To Colombians, Drug War Is a Toxic Foe

To Colombians, Drug War Is a Toxic Foe
Posted by FoM on May 01, 2000 at 08:59:47 PT
By Larry Rohter
Source: New York Times
The children and their teachers were in the schoolyard, they say, playing soccer and basketball and waiting for classes to begin when the crop-duster appeared. At first they waved, but as the plane drew closer and a gray mist began to stream from its wings, alarmed teachers rushed the pupils to their classrooms. 
Over the next two weeks, a fleet of counternarcotics planes taking part in an American-sponsored program to eradicate heroin poppy cultivation returned here repeatedly. Time and time again, residents charge, the government planes also sprayed buildings and fields that were not supposed to be targets, damaging residents' health and crops. "The pilot was flying low, so there is no way he could not have seen those children," said Nidia Majín, principal of the La Floresta rural elementary school, whose 70 pupils were sprayed that Monday morning last June. "We had no way to give them first aid, so I sent them home. But they had to cross fields and streams that had also been contaminated, so some of them got sick." In fact, say leaders of this remote Yanacona Indian village high in the Andes, dozens of other residents also became ill during the spraying campaign, complaining of nausea, dizziness, vomiting, rashes, blurred vision and ear and stomach aches. They say the spraying also damaged legitimate crops, undermining government efforts to support residents who have abandoned poppy growing. Such incidents are not limited to this village of 5,000, say critics in Colombia and the United States, but have occurred in numerous parts of Colombia and are bound to increase if the fumigation program is intensified, as the Clinton administration is proposing as part of a $1.6 billion emergency aid package to Colombia. Critics say they frequently receive reports of mistakes and abuses by the planes' Colombian pilots that both the American and Colombian governments choose to ignore. State Department officials deny that indiscriminate spraying takes place, with an American Embassy official in Bogotá describing the residents' claims of illnesses as "scientifically impossible." But to local leaders here the situation brought on by the spraying remains one of crisis. "The fumigation was done in an indiscriminate and irresponsible manner, and it did not achieve its objective," said Iván Alberto Chicangana, who was the mayor when the spraying occurred. "The damage done to the physical and economic well-being of this community has been serious," he said, "and is going to be very difficult for us to overcome." He and other local leaders say that people were sick for several weeks after the spraying, and in interviews a few residents complained of lasting symptoms. Three fish farms with more than 25,000 rainbow trout were destroyed, residents said, and numerous farm animals, mostly chickens and guinea pigs, died, while others, including some cows and horses, fell ill. In addition, fields of beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, corn and other traditional crops were sprayed, leaving plants to wither and die. As a result, community leaders here say, crop-substitution projects sponsored by the Colombian government have been irremediably damaged and their participants left impoverished. The spraying around this particular village has since stopped, residents say, though they fear that it could resume at any time, and it continues in neighboring areas, like nearby Guachicono, and year-round elsewhere in Colombia. Peasants in the coca-growing region of Caquetá, southeast of here, last year complained to a reporter that spray planes had devastated the crops they had planted after abandoning coca, and similar reports have emerged from Guaviare, another province to the east. Indeed, American-financed aerial spraying campaigns like the one here have been the principal means by which the Colombian government has sought to reduce coca- and opium-poppy cultivation for nearly a decade. The Colombian government fleet has grown to include 65 airplanes and helicopters, which fly every day, weather permitting, from three bases. Last year, the spraying effort resulted in the fumigation of 104,000 acres of coca and 20,000 acres of opium poppy. Yet despite such efforts, which have been backed by more than $150 million in American aid, cocaine and heroin production in Colombia has more than doubled since 1995. In an effort to reverse that trend and weaken left-wing guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups that are profiting from the drug trade and threatening the country's stability, the Clinton administration is now urging Congress to approve a new aid package, which calls for increased spending on drug eradication as well as a gigantic increase for crop-substitution programs, to $127 million from $5 million. Critics, like Elsa Nivia, director