- WASHINGTON, DC - The aerial
fumigation program that has grown out of the U.S. government's so-called
"war on drugs" is endangering the fragile ecosystems and indigenous
cultures of Colombia's Amazon Basin, a coalition of groups warned today
at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
- The fumigation program, which the U.S. finances as part
of a $1.3 billion Colombian aid package approved this summer, is designed
to eradicate coca and other plants used to manufacture illicit drugs.
- But critics say the program indiscriminately wipes out
legitimate subsistence crops as well as natural plants, and kills birds,
mammals and aquatic life.
- The chemicals are applied by aircraft and frequently
fall on Columbia's indigenous peoples, subjecting them to a variety of
health afflictions, critics add.
- "This spraying campaign is equivalent to the Agent
Orange devastation of Vietnam - a disturbance the wildlife and natural
ecosystems have never recovered from," said Dr. David Olson, director
of the World Wildlife Fund's conservation science program. "And it
is occurring on the watch of the current Congress and [executive] administration,
supported by taxpayer dollars."
- Though carried out by Colombian police and military authorities,
the aerial fumigation program utilizes U.S. government aircraft, fuel,
escort helicopters and private military contractors.
- The herbicide approved for the program, glyphosate, is
manufactured by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation and is commonly referred
to by the trade name Roundup.
- Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning that
any plant exposed to a sufficient amount of the chemical will be killed.
The chemical has been sprayed over tens of thousands of acres in Colombia
since the early 1990s, but the eradication program has done little to curtail
the supply of cocaine that comes into the U.S. every year.
- Still, Colombian officials - at the request of U.S. policymakers
- are once again gearing up to dump thousands of liters of glyphosate on
Colombia, this time targeting the country's southern state of Putumayo.
- Emperatriz Cahuache, president of the Organization of
Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, came to Washington today to
voice her opposition to the plan.
- "Fumigation violates our rights and our territorial
autonomy," the indigenous leader said. "It has intensified the
violence of the armed conflict and forced people to leave their homes after
their food crops have been destroyed."
- As many as 10,000 Colombians could be displaced when
the spraying begins next month, noted Hiram Ruiz, a senior policy analyst
with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a non-governmental group based in
Washington. Ruiz, who toured the Putumayo region in June, said that the
fumigation program will make local residents vulnerable to the guerrillas
and paramilitary groups that were spawned from Colombia's long running
- While the social repercussions of the fumigation program
were perhaps the most poignant aspect of Monday's news conference, other
issues - such as the program's environmental consequences - also generated
a great deal of concern.
- The World Wildlife Fund's Olson noted that the defoliating
chemicals will be applied by aircraft flying high above the forests, thus
increasing the likelihood that unintended areas will be poisoned.
- "For every hectare of forest sprayed, another is
lost to [pesticide] drift and another to additional clearing of displaced
crops," Olson said. The destruction is extensive."
- Olson said that wildlife will be directly affected by
the application of the chemicals. Frogs and insects will be impacted immediately,
and larger animals will suffer weakening and sickness, he said.
- "If and when our [human] species matures, we will
rightfully view such practices as abominations, crimes against our planet
and ourselves, Olson said.
- Olson's point was echoed by Dr. Luis Naranjo, director
of the American Bird Conservancy's international program. Naranjo noted
that Colombia has more species of wild birds than any other country, but
he said that scores of them are vulnerable to extinction because of U.S.
led efforts to eradicate illegal drugs.
- "Bird conservation is at the crossroads of the armed
conflict in Colombia," Naranjo said. "Unless the current policies
to face the drug problem in the country are revised, we will be facing
the extinction of many of the organisms that make the country's biota so
- Naranjo noted that as a non-selective herbicide, glyphosate
will reduce plant cover and food supply for many forest dependent birds.
And because of the drift effect that occurs with aerial applications, the
destruction of plant cover will extend far beyond targeted areas, he added.
- "It has been estimated that for every hectare of
coca sprayed, two hectares of forest are affected," Naranjo said.
- The fumigation program will also drive rural communities
that now grow illegal crops to migrate even deeper into the forest to clear
new patches of land in order to reinitiate their activities, further worsening
the region's environmental problems, Naranjo warned.
- The environmental consequences of the fumigation program
were also criticized by Francisco Tenorio Paez, president of the Regional
Indigenous Organization of Putumayo. Paez delivered an impassioned condemnation
of the program, calling it an "attack against human life, the community
and the environment."
- Putumayo elected officials earlier this year declared
their "overwhelming and unanimous rejection" of the Colombian
government's fumigation policy. The local leaders called on the national
government to consider "manual and voluntary" methods to eradicate
coca grown in the region. The leaders supported their argument by citing
Article 79 of the Colombian constitution, which declares that "All
people have the right to enjoy a healthy environment."
- Appeals to stop the fumigation policy have also been
made to President Bill Clinton, who was sent a letter today signed by representatives
of nearly three dozen environmental, human rights and public policy groups.
The letter urges Clinton to cancel the fumigation program, saying its "long
term ecological effects could be severe."
- "The herbicide glyphosate has been blamed for destroying
acres of trees and contaminating wells, streams and ponds," declared
the letter, which was also sent to Colombian President Andres Pastrana
- Today's press conference was sponsored by a host of non-governmental
groups, including the Amazon Alliance, the Institute for Policy Studies,
the Lindesmith Center, the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office and the Washington
Office on Latin America.
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