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 civil war.
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 distinctive."
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 Arango.
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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