Macarena Natural National Park, Caño Cristales
Credit: Carlos E. Porras.
Anti-Drug Herbicide Returns to Colombia's Nature Parks
By Yadira Ferrer
Colombia will reinstate use of the much-criticized herbicide glyphosate to spray illegal drug crops in three nature reserves. Environmentalists condemn the move.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- The Colombian government plans to restart fumigation in nature reserves using the herbicide glyphosate to wipe out illicit drug crops. The practice was suspended in March 2004 in those areas as a result of protests by activists who argued that it violated international treaties, national laws, and agreements with local indigenous and peasant communities.
Aerial spraying is slated for the nature parks -- protected areas -- of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a northern park declared a biosphere in 1986 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization); La Macarena in the central-east; and Catatumbo, in the northwest.
Defenders of the use of glyphosate in the anti-drug fight say the herbicide is as harmless as common salt, but there are studies and denunciations about the threat it poses to pastureland, crops, water resources, and the health of humans and cattle.
Furthermore, environmentalists argue that the ''broad spectrum'' nature of this herbicide, produced by the agribusiness transnational Monsanto, makes it particularly inappropriate for areas set aside to protect species because it can kill more than just the targeted crops of coca (used to make cocaine), marijuana and opium poppies.
The U.S. Congress approved in December 2003 the use of funds for spraying illicit crops in Colombia's nature parks, and in February 2004 reported that aerial fumigation with glyphosate had begun in the protected areas of the Colombian Sierra Nevada and Chiribiquete (southeast).
Deputy Interior Minister Mario Iguarán told Tierramérica that the renewed spraying, to take effect in the coming weeks, is protected by the 2003 Resolution No. 0013, which authorized the Colombian National Narcotics Council, CNE (an office of the Interior Ministry), to fumigate areas of nature reserves where there is evidence of illicit crops and little possibility of eradicating the drug plants by hand.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) filed a motion to annul the resolution before the Council of State, the highest juridical instance for administrative decisions, but Iguarán argued that it does not have the power to suspend operations.
According to the official, the government has taken into account ''all the parameters dictated by the United Nations and the recent study by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) that says that glyphosate does not have significant environmental impacts.''
The study from CICAD, which is part of the Organization of American States, was conducted at Colombia's behest by a team of international scientists, headed by Canadian Keith Solomon.
Those experts said the herbicide has ''moderate effects'' on aquatic organisms and that its risks for the environment and land animals ''are few or nearly none.''
The CICAD report indicates that the risk ''is not significant,'' but the authors do not explain what they consider ''significant'', says Santiago Salazar Córdova, coordinator of a commission of Ecuador's Environment Ministry that advises the Foreign Ministry on drug fumigation policy.
Spraying with glyphosate in Colombian areas near the Ecuador border has been a source of conflict with Quito, and the practice was halted at the Ecuadorian government's request. In late April, Ecuador reiterated that it would not allow Colombia to fumigate in border areas until a scientific study certifies that it is innocuous for the local population.
The study was conducted between September and March, ''too little time to talk in terms of cancer causing effects, for example, and if they are geneticists, they should know that,'' Salazar said in a Tierramérica interview.
Iguarán admitted that the ideal would be manual eradication of drug crops, a method the government hopes to use on some 3,000 hectares of protected areas. But he added that it is necessary to fumigate around 75,000 hectares, which include parts of the national parks where the civil war or presence of drug traffickers impedes access by land.
A government source, requesting anonymity, told Tierramérica that the CNE decided to fumigate in protected areas despite the fact that the National Parks Division of the Environment Ministry had recommended against it.
According to the division's report, in the Sierra Nevada Park, with a total area of 230,000 hectares, drug crops increased just 18 hectares last year, from 212 to 230. In Catatumbo, with an area of 178,000 hectares, drug crops decreased from 129 to 107 hectares, while in La Macarena, 630,000 hectares, drug crops increased from 1,152 to 2,630 hectares.
The size of the areas planted with drug crops in the nature reserves do not justify the environmental and health costs of fumigation with glyphosate, according to Ricardo Vargas, of Acción Andina, an NGO that investigates the illicit drug trade in the Andean region.
In 2004, 136,000 hectares of coca bush were sprayed, but the area planted with drug crops was not reduced, and only 6,000 hectares of drugs are found in protected areas, a very small proportion of the overall problem, he said.
Vargas noted that the administrative court of Cundinamarca issued a ruling in late 2003 to suspend aerial spraying of glyphosate and other substances throughout the country until the requirements of the Environmental Management Plan, established in 2001 by the Environment Ministry, were met, and until the Ministry of Social Security studied the effects of the chemicals on human health.
It is not known if those studies have been carried out, said the activist.
According to the National Parks Division, aerial spraying would also affect the existing agreements with the indigenous communities of Sierra Nevada for the manual eradication of drug crops.
It would also undermine cooperation projects like one under way with the Netherlands for drug crop substitution and social development in Sierra Nevada and Catatumbo.
The Colombian daily El Espectador reported on Apr. 28 that the Netherlands asked the parks director, Julia Miranda, to confirm whether the decision to fumigate in the protected areas was definitive, because if it were so, ''it could be motive to request the suspension of activities financed by this Embassy.''
Other analysts point out that the country's Natural Resources Code expressly prohibits fumigation in national parks and indigenous territory, and that spraying with glyphosate would violate the Convention on Biological Diversity, ratified by Colombia in 1994, and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which protects indigenous peoples.
Juan Mayr, a former environment minister, says the 2003 resolution that authorized the fumigation has created ''one of the gravest situations that can happen in regards to the environment in Colombia'' and is ''an attack against the collective heritage of the Colombian people.''
* Yadira Ferrer is a Tierramérica contributor. With reporting by Juan Carlos Frías in Ecuador.