US funds fumigation and war in Colombia

by Brendan Conley Wednesday, Apr. 04, 2001 at 9:50 PM Asheville Global Report PO Box 1504, Asheville, NC 28802

Toxic poisons and paramilitary massacres plague the poor, afflicted with the US fundbunny named Plan Colombia

errorPuerto Asis, Colombia, Mar. 20 The US military aid and aerial fumigation of coca fields in southern Colombia is having disastrous effects on human health and the environment. Farmers and community leaders in the southern department of Putumayo said that the spraying is killing food crops, causing skin disease, and destroying the environment.

We had plantains and bananas planted, and it has all been destroyed, said Rigoberto Rosaro, a community leader in the town of La Concordia. We think the land might not be suitable for planting anymore.

In meetings with a human rights delegation from the United States, dozens of farmers and local officials reported the destruction of thousands of acres of food crops. The fumigation was disastrous, said Orlando Munoz, the mayor of La Dorada. It was destructive to human and animal life, and to the biodiversity.

The spraying is part of Plan Colombia, the Colombian governments plan to fight drug production and rebel armies. The fumigation is funded by the United States, and carried out with Roundup Ultra, a formulation of the herbicide glyphosate that is produced by Monsanto. Monsanto is known for its production of Agent Orange, the carcinogenic chemical used by the US to defoliate Vietnam.

The destruction is easily observable here, with banana trees, grazing land, and food crops brown and withering. And the desperation is written clearly on the faces of the people. People come into my office crying because they dont have anything to eat, said Munoz.

Campesinos here are also concerned about the environmental effects of the fumigation. The animals we hunt and the fish in the streams have been destroyed, said an indigenous man in the town of La Dorada.

People here question the wisdom of spraying herbicide on rainforest lands. If this policy continues, the fumigation will extend to the Amazon, which is called the lungs of the world, said Munoz.

Fumigation has affected human health in other ways as well. In the indigenous community of La Isla, small children are covered with sores, an affliction that the villagers say appeared suddenly on December 23, the day after fumigation began. The villagers said that a doctor told them the sickness was the result of the fumigation.

Officials of the Colombian military were skeptical. I dont believe it, said Colonel Roberto Trujillo, commander of the Anti-Narcotics Special Forces Brigade in Putumayo. He said he had witnessed a government official drink a full glass of glyphosate, and the man was not harmed. Glyphosate is not poisonous to the land, he said.

US Embassy officials concurred with this view, saying that glyphosate is less harmful than aspirin or salt. Furthermore, they said, small farmers are not targeted by fumigation. Our policy is to try to focus on industrial production, said David Becker, an embassy official.

Fumigation has failed in its stated goal of reducing coca production, according to Ricardo Vargas, of Accion Andina. During the past five years, fumigation has steadily increased, while coca production has also increased, said Vargas.

Coca production is ubiquitous in Putumayo, with fields lining major roads, and coca growing near churches and schools, and adjacent to legitimate farms. Though campesinos make only 1% of the profit of the international drug trade, coca is one of the few viable cash crops in this isolated region.

The government has categorized us as drug dealers, but we barely have enough to get by, said Luis Alberto, secretatry to the governor of an indigenous reserve in Putumayo.

People here expressed their desire to make a transition to legitimate crops. We are ready and willing to change over to alternative crops, but we need the help of the government, said Alberto. The problem is that alternative crops, intended to replace coca, have been destroyed by the fumigation, according to local farmers. Some farmers signed agreements with the government to manually eradicate their coca. This was supposed to delay fumigation of their lands for one year, but many farmers here report that their lands were fumigated anyway.

Luis Carlos, the mayor of La Isla, said that his community had begun manual eradication and crop substitution, but they were still fumigated. He indicated an empty chicken coop. This was a place where coca was processed, he said. When we started the manual eradication program, we agreed to raise chickens here. The fumigation killed the chickens.

Leaders here said that the social investment component of Plan Colombia had not reached the countryside. Our government has received a lot of money, but the campesinos have not received any of it, said Rigoberto Rosaro, a community leader in the town of La Concordia. The government normally offers benefits to people displaced by violence in Colombia, but leaders here said that people displaced by fumigation are not officially recognized as displaced. They are instead referred to as mobilized, and are not eligible for government help.

Putumayo is caught in the crossfire of Colombias decades-long civil war, and organizers here said that US military aid is intensifying the violence. Plan Colombia is a plan for war, said Sister Rosa Elena, of the Missionaries of Mary the Co-Redeemer, in La Hormiga. She said the town had been occupied by the FARC, but was taken over by right-wing paramilitary forces. The paramilitaries assassinated several civilians, she said.

Paramilitary groups are responsible for the majority of human rights violations in Colombia, and the people of Putumayo have been subjected to horrific violence. In 1999, 26 residents of the village of El Tigre were massacred by paramilitary forces. The victims were tortured, and their bodies were cut open with machetes and thrown into the river, according to Juana Ehachinoy, a survivor of the massacre.

These paramilitary or self-defense groups were originally organized by the Colombian government, but now they are officially defined as illegal armed actors. Still, a relationship persists between paramilitaries and the legal armed forces. La Santana military base, where Col. Trujillos batallion is headquartered, sits 700 meters away from a gated compound that local residents said is a paramilitary base. In the town of Parronquia del Placer, armed, uniformed agents of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the largest paramilitary group, patrolled the town unmolested, a short distance from a major military presence, in the town of La Hormiga. The paramilitary forces receive much of their funding from the coca trade, as do the rebel groups. And they receive support from large landowners, as well as peasants who have been victims of human rights violations by the guerrilla groups.

The Colombian military itself has committed numerous human rights violations, including a massacre of school children in August of last year. In the town of La Dorada, Colombian soldiers had occupied the Technical and Commercial High School, a violation of international humanitarian law.

People here emphasized the need for help from US citizens to change the policies of their government toward Colombia. International help is needed, but of a different kind than what is being given, said local leaders. Stop sending things for war, said Carlos. With bombs, grenades, and guns, there are no solutions. We want support from the United States, but we want education and health care and tools to work with.

Source: Asheville Global Report: