US Officials Defend Drug Spraying in Colombia
By Thomas D. Williams
"The consequences of the fumigation are catastrophic. They do it (spraying from planes) in a hurry. They don't care that they also fumigate corn plantations, prairies, lakes, fish, animals," said a middle-aged, lightly bearded Colombian man wearing a blue baseball hat, designed with a green marijuana leaf. He spoke to an interviewer for the filmmaker of the 2001 documentary film, "Coco Mama - The War on Drugs," produced by Jan Thielen.
The viewpoints are literally the powerful corporate north country versus the vulnerable, impoverished agricultural south country. It's US politicians and a huge herbicide corporation ignoring the painful cries and complaints of human and animal sickness and environmental as well as massive crop and food destruction from Colombian and Ecuadorian indigenous peoples.
Monsanto Company, the US herbicide manufacturer, says it sells over $1 billion annually in tested, harmless and effective garden and farm weed killers. Monsanto officials say scientific tests show Roundup is not a threat to humans, animals or the environment. One such study, completed in December 1999, appears in Science Direct. Another study says any possible pollutant impacts are minimal and not acutely harmful.
Meanwhile, the US contractor, DynCorp International, is aerial spraying Roundup Ultra and other chemical additives on poppy and coca crops producing, respectively, heroin and cocaine. Those operations are aimed at eliminating billions of dollars in illegal drug sales in the US and other countries. But, DynCorp says it is complying with all the rules set by the US and Colombian governments. "We spray as directed by the governments," said Gregory Lagana, DynCorp's senior vice president of communications. "We don't manufacture the spray or mix it. It is the only place we use the spray. We have no control over what is in the spray."
Nevertheless, thousands of health complaints from herbicide spray victims have streamed into a Washington, DC, US District Court, the Colombian government and now potentially the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Other scientific tests reveal Roundup to be cancer-causing. Still other studies show the herbicide to be toxic. (See this link and this link for further documentation.)
Despite these conflicting scientific tests and thousands of complaints of Colombian and Ecuadorian herbicide-related illnesses, not one of the US presidential candidates had anything to say, nor did any acknowledge knowing what is happening. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as Republicans John McCain and Michael Huckabee, were telephoned and emailed with written questions for two weeks without any giving a single substantive specific answer. Clint Coppernoll, a spokesman for Independent Ralph Nader, promised comments that never arrived.
A spokesman for Obama, Michael Ortiz, did supply his general environmental policy sheet which supports organically grown food sources and generally is wary of pesticides.
McCain is quoted in summaries of the presidential campaign issues as saying: "Clinton administration was 'AWOL on the war on drugs'" and that he "would push for more money and military assistance to drug- supplying nations such as Colombia." But one of his campaign spokespersons, Melissa Shuffield, after receiving close to a dozen detailed combined emails or telephone messages, would only say: "To my knowledge Senator McCain has no public record on these issues below." Asked to clarify this statement, she refused to do so. In scores of Internet searches, including campaign platforms, none of the other candidates could be discovered with concerns about herbicides and Colombian illicit drug issues.
The candidates' Monsanto-related campaign contribution totals are: Mrs. Clinton $5,150; Huckabee $3,400, Obama $339 and McCain $250, the federal campaign finance records show.
Meanwhile the administration of George W. Bush and the Congress continue steadily along with a Colombia Drug War plan started in the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Congress changed the governing law once three years ago to require an herbicide mixture used in the US and approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency, but the EPA has no powers to enforce that in a foreign land. That's up to Colombian and Ecuadorian environmental agencies, with Ecuador becoming involved as a result of herbicide mist blown over from Colombia.
In 2000, Congress tried to encourage Colombian officials to instead use mycoherbicides, pathogenic strains of fungi herbicide. However, fears by Clinton's advisers that it might do even more environmental damage ended in quashing its sanctioned use.
