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DAILY NEWS TRIBUNE: Poisoned crops and a failed drug policy

March 5th, 2009

By Jess Hunter-Bowman

In July 2007, Teresa Ortega stood solemnly in a field of wilting corn and pineapple crops as tears streamed down her cheeks. She had taken it upon herself to start a farm with 100 widows - women who lost their husbands and children to Colombia's war and were fighting against poverty. Together they had purchased this small farm and worked it on the weekends to make ends meet. Now - after a plane sprayed chemicals over their farm - all was lost.

To bureaucrats in Washington, Teresa and her friends are simply additional collateral damage at ground zero of Washington's drug war in South America.

Between 2000 and 2007, the U.S. government spent over half a billion dollars spraying a chemical defoliant on approximately 2.6 million acres of land in Colombia - the world's second most bio-diverse country - as a novel new drug control strategy.

Yet according to U.S. government figures, coca production - the raw material for cocaine and the "target" of this fumigation - grew from 302,575 acres in 1999, the year before U.S.-backed fumigations began in earnest, to 412,490 acres in 2007. Half a billion dollars bought U.S. taxpayers not the promised 50 percent drop in coca production, but rather a 36 percent increase. In a recent congressionally commissioned report, the Government Accountability Office suggested our goal in Colombia "was not fully achieved." Teresa would say our policy has been a complete failure.

Yet Teresa would focus less on Washington bean counters' concerns over the terrible cost-effectiveness ratio of fumigation and more on the human cost. In recent years, at least 10,000 farmers have filed reports of food crops killed by fumigations.

There is a reason that Colombia - source of 90 percent of America's cocaine - is the only country in the world that employs aerial chemical spraying as a drug control policy. The chemical mixture employed in the spraying has never been tested adequately for environmental or human health impacts. Yet people on the ground in affected regions and a growing chorus of experts indicate that the spray harms both. New research has shown that amphibian wildlife in this land critical for its bio-diversity are put at substantial risk by the spray mixture's main ingredient, glyphosate. And now the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Health has indicated there is "credible and trustworthy evidence" that fumigations are harmful to human health.

Almost a decade ago, U.S. policymakers promised taxpayers that a billion-dollar investment in a new drug control strategy in Colombia would mean reduced cocaine on our streets. By all measures - ethical, moral and effectiveness - chemical spraying in the Amazon basin is a failed policy. As hard as it may be for true believers in Washington, it is time to admit our mistake and shift direction to proven drug policies, including demand reduction and treatment. We will then need to apologize and provide compensation to people like Teresa Ortega and tens of thousands of Colombians who have been the collateral damage of this failed policy.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Bogots-based Andean Regional Director for Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with 25 years of experience monitoring U.S. policy in Latin America.