US Helicopters Spray Monsanto's Toxic Roundup Herbicide
on Columbian Campesinos

U.S.-Backed Air Assault in Colombia Wilts Legal Crops Along With Coca

Scott Wilson Washington Post Service Monday, January 8, 2001

LA HORMIGA, Colombia
A huge anti drug campaign, backed by more than $1 billion of U.S.
military and social development aid, has entered a new punitive phase
of aerial spraying that is killing farmer's legal crops as well as fields
of coca here in the country's most bountiful drug growing region.
Using U.S. and European satellite photographs to pick targets, Colombian
Army and police aircraft have begun spraying herbicides on small farms in
western Putumayo, the southern province that accounts for more than half the
country's coca production.
The flights, paid for by the American-backed anti-drug campaign called Plan
Colombia, have taken place occurred almost daily over several farming
communities since Dec. 22 and have wilted hundreds of hectares of coca, the
key ingredient in cocaine, and legal crops, which often are planted
alongside coca. Local people say the chemicals have sometimes fallen on
towns and farmhouses, causing people to suffer fevers. They also blame the
spraying for the deaths of some cows and fish.
Colombia accounts for 80 percent to 90 percent of the world's cocaine
production and a growing share of its heroin. The fumigation in Putumayo
marks a bold new escalation of Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion campaign to cut
Colombian drug production by half in six years, by 2005.
Until recently, spraying focused almost entirely on remote industrial-sized
coca and poppy plantations that grow most of Colombia's drugs. Officials
claim it has denuded roughly 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) of drug fields.
Now the planes are targeting more populous farming areas like this one,
where coca is seen by many poor villagers as a legitimate cash crop and is
often grown side by side with corn, yucca, pineapple and livestock. Often it
shares a plot next to the farmer's tin-roofed shack.
The new approach is designed in part to punish several coca-rich communities
that have refused to join a U.S.-backed program that pays farmers to uproot
illegal crops and replace them with legal ones. Some of the communities
declined to join because of threats from leftist guerrillas who profit from
the drug trade.
In La Hormiga, a town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Putumayo's
commercial center, Puerto Asis, town officials and residents say the
fumigation has been devastating. In interviews, dozens of farmers said that
the spray, delivered by small planes escorted by armed helicopters, has
killed hundreds of hectares of food crops, scores of cattle and hundreds of
fish that washed up on the banks of the Guamuez River. On several occasions,
several witnesses said, the aircraft dropped herbicide within the town
The U.S. drug control policy director, Barry McCaffrey, has said repeatedly
that the herbicide, Roundup, produced by Monsanto Co., is harmless to humans
and animals. He called it "totally safe" during a visit to Colombia in November.
However, in the United States the herbicide is sold with warning labels
advising users to "not apply this product in a way that will contact workers
or other persons, either directly or through drift." The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency says glyphosate-based products such as Roundup should be
handled with caution and could cause vomiting, swelling of the lungs,
pneumonia, mental confusion and tissue damage.
Several farmers here said they have experienced fever-like symptoms since
being sprayed, but local doctors report only one hospitalization for
chemical poisoning.
Mayor Flover Edmundo Meza, whose own farm was fumigated last week, predicts
widespread hunger throughout the municipality of 35,000 people because of
crop damage. The loss could result in thousands of families leaving their
farms, he said.
"Our intention is to eliminate these crops - voluntarily - and avoid these
damages, but the government is not listening to us," said Mr. Meza, who took
office Jan. 1.
The U.S. Congress has pledged $1.3 billion over the next two years to Plan
Colombia, most going toward such military hardware as the helicopters used
in the fumigation missions. The U.S. contribution also includes money to
build small businesses, health clinics, schools and roads that Colombian
officials hope will help end two decades of coca cultivation in Putumayo.
European nations have chipped in more than $200 million for social programs,
but have roundly condemned the fumigation strategy.
About $81 million of the U.S. aid is available for the plan's alternative
development program, which through subsidies and small loans seeks to coax
farmers to abandon coca crops for legal ones. Of that sum, $30 million is
marked for eradication programs that farmers must join if they are to avoid
In December, more than 500 families signed up for crop substitution programs
in Puerto Asis, an area largely protected from guerrilla forces by privately
funded paramilitary groups and a nearby army base.
But not a single farmer in La Hormiga or in the neighboring municipality of
San Miguel signed on to the plan when it was presented here late last
summer. Gonzalo de Francisco, President Andres Pastrana's point man for Plan
Colombia, said the communities understood the consequences but might have
been frightened off by pressure from guerrilla forces.

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