Poison rain in Colombia

Coca field in the Tumaco region that has been sprayed with herbicides
Coca field in the Tumaco region that has been sprayed with herbicides  (© Eric Beauchemin)

For more than 20 years, herbicides have been sprayed on Colombian soil in a bid to eradicate coca and opium poppies. The South American nation produces 80% of the world’s cocaine, and it’s carving out an ever-growing share of the international heroin trade. In 2002, Colombia was responsible for nearly a third of the world’s heroin supplies. But the aerial spraying is producing serious social, economic and environmental consequences.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: May 28, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Poison Rain”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

Fumigation is a very important part of the Colombian anti-drugs policies.

The spraying is effective. It’s not the best solution for Colombian farmers. But it’s effective.

We have protested because the government through their fumigation programme are impacting very negatively the environment.

You can fumigate as much as you want, but there will always be opportunity to cultivate other areas.

Poison rain has been falling on Colombia for the past 20 years. Every day, twin-engine planes spray thousands of litres of chemicals on Colombia’s coca and poppy fields. The South American nation produces 80% of the world’s cocaine, and it’s carving out an ever-growing share of the international heroin trade…last year, it was responsible for nearly a third of the world’s heroin supplies. The narcotics are grown mainly in areas controlled by rebels and paramilitary groups who are using the profits to drag out Colombia’s 4-decade-old war. In the year 2000, in a new bid to stamp out the drugs trade and restore peace, the authorities adopted the so-called Plan Colombia. The 7½ billion dollar project – a third of which is financed by the United States – contains noble goals such as creating jobs and strengthening the justice system and observance of human rights. The most controversial element of Plan Colombia is the spraying or fumigation of coca and poppy fields. The problem is that the poison rain is killing many other crops too and jeopardising the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.

We’ve come to the village of Buenos Aires, which is around 40 kilometres from Tumaco in south-western Colombia, very near the Ecuadorian border. This area was sprayed around 5 weeks ago. It’s a very, very lush area. There’s lots of very green vegetation, but the areas that have been sprayed are all quite desolate. Everything is dead except for the palm trees. Maoro Polo Obando has a farm of around 8 hectares here. Can you tell me what happened on the day of the fumigation?

That day, planes started spraying indiscriminately, very near our homes. All our crops were affected. Like this sugar cane, all of it was killed by the spraying. We used to be able to come here in the morning, cut off a bit of sugar cane, and it would keep us going until we got home to have breakfast. But now the sugar cane is all brown. If you eat it, you could get sick. We don’t know what’s the effect of the poison.

The bananas too are all gone. The leaves are drooping down and everything is rotting. I don’t know what we are going to do. I guess we’ll have to buy fruits and vegetables in Tumaco because we don’t have anything left. I still have two little plots over there, so I haven’t had to buy anything yet, but soon, I’m going to have to buy fruits and vegetables for the first time in my life. At the rate they’re spraying, they’re going to destroy our livelihoods.

Maoro Polo Obando
Maoro Polo Obando  (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB This is a coca field right in front of us here. All the coca has been killed except for on this other side, to my left, where some of the coca plants are still alive. Why did you actually plant coca? I planted some for the simple reason that everyone else was doing it. If I hadn’t planted, I would have been affected anyway because my neighbours had coca fields too. So I decided to plant some, but I knew it was risky. I’m aware that coca is bad, but… Yes sir, it’s the first time I plant coca, just these two small plots. I didn’t sow more because frankly I was against it. But because my neighbours had planted coca, I decided to do it too. I knew if they sprayed, we would all be affected. But I was too late. I didn’t earn a cent from my coca plants. The spraying affected the entire community. Even the jungle, where there’s no coca, was hit because they’re spraying indiscriminately. They’re dumping their poison everywhere. They started spraying us over a year ago, and for the past 3 months they’ve been fumigating non-stop. If they continue spraying like this, all our land will be poisoned and then what? We’ll have to go to the city.

In the countryside of Tumaco, the cultivation of coca is increasing. During the last 2 or 3 years, the percentage of farmers who are growing coca grew from zero or a very low percentage to maybe 80 or 90% now.

Piet Spijkers is a rural sociologist and Dutch consultant who’s lived in Colombia for nearly 2 decades. He travels frequently throughout the country and he’s observed the effect coca and poppies have on rural economies. The upsurge in coca production in Tumaco, he says, is a direct result of the spraying that’s been going on for the past several years in the neighbouring department of Putumayo.