of the Colombian affiliate of the advocacy organization Pesticide Action Network, see the eradication effort as dangerous and misguided. "These pilots don't care if they are fumigating over schools, houses, grazing areas, or sources of water," she said in an interview at the group's headquarters in Cali. "Furthermore," she added, "spraying only exacerbates the drug problem by destabilizing communities that are trying to get out of illicit crops and grow legal alternatives." Those who have been directly affected by the spraying effort here also argue that fumigation is counterproductive. In this cloud-shrouded region of waterfalls, rushing rivers, dense forests and deep mountain gorges, poppy cultivation was voluntarily reduced by half between 1997 and 1999, to 250 acres, said Mr. Chicangana, the former mayor. He said it was well on its way to being eliminated altogether when the spraying began. "We were collaborating, and now people feel betrayed by the state," he lamented. "The fumigation disturbs us a bit," said Juan Hugo Torres, an official of Plante, the Colombian government agency supervising crop-substitution efforts, who works with farmers here. "You are building trust with people, they have hopes, and then the spraying does away with all of that." In an interview in Washington, R. Rand Beers, the American assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said aerial spraying flights are strictly monitored and targets chosen carefully. The fumigation program is designed so that pilots "shouldn't be anywhere close to alternative development projects," he said, since "officials in the air and on the ground should be equipped with geographic positioning devices that pinpoint where those activities are taking place." "If that happened, the pilot who flew that mission should be disciplined," Mr. Beers said in reference to the specific accusations made by residents here. "That shouldn't be happening." But the area fumigated here is wind-swept mountain terrain where illicit crops and their legal alternatives grow side by side, making accurate spraying difficult. And in some other places, pilots may be forced to fly higher than might be advisable, for fear of being shot at by the guerrillas, whose war is fueled by the profits of the drug trade. As for the complaints of illness, the American Embassy official who supervises the spraying program said in an interview in Bogotá that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide used here, is "less toxic than table salt or aspirin." Calling it "the most studied herbicide in the world," he said it was proven to be harmless to human and animal life and called the villagers' account "scientifically impossible." "Being sprayed on certainly does not make people sick," said the official, "because it is not toxic to human beings." Glyphosate "does not translocate to water" and "leaves no soil residue," he added, so "if they are saying otherwise, to be very honest with you, they are lying, and we can prove that scientifically." But in an out-of-court settlement in New York state in 1996, Monsanto, a leading manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, though not necessarily identical to those used here, agreed to withdraw claims that the product is "safe, nontoxic, harmless or free from risk." The company signed a statement agreeing that its "absolute claims that Roundup 'will not wash or leach in the soil' is not accurate" because glyphosate "may move through some types of soil under some conditions after application." In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved glyphosate for most commercial uses. But the E.P.A.'s own recertification study published in 1993 noted that "in California, where physicians are required to report pesticide poisonings, glyphosate was ranked third out of the 25 leading causes of illness or injury due to pesticides" over a five-year period in the 1980's, primarily causing eye and skin irritation. In addition, labels on glyphosate products like Roundup sold in the United States advise users to "avoid direct application to any body of water." Directions also warn users that they should "not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift" and caution that "only protected handlers may be in the area during application." The doctor in charge of the local clinic here, Iván Hernández, recently was transferred and could not be reached for comment about the impact of the spraying on the health of residents. Gisela Moreno, a nurse's aide, refused to speak to a visiting reporter, saying, "We have been instructed not to talk to anyone about what happened here." When asked the origin of the order, she replied: "From above, from higher authorities." Here in Rioblanco de Sotará, half a dozen local people say they felt so sick after the spraying that they undertook a 55-mile bus trip to San José Hospital in Popayán, the capital of Cauca Province, for medical care. There, they were attended by Dr. Nelson