In the interim, the US and Colombian officials relied on scientific studies of the herbicide, Roundup Ultra, supplied by the Monsanto Corporation and analyzed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. An agency spokesman explained: "For an agricultural use pesticide such as glyphosate, EPA has requirements for about 120 different studies ranging from basic chemistry, toxicology, residues on crops, exposures to applicators and others, environmental fate and ecotoxicology. These study and test method requirements are vetted with external expert scientists to ensure our scientific requirements are sound, high quality, and will provide the (required) data and information about a pesticide and its potential uses...."
But even those studies and tests have been questioned by environmentalists and others because of enhancer chemicals, later added into the herbicide to make it stick to plants sprayed from above. The EPA says, however, that it is given the spray's components and tests them to show they comply with US standards. Notwithstanding the controversial additives to Roundup Ultra sprayed in Colombia, there are other independent scientific tests mentioned above which insist that Roundup alone can cause harm to living beings, including humans, animals and especially fish.
As well, Monsanto's Roundup products carry required warning labels that are obviously only useful for those who read them, or those doing the spraying. When, as is true in Colombia, a US contractor is spraying a large area by plane, how can the natives below know what precautions to take for themselves, wildlife and drinking water? For instance, the Roundup label warns, "Have the product container or label with you when calling a poison control center or doctor or going for treatment."
What are other warnings? "If inhaled, move person to fresh air.... If person is not breathing, call 911 or an ambulance, then give artificial respiration, preferably by mouth to mouth, if possible.... If swallowed, have a person sip a glass of water if able to swallow.... Do not induce vomiting unless told to do so by the poison control center or doctor." In fact, in 1996 during an out-of-court settlement with the New York State attorney general, Monsanto agreed to stop advertising the product as "safe, non-toxic, harmless or free from risk."
A telling You Tube video is displayed on the Daily Kos of indigenous Colombians bemoaning their sometimes intense health consequences from the aerial herbicide spraying and nine Colombian children's color drawings of planes and helicopters spraying the streams and countryside, birds, animals and people.... The video, part of Jan Thielen's documentary, shows swooping planes spraying whole green valleys including crops. It depicts rain forests burned to relocate crop sites. It shows peasant farmers carrying large sacks of harvest, still others being searched by soldiers for drugs and a man who said accidental spraying hit his pond and "killed a thousand fishes."
Unfortunately, attempts for over a decade to eliminate the coca and poppy crops one way or another have not made much progress, despite President Bush's statements a year ago: "But we've also stopped a lot of drugs from coming. And therefore, I can argue to the Congress and the people that there has been a lot of notable successes. And the truth of the matter is Colombia has changed to the better as a result of the Plan Colombia. There's still bad activities going on, but it's a lot less than it was before," Bush said in an RCN TV Colombia interview a year ago.
Indeed, it is a "Drug War" against the drug-hungry FARC guerrillas and their right-wing paramilitary opponents of the United Self- Defence Forces of Colombia terrorizing the law-abiding peasants, the police and those US forces assisting the government. But mysteriously, the spraying, say world wide drug analysts, is not that effective in stopping cocaine and heroin production.
Colombia continues to be one of the world's largest suppliers of cocaine, says the World Drug Report. "Most of the world's coca is grown in the Andean countries - Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, which together account for more than 98 percent of world cocaine supplies," says the report. "Half the global cultivation of approximately 220,000 hectares takes place in Peru, while Bolivia and Colombia each account for nearly one-quarter of the total. Estimates of global illicit production of coca leaves suggest a doubling of production over the 1985 to 1994 period, although production seems to be down from the 1991/1992 peak level."
One of the depressing environmental reasons for the continued and expanded production of coca crops arises from the coca growers moving into Colombian national parks and burning the natural resources there to create new coca fields. Chris Kraul, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, reported in February: "Leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, and narcos that control the billion-dollar cocaine trade have invaded the 2.5-million-acre Macarena, laying waste to much of it to plant coca. Most of Colombia's 48 other national parks and nature reserves are suffering similar fates. Chased from more accessible sites by U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation, coca growers relentlessly clear forests, knowing that they are beyond the reach of the US-Colombian fleet of planes because spraying of the parks is prohibited by law."
