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POLICY ANALYSIS: Aerial Fumigation

May 12th, 2009

2009 has brought with it a wave of optimism for change. Many wonder what policy shifts, if any, the Obama administration will bring.  While the current focus may be on building bridges and mending severed ties with governments across the globe, eradicating failed strategies and ineffective policies will be more successful in improving the U.S. image abroad than adopting changes in rhetoric.

The U.S. has sponsored aerial spraying in Colombia since the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000. Initially conceived as a strategy to stop the rapid spread of coca, the raw material used for cocaine production, the program has dramatically failed to reduce coca cultivation in Colombia. U.S. donated crop dusters armed with glyphosate, a chemical concocted by the St. Louis-based company, Monsanto, have sprayed over one million hectares of land.

“Fumigations do nothing to end coca production. It is a strategy that has had no significant results in ending illicit cultivations, but rather encourages illicit crops by reducing motivation to grow traditional food crops that have suffered under heavy spraying,” says Manuel, a local community leader whose licit crops in the Putumayo region have been wrongly fumigated multiple times. “I have been fumigated seven times. I have tried to continue replanting using my own resources, but it is something I hesitate to do,” he adds. Our tax dollars are directly responsible for supporting and maintaining this callous program.

Some considered the fumigation strategy a pragmatic solution to a pestering dilemma. Coca cultivation was at a stunning high in the late 90’s and policymakers were desperate for solutions to reverse its growth. The answer seemed simple: spray weed killers on the coca plant just as you would on any other weed. Unfortunately, the coca dilemma faced in Colombia is not a matter of killing weeds. That shortsighted solution doesn’t take into account the demand for cocaine in the U.S. or the poverty and the lack of state investment and job opportunities in poor rural areas of Colombia where the coca is grown. After an extensive and costly failure to eliminate cocaine the U.S. government has yet to learn this fundamental lesson. What Washington saw as an obvious solution to coca production has completely failed: the high levels of coca production in the late 90s have only increased despite the fumigations program. In 2007, Colombia had an estimated 167,000 hectares of coca compared to 136,000 in 2000, when fumigations began.

Provide Sustainable Alternatives or Continue Fumigations?
Those suffering in the regions most affected have identified sustainable alternative solutions to coca cultivation as essential. These community-based alternatives need capital support, training, time to develop, and technical assistance as well as investment in infrastructure. It is no secret to the developed world that investment in infrastructure is an essential ingredient for economic growth; after all, the Obama administration has allocated extensive reserves in an effort to confront our infrastructure predicament and help stem the current economic crisis. Why then would it be any different in Colombia? Farmers with access to roads would gain entrance to local and national markets to sell their goods, thereby reducing the need to cultivate the only crop that provides them with a guaranteed market and income:  coca. “Change this strategy of fumigation. Help the farmers by providing a motivation to shift away from coca. We are the ones who produce the most crops; provide us with an alternative and you will see a result,” says Manuel.

Beyond their inability to address the root causes of coca cultivation, fumigations have proven destructive in assorted ways.  Spraying herbicides from a plane at altitudes higher than the recommended 10 meters (due to fear of insurgency attacks), in addition to some pilots irresponsibly targeting non-coca fields means that the herbicide spray hits not just coca plants but also food crops and surrounding forests.  Farmers who have no part in the drug trade have found their licit crops fumigated and destroyed. These small-scale farmers are caught in a game of cat and mouse where coca cultivation relocates to escape glyphosate-loaded crop dusting planes, leaving fumigated coca as well as food crops in their wake. Without their harvest to survive, subsistence farmers are left with few options: growing coca, joining armed groups as a desperate means to gain an income, or more commonly, relocating to urban centers and joining the ranks of displaced persons.

Increased Internally Displaced Persons
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) now number more than four million in Colombia.   The government has done very little to minimize the suffering of these victims of violence, fumigations, and military incursions sponsored by the U.S.’s Plan Colombia. IDPs can receive up to three months of assistance if they prove illegal armed actors displaced them. Those who leave home to seek food aid because their crops were destroyed by fumigations receive no assistance. Often IDPs are treated as criminals not victims. For instance, this March in Cali, the local government forcibly removed over 600 displaced families that were squatting on lands near the city dump, destroying their shacks and scant belongings. “The families are now sleeping under plastic tarps in a nearby transit hub for commercial vehicles. They are left in the streets without electricity, water, access to adequate sanitation facilities, and basic health care. Most families eat once a day while many do not get even that ...The government promised aid but has not delivered,” says Freddy, a local community leader. These IDP’s cannot return home and have a difficult time surviving outside of their rural environment. “Of the 569 families that were part of our community, 230 are left,” he says.

Whether they are forced to flee their lands as IDPs or stay and attempt to start over, there is little compensation offered to farmers whose crops are wrongly sprayed. These farmers must hurdle tedious bureaucratic steps that are employed as dissuasions to ward off complaints against the government.  According to the State
Department, a mere 117 of the 8,570 complaints of wrongful fumigations have been resolved. Farmers who have suffered wrongful fumigations are left hopeless in the face of the compensation program’s ineffectiveness. The lack of a sound plan to deal with these grievances increases the pressures of poverty, violence, and social instability facing Colombia today, ironically resulting in increased coca cultivation.

After a decade of fumigations, the lessons of chemical spraying could not be clearer: it is time for a change. The rate of coca cultivation is as alarming as when Plan Colombia began, delicate ecosystems have been debilitated, subsistence crops have been inadvertently eradicated, campesinos have been displaced, and the issues of violence and poverty have been exacerbated. Over half a billion dollars have been spent fumigating a landmass roughly the size of Connecticut, and cocaine is still as available on our streets as ever before. The strategy by all accounts has proven to be a complete and utter failure. WfP and our Colombian partners call for a new policy that deals with the drug abuse in the U.S., that fuels cocaine trafficking and that addresses the poverty that spurs coca production in Colombia.

Witness for Peace invites you to view our recent documentary highlighting the effects of aerial fumigations in Colombia.