Palechor Obando, who said he treated them for the same battery of symptoms that more than two dozen residents described to a reporter independently in recent interviews. "They complained to me of dizziness, nausea and pain in the muscles and joints of their limbs, and some also had skin rashes," he said. "We do not have the scientific means here to prove they suffered pesticide poisoning, but the symptoms they displayed were certainly consistent with that condition." Because this is an area of desperate poverty where most people eke out a living from subsistence agriculture, there is no stigma attached to growing heroin poppies, and those who have planted the crop freely admit it. Yet even those who claim never to have cultivated poppies say that their fields were also sprayed and their crops destroyed. "They fumigated everywhere, with no effort made to distinguish between potatoes and poppies," complained Oscár Cerón, a 32-year-old farmer. "We could even hear their radio transmissions on the FM band, with the ground command referring to us in a vulgar fashion." Other farmers said that the air currents constantly swirling down from the 14,885-foot Sotará volcano, on whose flank this town sits, blew the herbicide over fields planted with legal crops. "A gust of wind can carry the poison off to adjacent fields, so that they end up more badly damaged than the field that was the original target, which sometimes is left completely intact," explained Fernando Hormiga. In the United States, glyphosate users are specifically warned not to spray by air "when winds are gusty or under any other condition that favors drift." Usage instructions also say that "appropriate buffer zones must be maintained" to avoid contaminating surrounding areas. Once word got out about the illnesses that followed the spraying here, prices for milk, cheese and other products that are a mainstay of the local economy dropped by more than half. "The rumors are that the land is contaminated, so we no longer get orders from outside, and the middlemen can now name their own price," said Fabián Omén, a farmer and town councilman. Worse still, government and private creditors are nonetheless demanding that the loans made for crop-substitution projects like the fish farms must still be repaid, even though the enterprises themselves have been destroyed. Asked about the lack of an integrated policy that implies, Alba Lucía Otero, the Plante director for Cauca Province, expressed frustration. "The state is a single entity, but we work on one side while those doing the fumigation work on another," she said. "There should be coordination, but they take their decision at the central level, and we are not consulted." Rioblanco De Sotara, Colombia Published: May 1, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company Related Articles:Natural Fungus Could be Tool Against Illegal Drugs Coca Indians Doubt Safety of Spraying Crops Archives:
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Comment #2 posted by Peace on May 02, 2000 at 09:25:52 PT:
It's coming in clear
"profanity, profanity, profanity!!!" I am completely sickened by this information (no punn intended).First off, my hat or whatever is off to kaptinemo for his previous comments. Beautifully stated.Secondly, it's coming very clear that the US government has, and likely had, no intentions of protecting anyone. In fact, they're willing to completely destroy the livelihood of these people for their own gain. (Guess it's not the first time. What should I have expected?) It disgusts me to read how these people have been on the road to making the US happy by reducing the poppy crops and the goal being to eliminate them and now are having their lives destroyed. Hmmm...dead chickens. Nope, no harm done. It's not scientifically possible. They must be liars.  Geez, give me a big glass of that stuff. Maybe it'll clear up my acne. 
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on May 01, 2000 at 09:28:58 PT:
More anti lies
Phosphates are toxic. Period. They are the basic building blocks of binary-class nerve agents like agent VX. They are the same kind of basic materials that the US and other countries had shipped to Saddam so he could make nerve gasses during his own Desert War with the Iranians. They affect the operation of the two basic chemicals needed for proper nerve cell 'firing' across dendritic gaps. Just a little inhaled can cause anything up from nausea to death with a massive exposure. (And for you anti goons reading this, and thinking I'm talking out of my navel; no I am not a chemistry professor. I *am*, however, a former member of the Army Chemical Corps, an MOS 54E30, and I know only too well about the effects of nerve agents on the human body. I've got more practical experience than your tame academicians ever will have.)BTW, it was Monsanto who swore up and down for years that Agent Orange was harmless. Yeah, right, guys.
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