A lot of sons of farmers from the Tumaco region went to work in the Putumayo region in the early 90’s. And with the drug spraying, the government made some very big hits to the drugs economy of Putumayo, causing an exodus to all sides. One of the important exodus is deeper into the Amazon region, and also to the region of the Pacific Coast, Tumaco. What you see is that children, sons of the Tumaco rural families who went to pick coca leaves in Putumayo went back to Tumaco and they also brought the technology of growing the plant and also producing the half-fabricate, which is coca paste.

In the village of Buenos Aires, says Maoro Polo Obando, the new crop has brought extra income to the community.

Yes, those who planted a lot of coca earned good money. Some people fixed the roofs of their houses, others put in new wooden floors. You can harvest coca every 6 to 8 weeks, and some farmers here didn’t know what to do with the money. They just threw it away. But yes, you can earn good money with coca.

Compared to legal crops, coca is extremely lucrative. A hectare of coca yields around 1½ kilos of coca paste per harvest or a little over 1000 euros. And since the crop produces several harvests a year, that can add up to a lot, particularly in one of the most remote and poorest in Colombia. The Department of Nariño, where Tumaco is located, has become the country’s biggest producer of poppies and coca, but the drugs’ disadvantages, says Piet Spijkers, are likely to far outweigh the benefits for the region.

It certainly will also have a very negative effect on the social fabric of the rural communities. Violence will increase very sharply. The guerrilla is entering. They are already there. They are organising coca plant cultivators. The paramilitaries are also establishing themselves. The mafia will come in because there will be a lot of money produced there by selling the coca paste. So what you can expect without any doubt that violence and all kind of social problems will be there which Tumaco never had known in all its lifetime. You say this with such certainty because this is what has happened in all the other areas where coca has been produced. Oh sure. You have seen it in Putumayo. You see it in Caquetá. You see it in Norte de Santander. You see it in the Sur de Bolivar. All these regions which were very tranquil, nice, pleasant, old rural societies fall victim to violence and breakdown of traditional values.

As the coca and opium poppies have spread, so has the trail of environmental devastation. Colombia is spraying the illegal crops with an herbicide called glyphosate. Glyphosate is water-soluble and therefore cannot penetrate the skin of human beings or animals, but workers using the chemical are advised not to let it come into contact with their eyes, skin or clothing. The US authorities, who are closely involved in Colombia’s fumigation programme, have ruled that glyphosate is safe. But the findings of American regulatory agencies are based on very different conditions from those in Colombia, says Dr. Elsa Nivia, the executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

The studies in the United States were carried out under what are considered normal conditions, which means the doses and concentrations used on American farms. Three years ago, the US State Department released a report highlighting the low risks associated with glyphosate. The results were based on glyphosate concentrations of 1%. But according to the latest figures released by the State Department, Colombia is using concentrations of 18%! In addition, the so-called “normal conditions” involved using a hand-held sprayer. That’s very different from the aerial sprayings here which are indiscriminate and affect our rivers and so forth.

In Colombia, glyphosate is used in conjunction with other chemicals such as surfactants – which you could compare to detergents – and yet other chemical mixtures. These substances are likely to increase the effect of glyphosate, but actually, no one really knows. To date, there has been only one study, and it was commissioned by the US embassy in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

Dr. Elsa Nivia, Pesticide Action Network
Dr. Elsa Nivia, Pesticide Action Network  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Dr. Uribe Granja conducted his study in a community in the department of Putumayo, but only several months after the spraying. According to his study, the fumigation had no effect on people’s health. He admitted that his results were inconclusive because of the time that had lapsed. He wrote that the only way to ensure that the fumigation was harmless was to measure the health of people in a community before and after the spraying. This might appear quite reasonable, but we find it monstrous because it means that Colombians are considered nothing more than laboratory rats. That impression was reinforced last year, when we had a meeting at the US State Department. We asked the Americans to conduct studies using the same doses and chemical mixtures that are being used here in Colombia. A State Department official was flabbergasted: she asked if we were suggesting that Americans should be sprayed. We told her of course not. We want these studies to be done on laboratory rats in the United States because we don’t have the means to do them here.

Despite the lack of scientific research on the health effects of the spraying, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence. Colombia’s National Ombudsman has received thousands of complaints from ordinary people, like this one from a 59-year-old living in the department of Putumayo:

I’d like to start by stating that I am a believer. I belong to the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia. I have a 20-hectare farm and I have never planted any illegal crops. On December 31st, my entire farm was sprayed. I lost everything: my crops, my cattle, my livelihood. All of us now suffer from respiratory problems, nausea, headaches and skin rashes.

The fumigations have also been linked to eye, kidney and liver problems. It’s been extremely difficult if not impossible, says Dr. Nivia, to carry out epidemiological studies in Colombia because of the civil war. But in 2001, her colleagues from Ecuadorian Ecological Action conducted a study in a region bordering on Colombia, where spraying had taken place.