Not only does Monsanto make big profits on its herbicide, but it sells a genetically modified seed, called Roundup Ready, that is immune to its own Roundup herbicide. This means agribusinesses, farmers and gardeners can spray weeds surrounding such Monsanto seeded crops as soybeans, beets and wheat, as the cliche says, to 'your heart's content,' and the crops will grow on while the weeds die. But, questions surrounding the safety of such operations for humans, animals and crops have been repeatedly raised by environmentalists and food safety organizations. None of their concerns, however, have put much of a dent in Monsanto's annual billions of dollars in worldwide sales. And Monsanto, in a myriad of documents on its Internet site, insists Roundup Ready seeds are safe.
However, last year, San Francisco's and Washington, DC's, Center For Food Safety successfully challenged the US Department of Agriculture's unrestricted classification for Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa seeds. The center said: the genetically modified crop could harm the environment and contaminate naturally harvested alfalfa. In May, "a San Francisco federal judge ruled that the USDA's 2005 approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa was illegal. The judge called on the USDA to ban any further planting of the GE seed until it conducts a complete Environmental Impact Statement on the GE crop."
More recently, the center filed a similar lawsuit challenging the USDA's approval of genetically engineered (GE) beets. The suit said: "The cultivation of Roundup Ready sugar beets will also greatly increase the use of Roundup on sugar beets ... and therefore increase Roundup residues in foods made with sugar from such sugar beets. USDA's actions in allowing the introduction of GE sugar beets into the environment will make it more difficult for (The Center for Food Safety's) members to produce, sell, and eat foods not contaminated by GE material."
Roundup Ready seeds' environmental viability is inseparably linked to Roundup, the herbicide, because the seeds' use allows growing plants to be sprayed with the herbicide with harm only to the weeds, says Monsanto.
The US Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, assisting worldwide herbicide programs, says it relies upon "an objective, independent scientific study that evaluated the Colombian illicit-crop eradication program. The study was authored by five Canadian doctors for the American Drug Abuse Control Commission. But that study, dated in March 2005, comes a dozen or more years after the herbicide spraying began.
And, the study says: "It is recommended that the current application practices for eradication spraying be retained but that additional data be gathered over a longer period of time to better characterize the impacts of coca and poppy productions in the Andean Biodiversity Hotspot; and the possibility of non-target effects in the surface waters close to fields.
"If shallow waters are routinely found close to fields, it is recommended that other formulants be tested for the purposes of selecting products that present a lower risk to aquatic organisms. Although no association was observed between eradication spraying and reproductive outcomes in humans, additional studies to identify possible risk factors associated with other human activities or environmental factors should be considered."
Susan Pittman, a State Department spokeswoman, did not explain why it took so long for the department to justify its herbicide spraying program on a 2005 study like this one. The full-fledged spraying started in the late 1990's. And Pittman did not directly answer a question about the study's insistence that additional data needed to be gathered over a longer period of time to determine more definitively that Roundup spraying is safe for humans, animals and fish. She replied: "CICAD did the study, and thus you should ask them the methods used in preparing their report. As I indicated to you earlier, the US Embassy investigates all claims of human health consequences that have been alleged as a result of the spray program."
A search for such complaints on the State Department site indeed showed some serious complaints that were not resolved for several years. Here is one EPA recommendation to investigate those complaints, but not until three or more years after the program started. "The Department of State followed EPA's 2002 recommendation by beginning use of a lower toxicity glyphosate product in its coca and poppy eradication programs and implementing a program to investigate health complaints. As with coca eradication, the use of glyphosate for opium poppy eradication is done aerially."