Colombian Coca Eradication Efforts Escalate
What is being destroyed?
During the last four years the Colombian government has been using glifosate, a liquid toxin that is sprayed from aircraft. It is a fumigation process; aircraft fly low over the landscape, in the early morning hours, when winds are calm and temperatures cool. Glifosate destroys 30 percent of plant life, whether it be cocoa, legitimate crops, or jungle flora.
Now that will change. Tebuthiuron, a granulated chemical developed and manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, will be used instead. A chemical pellet form allows aircraft to release aireal toxins at higher altitudes in any weather conditions. Low flying aircraft at expected times were vulnerable to rebel gunfire.
Dow Chemical strongly opposes this application in Colombia. "Tebuthiuron is not labeled for use on any crops in Colombia, and it is our desire that the product not be used for coca eradication as well," the company said in a statement to the NY Times.
Tebuthiuron pellets, sold commercially as Spike 20P, should be used "carefully and in controlled situations," Dow cautioned, because "it can be very risky in situations where terrain has slopes, rainfall is significant, desirable plants are nearby and application is made under less than ideal circumstances." Dow, the company that manufactured Agent Orange during the Vietnam War said they would refuse to sell tebuthiuron for use in Columbia. The argument is 10 years old, but the patent on tebuthiuron has expired, allowing others chemical companies to produce it. Coincidence or timing?
Aside from weighty environmental concerns are human rights concerns. Last March, the State Department outlined a plan to increase eradication efforts in southern Columbia, citing the success in blocking Peruvian drug planes that were flying raw cocoa paste to Columbia for processing. But, according to U.S. intelligence analysts, any statements of victory are exaggerated. A February 1998 report from the General Accounting Office concluded that the 4-year fumigation program was not cost effective.
Why then, has Congress appropriated an additional $21 million to the $30 million counter-narcotics budget for Colombia this year? And why has the Colombian government given a green flag to the use of a toxin with a potential environmental and human calamity that rivals no other?
The new strategy and additional U.S. financing draws the Colombian military into the war on drugs in an unprecedented way. You have heard the term "militarization of the drug war," but the process of militarization takes different forms in different countries. In Columbia there has been a long-standing conflict with leftist rebels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC is Latin America's oldest and largest rebel group.
Amnesty International reports that equipment purchased with U.S. anti-narcotics grants, has been used by military units accused of direct involvement in the disappearance and murder of civilians. The Center for Investigation and Popular Education, a domestic human rights group, insist that rebel groups carry out roughly one-third of all political murders, but the other two-thirds are the work of police, the army, and paramilitary organizations.
The latter, called "self-defense" groups, carry out three of every five political murders. Our U.S. tax dollars provide arms, aircraft and support services for these groups in the guise of the drug war"a theme repeated throughout Latin America.
Colonel Leonardo Gallego, counter-narcotics chief of the Colombian National Police, denies that escalation of eradication efforts is part of any plan to strike at the guerrillas. He maintains the "primary objective" is to destroy coca and recover the environment destroyed through coca farming. "Whatever other goals are achieved through these operations is completely secondary, and would be solely the result of any ties between guerrillas and growers."
Eduardo Verano, Columbia's environmental minister, contends that the health effects of tebuthiuron on farming areas are unknown, and its use will only increase deforestation by pushing coca growers deeper into jungle.
"We need to reconsider the benefits of the chemical war," said Verano. "The more you fumigate, the more the farmers plant. If you fumigate one hectare, they'll grow coca on two more." American officials, backed by Colombian police, maintain the benefits outweigh the environmental risks.
Columbia produces far more than cocoa, a fact ignored in conventional media. In the months to come, when you peel back the skin of "nature's perfect food," the banana, think about tebuthiuron. Know that there are over 20,000 banana laborers in the banana region of Urabá, Columbia alone. Think of their wives and children. As you sip your morning cup of Colombian grown coffee, ponder Col. Gallego's words once more. "Whatever other goals are achieved through these operations is completely secondary."