Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Drug Crops or Fumigation – Which Is More Harmful?

Humberto Márquez

PANAMA CITY, Nov 25 2003 (IPS) - Both the illegal drug trade and the use of herbicides to eradicate drug crops are hurting the Colombian environment. The debate over which is the greater evil will take a new turn once the impacts are measured with more precise tools.

“We have just begun to quantify the environmental impact of illicit crops. For every hectare planted with coca (the raw material for cocaine), three hectares of forest must be cleared,” Juan Pablo Bonilla, head of the Colombian delegation to the meeting of the Forum of Latin American and Caribbean Environment Ministers, told IPS.

The region’s ministers, in Panama City for the 14th meeting of the Forum, adopted an eight-point action plan, which includes establishing a series of indicators to measure environmental quality and to assess management efforts.

Among the 25 indicators are measurements of protected areas, marine diversity, water distribution, coastal management, water availability per person, volume of fish catches, and environmental risk factors for human health.

The director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Klaus Toepfer, said he is pleased with the initiative, because it demonstrates the maturity achieved by Latin America and the Caribbean in developing region-wide environmental solutions.

The availability of hard data on the environment will help countries and regions come up with ways to tackle ongoing problems, such as in Colombia, where the narcotics trade has long been taking a toll not only on the local environment, and also has consequences for neighbouring countries.

Bonilla, Colombia’s deputy environment minister, says that “with herbicides and pesticides we are talking about local impacts, such as on water supplies. But with deforestation we are talking about global impacts, on climate and biodiversity.”

Furthermore, “part of the deforestation (for planting opium poppies) is occurring on the ‘páramos’, or high plains, which are vital as a source of freshwater in Colombia. And after the deforestation comes the burning,” he said.

In a parallel forum of non-governmental organisations in the Panamanian capital, activists Kenneth Ochoa, of the Colombian branch of Caretakers of the Environment, and Yolanda Díaz, of the Colombian association of environmental journalists, cited studies conducted by the Ecuadorian People’s Defender (Ombudsman) and by the government of the southern Colombian department of Putumayo.

These reports make a case against glyphosate, the main component of the herbicides used to fumigate some 29,000 hectares of coca fields in Putumayo in late 2001.

According to a study by the molecular genetics laboratory of Ecuador’s Pontificia Catholic University, published this month, the Ecuadorian population living along the border of Colombia’s Putumayo department have reported symptoms of chronic poisoning since the 2001 aerial fumigation.

“There have been damages to legal food crops and to water sources, and cases of babies born with deformities, such as harelip,” reporter-activist Díaz told IPS. “The impact of glyphosate will be lasting, because not all of its effects are seen one day to the next,” she added.

The study titled “Genetic damage on the Ecuadorian border caused by Plan Colombia fumigations” analyzes the medical history and blood samples of 22 women from the border area – 10 from Ecuador and 12 from Colombia – who were exposed to the aerial spraying of the fields and who presented symptoms of intoxication from contact with glyphosate.

All of the women were found to have genetic damage in 36 percent of the cells in their bodies. Such damage constitutes a major risk factor for cancer and for birth defects if the women have children.

Genetic damage in these women is 800 percent greater than among women from Quito and 500 percent greater than in populations of similar characteristics in the Amazon region within 80 km of the border area.

But environment official Bonilla says that glyphosate “has a minimal level of toxicity, which explains why it is used by farmers of legal crops. Just 17 to 18 percent of the glyphosate that enters Colombia is used in fumigating drug crops.”

“Worse are the herbicides used by illegal groups to protect their drug crops from weeds. These include endosulfan and paraquat, which can remain in the environment for 30 years, while glyphosate has a short life cycle,” said the deputy minister.

“All of this brings us to the issue of indicators. Just as we measure the impact of faecal matter, or of domestic or industrial waste, or emissions of contaminating gases, we can do so with the cultivation of illicit crops and the efforts to eradicate them,” Bonilla said.

He pointed out that also contaminating the environment is the unregulated use of chlorates and petroleum derivatives in manufacturing the drugs from the illegal crops.

“And, of course, we should measure the impacts of the chemical inputs for cocaine production, which we all know are not produced in Colombia but come from the industrialised countries,” he said.

Critics of the official policy for fighting the drug trade, Plan Colombia, believe the better option continues to be the manual eradication of the drug crops – coca, opium poppies and marijuana – not aerial fumigation with glyphosate.

Plan Colombia, a four-year-old initiative backed by Washington, aims to reduce drug production and fight the drug trade, as well as beef up the Colombian armed forces to confront the country’s guerrilla groups in the decades-old civil war.

Manual eradication of the drug crops “is not only environmentally friendly, but it also remains an alternative within a sustainable development scheme to involve peasant and indigenous communities, and to provide jobs,” says Díaz.

“And this should be accompanied by an offer of substitution for crops that farmers can sell at competitive prices,” she adds.

One of the facts cited by Plan Colombia’s critics is that drug prices have barely increased since the fumigation campaign began, which – they argue – shows that producers have simply moved to other areas, even to other countries, clearing forests elsewhere to plant more drugs.

The aerial spraying of coca and other crops is contributing to a vicious cycle, they say.

Perhaps the new initiative presented by the region’s ministers can ultimately help break the cycle. If the indicators reveal intolerable environmental impacts, they could lead to a policy change.

The indicator mechanism is still in the initial design phase, but it makes Latin America and the Caribbean the first region of the developing South to adopt a common system for quantifying and managing environmental wealth. Similar practices have been followed for decades by the industrialised nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

With a shared set of indicators, “the Latin American countries will have greater ability to manage their environmental inventories and to attract investors that take the environmental variable into account,” Edgar Gutiérrez, director of the University of Costa Rica’s Development Observatory, told IPS.

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