will not divulge the exact chemical formula of the mixture, only confirming that it contains glyphosate (which is known to be the main ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup). She believes that, along with an additive called Cosmo-Flux 411F, a surfactant called polyoxyethyleneamine (POEA) is added to spread the glyphosate more evenly on the plant. All these extra ingredients, she says, greatly increase the herbicide’s toxicity.

Nivia takes into consideration other factors, such as the failure of the authorities to respect most of the procedures recommended for the application of herbicides, to conclude that the chemical mix applied in Colombia may be 104 times more toxic than the Roundup used in normal agricultural practice. Both Adolfo Maldonado and Elsa Nivia have long been calling on the authorities to carry out a thorough investigation.

The Plan Colombia factor

Colombia, the only country to manufacture all three plant-based narcotics (cocaine, heroin and marijuana), is the world’s leading producer of coca. Plan Colombia was designed to have a dual benefit for the United States: to disrupt the supply of coca to the traffickers and thus deliver a knockout blow to the illegal cocaine trade, and to do so without committing large numbers of US troops to Colombia, for the spraying would be carried out by private US contractors headed by DynCorp.

In the early years, the fumigation appeared to be having some success from an anti-narcotics viewpoint. CIA figures suggest that the area under coca cultivation in Colombia fell by roughly a third: from 169,800 hectares in 2001 to 113,850 hectares in 2003. But since then the strategy has floundered; although a larger area than ever before (136,555 hectares) was sprayed in 2004, the CIA estimate is that the area under coca cultivation marginally increased to 114,000 hectares.

When you visit coca-growing areas, it is not hard to find out why. Some peasant farmers tell you they are planting more coca than they normally do because they know the spraying will kill some of their crop; others say that neighbours have migrated deeper into the Amazon forest to avoid detection. Moreover, in a demonstration of the well-known “balloon effect” (by which suppressing cultivation in one area leads to an increase in cultivation in another), peasant farmers in areas not targeted by the spray planes have planted more coca.

The real US agenda

Many Colombia-watchers were from the beginning highly sceptical of the US government’s strategy and widely predicted these outcomes. They also called attention to other shortfalls in the plan, including its failure to rigorously target the drug-traffickers and the firms importing chemicals required for the processing of coca into cocaine.

Indeed, it is difficult today to escape the conclusion that all along the United States authorities really had another agenda in mind for Colombia. When Colombia’s then president Andrés Pastrana – since October 2005 the country’s ambassador to the United States – arrived in Washington in October 1998 clutching his draft Plan Colombia – a Plan for Peace, Prosperity and the Strengthening of the State, hardliners in the Pentagon were expressing alarm at the continuing military successes being notched up by the Farc guerrillas. They feared that, unless the US found ways to assist the Colombian armed forces, the Farc could even seize power.

Pastrana’s plan offered them an extraordinary opportunity to boost their military assistance to Colombia while pretending to fight drugs. It is easy today to forget just how difficult it was for the Pentagon in the pre-9/11 era to convince the US Congress to fund foreign counter-insurgency operations. The “war on drugs” was much less controversial and far easier to get funded.

The Pentagon hawks thus seized on and rewrote Pastrana’s original plan. The new English-language version had a strong counter-insurgency focus. Its new budget – completely against the spirit of the original project – assigned 80% of funding to the military, leaving tiny budgets for social development, alternative crops and the combating of the rightwing paramilitaries which dominated drug-trafficking. The biggest outlay was on the formation of three elite, highly mobile battalions within the Colombian army. Their first target was to be the southwest region of Putumayo, the Farc’s stronghold.

There is no doubt that the Pentagon also hoped to reduce coca cultivation, for at that time Putumayo was the country’s main coca-producing province. But there seems little doubt that the main target was the Farc. The US authorities have been much clearer on this point since 9/11; only a few days after the attacks, the US state department’s top counter-terrorism official Francis X Taylor declared the Farc to be “the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere”.

This was the start of a conflation that would become familiar, between the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”. General James Hill of US Southern Command said in 2003 that drugs were a “weapon of mass destruction”. This confused analysis involves a double misunderstanding: it ignores the origins of the internal conflict in Colombia’s profound social inequalities and it implies that the Farc would be defeated if drug-trafficking could be eradicated from Colombia.

Yet even when the mask is lifted and Plan Colombia is analysed as the counter-insurgency programme that it really is, its success has been limited. In 2002-03 the Farc were driven back into the forest under pressure from a strong military offensive. Some US and Colombian officials predicted triumphantly that they were on the verge of imposing an outright military defeat on the group. Once again, wiser analysts advised caution. “The Farc have survived for more than forty years”, said Alfredo Rangel, a leading Colombian security analyst with the Bogota think-tank Fundacion Seguridad y Democracia. “Farc is not seeking to confront the armed forces but to exhaust them. The group is biding its time until the military offensive loses steam.” In February 2005, the Farc launched a series of devastating attacks on military posts, proving yet again that reports of their death had been premature.

Sue Branford is co-author (with Hugh O’Shaughnessy) of “Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Fumigation” (Latin America Bureau, 2005)

A war without end

Yet the Colombian and United States authorities, far from rethinking their strategy, seem to believe their own propaganda that they can defeat the guerrillas by eradicating coca. Indeed they have extended fumigation to many other provinces, and one possible new development in particular is causing alarm.

Some reports – not yet reliably confirmed – indicate that new strains of coca are developing that are resistant to glyphosate. While journalists hinted that a Monsanto employee might secretly have introduced a new gene into coca to make it resistant to Roundup (just as the company introduced a gene into soya to make it resistant) the truth may be more prosaic. It is more likely that coca farmers have stumbled across mutant coca plants that have a natural resistance to glyphosate and are now propagating these. A similar process has happened in Argentina where so-called “super-weeds” have developed a natural resistance to glyphosate and are now proliferating in the soya fields.

This scenario opens the way for an even more alarming development. In the late 1990s the United States army experimented in Peru with a species of fusarium oxysporum, a pathogen that causes withering, rot and death to plants. As the active ingredient is a fungus, the pathogen is technically known as a mycoherbicide (from myco, Greek for mushroom). The fusarium reportedly killed the roots of the coca.

After vehement protests from the other Amazon nations, particularly Brazil, which feared that the fungus might spread uncontrollably across the Amazon forest, President Clinton stopped the experiments. But Republican senators reopened the debate in 2005, calling on the government to make further funding for Colombia conditional on new experiments with mycoherbicides. Although the first phase of Plan Colombia is due to end in 2006, the chemical war in Colombia may just be beginning.

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