As Colombia ends controversial fumigations, civil society calls for reevaluation of drug war tactics
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As Colombia ends controversial fumigations, civil society calls for reevaluation of drug war tactics

The War on Drugs in Colombia is seeing its first major change in more than two decades with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ recent call to suspend aerial fumigations of coca crops by October 1 of this year, a decision which was approved by Colombia’s National Antinarcotics Council on May 15 in a seven-to-one vote.

The controversial crop-dusting program — largely carried out by U.S. contractors that spray the herbicide glyphosate over Colombia’s rural areas — has long been considered a cornerstone of U.S. counter-narcotics policy in Colombia.

The writing on the wall for the fumigations program appeared in the wake of a World Health Organization report, released in March, that concluded that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, was “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

Shortly after the report went public, Colombia’s Minister of Health called on the government to suspend the program, despite continued support for fumigation from within U.S. defense and military circles.

These developments sparked a #NOFumigación (#NOFumigation) social media campaign throughout Colombia and the U.S. to raise awareness of the issue and press for an end to the chemical’s use in coca eradication efforts. A petition gathered nearly 25,000 signatures, and 19 U.S. Congressional representatives publicly applauded the decision. 

While 32 civil society organizations in the U.S. and Colombia celebrated the end to what they view as an “inhumane and environmentally damaging program,” others remained skeptical that the development would lead to substantive changes in the U.S.-backed War on Drugs.

During a May 13 #NOFumigación panel discussion in Bogotá hosted by the Colombian Network for Environmental Justice, drug policy experts considered future implications of the end to fumigation and other techniques to reduce illicit crop production.

Several panelists expressed concern that fumigations could resume with different harmful chemicals, or be replaced by other tactics equally harmful to the Colombian population.

“We call on President Santos and Minister [of Health] Gaviria that this not be be a way to switch out the poison…that Monsanto not issue a new product they wish to use to experiment on us,” said Felipe Tascón Recio, an economist and researcher with the Political Action and Sovereignty Research Group (IPAS).

A military solution for a public health problem

Many say the process of drug cultivation, production, trafficking and use is far too nuanced for governments to treat it with overwhelmingly military tactics, and experts have expressed frustration with stagnant policies that ignore the issue of demand.

“We have seen the necessity to remove the discussion on drugs from being solely related to security and take that discussion to where it needs to be… In general, drug policy is a public health issue in the world and that is where the discussion should lead,” said Pedro Arenas, the president of the Colombian Observatory on Illicit Crops and Farmers.

While glyphosate is being banned because of its carcinogenic properties,other health and environmental concerns have been overlooked in the decision-making process. The dispersion of the chemical has resulted in skin diseases, reproductive health problems and loss of vision for those affected. These cases have been documented and publicly denounced since aerial fumigations first began in Colombia nearly 30 years ago, according to Camilo González, former Colombian Health Minister and current president of the Institute of Peace Development Studies (INDEPAZ).

Farmers have repeatedly complained that their legal food crops have been destroyed by fumigation and their farms are becoming less fertile.

In 2000, the militarization of War on Drugs increased astronomically in Colombia after Presidents Bill Clinton and Andrés Pastrana passed Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency aid package. Since then, the U.S. has sent more than $7 billion in successor programs to Colombia with the vast majority of the funding allocated to the military. Aerial fumigations were a pivotal part of this plan; it is estimated that $2 billion have gone to their funding since 1994.

The end to fumigations will likely mean a key shift in a major element of U.S. financial aid to Colombia. Yet it remains to be seen if U.S. and Colombian policymakers will be open to more substantive changes in the War on Drugs.

Until the U.S. and Colombia agree to shift the focus from drug supply to demand and fund more social and economic initiatives, activists will continue to voice their critiques of strategies as damaging as aerial fumigation.

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