New York Times: Drug War Poisons Communities

Date: Wed, 03 May 2000
Subject: New York Times: Drug War Poisons Communities

DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 171 May 3, 2000

New York Times: Drug War Poisons Communities


DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 171 May 3, 2000

Drug warriors sometimes try to justify prohibition by comparing drugs
to poison and suggesting that they are attempting to keep “poison” out
of communities. Not only does it fail as a metaphor (since the
ultimate effect of the drug war is to make this “poison” one of the
world’s most profitable commodities), it is ironic that the drug war
itself is spreading real poison into the places where people live.

The New York Times this week reported on the environmental devastation
caused by pesticide that is supposed to be eradicating illegal drug
crops in Colombia. While crop spraying is often touted as a method
stop drugs, the destruction caused to humans and their habitats is
rarely acknowledged. This excellent article (below) exposes the
situation, but it also clearly illustrates how little drug warriors
really care about human suffering.

An American embassy official claimed, “Being sprayed on certainly does
not make people sick,” though the reporter found ample evidence to the
contrary. Please write a letter to the Times or any of the other
newspapers where this story was carried to express horror at another
toxic strategy from the drug war.

Thanks for your effort and support.


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Source: New York Times (NY)


Please send the letter to other newspapers where the same story has
appeared, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the

Title: Colombia: Colombians Say Drug Spraying Creating Health Crisis
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Title: Colombia: Drug War Blamed For Hurting Villagers
Source: Register-Guard, The (OR)



Colombia: To Colombians, Drug War Is A Toxic Foe
Newshawk: M & M Family
Pubdate: Mon, 01 May 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Larry Rohter


IOBLANCO DE SOTARA, Colombia — 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 counter narcotics 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 Majin, 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 Bogota 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
Ivan 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 Caqueta, 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

“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

As for the complaints of illness, the American Embassy official who
supervises the spraying program said in an interview in Bogota 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

“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

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, Ivan Hernandez,
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 Sotara, half a dozen local people say they felt
so sick after the spraying that they undertook a 55-mile bus trip to
San Jose Hospital in Popayan, 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 Oscar Ceron, 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 Sotara 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

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 Fabian Omen, 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 Lucia
Otero, the Plante director for Cauca Province, expressed

“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.”



To the editor:

Thank you for printing the story “To Colombians, Drug War Is A Toxic
Foe,” (May 1) and exposing yet another terrible consequence of the
drug war.

While it’s clear that dumping pesticides on any community is a bad
idea, the description of a Colombian elementary school being sprayed
with poison while classes were in session is heart breaking. The cruel
extremists who run the drug war often claim that they are trying to
eradicate drugs to save children, but here is yet another example of
children being hurt while illegal drugs become more available every

If chemical warfare was conducted over American cities, I’d like to
think our citizens would have stood up and demanded an end to the
whole rotten enterprise immediately. The question remains, though, of
whether the powerful institutions that run the drug war are ever going
to acknowledge the misery they are causing.

Stephen Young

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Prepared by Stephen Young – Focus
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