Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

COLOMBIA-ECUADOR: Coca Spraying Makes for Toxic Relations

Constanza Vieira

PUERTO ASÍS, Putumayo, Colombia, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - Ecuador is making its final preparations to bring suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice at The Hague over anti-coca spraying carried out by Colombia along their shared border. Quito had already given notice of its intentions.

María Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador&#39s Foreign Minister. Credit: Ecuador Foreign Ministry

María Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador's Foreign Minister. Credit: Ecuador Foreign Ministry

“I would go so far as to say that solving the spraying issue through diplomatic channels is no longer possible,” Ecuador’s Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinosa said in Quito.

Colombia’s representatives would not even make a written record of a meeting held at the beginning of July with an Ecuadorean scientific commission, presenting evidence of the harm to human and animal health, crops and the environment caused by Colombian anti-drug spraying, the minister said on Monday.

Now Ecuador must move on from “the diplomatic and scientific levels, to a legal level,” Espinosa said.

Aerial spraying of a concentrated solution of glyphosate herbicide and other substances potentiating its effect, a toxic mix that kills any plant it touches, is part of the anti-drug and counterinsurgency Plan Colombia, financed by the United States.

Spraying is not limited to coca plantations, which produce the raw material for cocaine. Food crops are also destroyed, according to Colombian campesinos (peasant farmers). Colombia is the world’s leading cocaine producing country, and the U.S. is the largest consumer.

Ecuadorean farmers never know whether they should sow their fields as, despite their government’s protests, Colombia was spraying along the border again, after a period when it abstained from spraying within 10 kilometres of the international boundary.

Bogotá claimed that Ecuadoreans were growing coca close to the border, but this was belied even by special envoys from El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper with the largest circulation.

Spraying operations in guerrilla-controlled areas are carried out by DynCorp aeroplanes, contracted by the U.S. Department of Defence. The spray planes are escorted by Black Hawk helicopters specially rigged for counterinsurgency operations, which are also part of Plan Colombia.

There has been no glyphosate spraying along the border since January. This is partly due to the protests from Quito, and partly because spraying is carried out when the coca leaf is ready for harvesting.

In contrast, here in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, forced manual eradication of the crops began in March. What appears to be a solution to the differences with Ecuador is, however, experienced as a nightmare by Colombian coca growers’ families.

“When the planes pass overhead, campesinos can seek shelter in their houses,” said Nydia Quintero, treasurer of the Campesino Association of South-Western Putumayo (ACSOMAYO).

But when a forced manual eradication operation takes place, “the army arrives, surrounds your farm and invades your land,” she said. “The eradicators come and start pulling up your plants, without permission from the owner of the farm, trampling on all the rights of the family who lives there,” she added.

“The children are terrified, and people run and hide. What’s more, they steal the chickens and the campesinos’ food stores,” said Quintero, who lives in the community of La Carmelita, in the municipality of Puerto Asís.

The ACSOMAYO member said that eradication teams in her region are made up of 300 soldiers and about 100 civilians.

In Puerto Vega-Teteyé, between the Putumayo River and the border with Ecuador, forced eradication began this month. The operation was preceded by the burning of houses and laboratories, Quintero told IPS.

In June, Colombian television channel RCN announced in a newscast that a new method of eradication, using tractors, would be used in Putumayo. Images showed one of these tractors entering a farm and destroying everything in is path.

The community’s own plan to substitute illegal coca growing has not been taken into account, Quintero said.

“Our proposal, basically, is that the (Colombian) government focus on programmes of farm production, road building, investment in basic services in rural areas, things that generate employment for the campesinos,” said Quintero.

That way, “campesinos would voluntarily uproot the coca, which has become our means of survival and the way we can feed our children.” “If the government started to invest in the countryside, we would stop growing coca,” she said.

La Carmelita is a jungle area, 23 kilometres from the border with Ecuador. Agriculture and coca are the way of life there. There is a central highway, with a few branch roads in poor state of repair, which the communities have to maintain themselves.

Along that central highway, 16 tanker trucks transport oil from the Cohembí well. They belong to the Colombia Energy consortium, which took over the concession in 1998 from Ecopetrol, the state oil firm, now in the process of being privatised by the rightwing Álvaro Uribe government.

Oil usually means wealth – but not here. “Subcontractors in the oil industry take on workers by the month or by the fortnight. About three or four people get work out of every 10 or 11 rural communities. Only 0.3 percent of the people here have jobs with the company,” said Quintero.

The Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), the main children’s protection agency, recently published a nutritional study of more than 400 children under five in 24 communities of the San Miguel and La Hormiga municipalities in Putumayo.

The study found that 42.75 percent of the children had low weight-for-age, a sign of general malnutrition; 20.6 percent had low weight-for-height, indicating acute malnutrition; and 47.6 percent had chronic malnutrition (low height-for-age).

Quintero has five children. IPS asked her what is her main concern, as a mother, in this region? “The future of my children, what is to become of them if we do not secure people’s right to live in this area, if the oil industry grows,” she answered.

“What will happen later on? Will our children have to leave, and be displaced to somewhere else? That worries me,” she said.

The oil well was worked by Ecopetrol some years ago, and then it was closed. Colombia Energy began extracting oil again in 2003.

“Quite a large oil industry was built up. At the same time, the area was militarised,” Amaury Padilla, of the Alternative Social Development Association (MINGA), a non-governmental organisation that has existed for 10 years, told IPS.

Leftwing insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the campesino guerrilla movement which took up arms in 1964, operate in Putumayo and for the last 11 years have supported coca growers’ protests. They often extort money from companies established in their territories.

Plan Colombia spraying, begun in Putumayo in 2000, pushed people into extreme poverty.

As soon as the community saw activity around the oil well once again, they organised and demanded solutions from Colombia Energy “for basic problems of education, health and infrastructure.”

“And the response was the murder of the leader of that protest,” an expert on this area, Ricardo Vargas, the head of Andean Action, told IPS.

In December 2005, the president of ACSOMAYO, Luis Melo Bastidas, 55, a respected local leader, was killed by ultra-rightwing paramilitaries, who work in league with the government security forces.

His death was followed by six months of numb disbelief in the organisation, but then their meetings resumed. In June, with help from MINGA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they managed to make their voices heard before an inter-institutional human rights mission which visited La Carmelita.

Republish | | Print |

joffe books