They found that nearly 100% of the population in the border region exhibited signs of poisoning. 5 kilometres from the border, the symptoms were less – I think 80 or 90% of people had been affected. And 10 kilometres away, the percentages dropped further. When there has been contamination, the fact that there are fewer cases the further you move away from the focal point enables epidemiologists to make certain deductions. Three months later, I was part of a commission that visited the area. There were government officials, environmentalists and community members. The symptoms had decreased, but we observed exactly the same patterns as three months earlier.

Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia’s National Ombudsman
Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia’s National Ombudsman  (© Eric Beauchemin)

The mounting number of complaints about the spraying has not gone unnoticed by Colombia’s National Ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes.

The government, of course, thinks this is the best way to fight against armed actors. But, at the same time, we reply that the government has to do so fulfilling the other legal requirements. In our constitution there is enshrined a right to preserve the environment. For that reason, we have protested every time that fumigations take place. It’s abnormal that in one hand the government has issued many regulations to prevent a negative impact on nature and at the other hand, the same government through their fumigations programme are impacting very negatively the nature and the environment. For that reason, we have asked the suspension of the present fumigations until all these requirements are plainly fulfilled by the same government.

The Ombudsman has issued reports highlighting the environmental and health risks linked to the spraying policy. His office recently helped an indigenous community file a petition to Colombia’s highest judicial organ, the Constitutional Court. The Court ruled that the spraying was not illegal. But the government, it said, has the obligation to consult indigenous communities before fumigating their territory.

The Court’s ruling is likely to be welcomed back in Tumaco. In one of the main squares, a group of teenagers is learning traditional African dances. The majority of people in Tumaco, as well as the rest of Colombia’s western Pacific coast, are of African descent. As such, they enjoy legal protection under the Colombian constitution. A law passed in 1993 gives Colombia’s Afro-Caribbean citizens the right to run their territory according to their traditional practices. The fumigation is in violation of this law, says Oscar Taylor Valencia, a local community council member. It’s also blocking the development of these farming and fishing communities.

Our cooperative is being threatened by the indiscriminate spraying, as are all the institutions and organisations we black people have set up here in Tumaco. We have been telling the government to stop the fumigation. We are telling them to respect us and listen to us. In other areas, like in Putumayo, the government did not negotiate with local councils, but with regional government officials. We want the government to talk to us directly. We have received funding, for example from Holland, to carry out development projects. But how can we plan anything, do anything here with this spraying? Please, leave us alone! Because if they keep on spraying, I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: this area is going to become a wasteland!

U.S. State Department-owned planes used to spray chemicals on coca and opium poppy fields in Colombia
U.S. State Department-owned planes used to spray chemicals on coca and opium poppy fields in Colombia  (© Eric Beauchemin)

The next place that poison rain is likely to fall is in the country’s coffee-producing region. Over half a million Colombians farm coffee; three-quarters of them are small-sized farmers. Colombia’s Interior Minister announced that spraying would begin there within the next few weeks because drugs are being grown in the region. The decision has caused outrage, says Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes, a deputy in the local assembly of the department of Caldas.

Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes
Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes  (© Eric Beauchemin)

We say no to the spraying of glyphosate in the coffee region because it will harm the environment. It will damage our economy and further weaken the price of coffee. We receive a premium of up to 13 cents per pound because of the quality of our coffee beans. But if the beans are sprayed, obviously no one will want to pay that premium. We’ve told our national government that we want a manual eradication programme rather than aerial spraying, but so far they haven’t listened. I personally believe that the Interior Minister was forced to make this decision by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which has interfered once again in our nation’s affairs. We will do everything we can to warn the national government about the serious social, economic and environmental consequences this decision will have.

And they should, says Dr. Elsa Nivia of the Pesticide Action Network.

Fumigation in the coffee region could have much more serious consequences than all the other spraying that has been done in the country. Most of Colombia’s coffee is grown in the Andes and that’s also where the majority of Colombians live. It has many rivers that provide drinking water to our towns and cities. It is also one of the country’s main farming regions. So if the coffee region is sprayed, it will have major repercussions. The other thing you have to understand is that coffee is a shrub just like coca. The difference is that we use the leaves of the coca plant and the seeds from coffee. Coffee farmers who are sprayed will have to wait at least a year before they can harvest again, whereas coca plants which have been fumigated produce a new harvest within six months. So this will increase poverty in the coffee-growing region and it may in fact encourage farmers to plant more coca.

The Colombian government’s decision to spray its prized coffee region, say critics, is yet another example of the authorities succumbing to American pressure. But Colombia has little choice: over half its trade is with the United States. Washington wields other leverage too: drugs-producing nations like Colombia are subject to presidential certification every year. Countries that do not comply with US drug efforts have their aid cut off and Washington blocks loans from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It’s no wonder, say the critics, that Plan Colombia focuses so heavily on repression and does so little to address the underlying causes that are pushing growing numbers of peasants to grow coca. Coffee is a case in point, says Nico Verbeek, a Dutchman, based in Medellín, who wrote the book “Cocaine Barons”. Coffee farmers only recently started producing coca, he says, after the price of their product fell by 50% on world markets.

Nico Verbeek
Nico Verbeek  (© Eric Beauchemin)

If you say OK, Colombia can have a fair trade for its products, for example coffee, and the price for those products are reasonable, it means that there is no necessity for people to grow coca. This is one of the reasons people say ‘please, United States – the most important trading partner of Colombia – please allow us some reasonable trade conditions and the coca problem will disappear not, but it will diminish’. So it’s a much more intelligent way to look at the problem as a contrast to say no, just spray everything, everything that grows, and then the problem will go away. It has shown because the Plan Colombia is already there since 2000 and the spraying has gone long before that, it never has had a real positive effect on the production of coca.

The United Nations Office for Drugs & Crime disagrees. In the past two years, says its director, Klaus Nyholm, there has been a drop in coca cultivation. Nonetheless, he too is critical of Colombia’s heavy reliance on spraying.

We don’t think it’s illegitimate to fumigate. We have some views on it of course. Where we are critical is more because the Colombians have emphasised so much fumigation and have done, so far, relatively little on other measures to combat illicit cultivation such as alternative development. We also think that when you talk about law enforcement, they could do a lot more further up the line and further up the chain against the laboratories, against trafficking in itself. EB: What type of things could they do? Things that they are already doing but they could do much more, such as busting the cocaine laboratories and you can do much more on trafficking, and of course, in the consumer countries, much more should be done on prevention of drug consumption.

Colombians also believe that too little is being done to cut demand in the developed nations and that they are bearing the brunt of the ‘war on drugs’. In the year 2000, the Colombian government proposed a measure to cut drug supplies without affecting ordinary Colombians: they authorised US military planes, some of them operating from bases in The Netherlands Antilles, to intercept aircraft smuggling drugs out of Colombia. The operation was abruptly halted after an anti-drug surveillance plane accidentally shot down a Cessna carrying American missionaries over neighbouring Peru, killing two U.S. citizens.

At the moment, there is not a real effort to stop airplanes transporting drugs to the United States itself because there was a lot of pressure from Congressmen and also from the public opinion because two Americans were shot to not resume this programme. I think it’s much more important a programme like this than the spraying of coca fields because what you are doing now is allowing airplanes leaving Colombia going to Venezuela, which is a country which is very lax on this issue. They can leave through Venezuela, they can leave through Caribbean.

There are other fairly simple steps that consumer nations could take, if they wanted to, says Nico Verbeek, to stem the flow of drugs from Colombia.

In a country like Colombia, there are several products that are necessary for the production of cocaine that are not available in the country and have to be imported. Up until this moment, there hasn’t been reached an agreement on the prohibition of those kind of products. So it’s like talking with a double language. So from one side, you are saying, we have to eradicate from the root all those coca fields and everything with the force of law, with military measures. But from the other side, it says that European or American nations have no obligation of putting an effort into the prohibition of the importation of chemicals, for example. So it shows that it’s like a double message. And this is something that the Colombian government emphasises all the time.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Colombia and Ecuador (UNODC)

But policy-makers in Washington and elsewhere don’t seem to be listening. Developed nations continue to demand that Colombia and its Andean neighbours solve the drugs problem on their own. So Colombia diligently sprays its land, but with little hope of stemming the flow of cocaine or heroin. The poison rain is devastating one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, home to 10% of our planet’s biodiversity. It’s causing major social, economic and health problems, and it isn’t bringing an end to the 40-year-old armed conflict any closer.

I have doubts as to our possibilities of really getting rid of the drug trade as long as you have an armed conflict in this country because the armed conflict and the drugs feed on each other. The coca and the opium poppy growers and the laboratories, etc., are protected by the armed groups and they in turn finance the armed groups, both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. You can do something to control it and to diminish it, but I don’t think you can get completely rid of it.

You can fumigate as much as you want, but people will always look for other places or in the country itself or in other countries. Because, for example, at the moment in Peru, the coca fields have increased enormously in the last year. The same goes for Bolivia. So it’s like, if it’s going down in own country, it’s coming up in another. So if you look at it in a general level, the coca fields will always be there. As long as there is a demand, the supply will always be there.

“Poison rain” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.