Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: UN Rapporteur Studies Effects of Coca Spraying in Ecuador

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Sep 24 2007 (IPS) - Aerial spraying of drug crops along Colombia’s border with Ecuador must be brought to a halt until the government of Álvaro Uribe proves its claim that the practice is harmless, warned a United Nations official.

Until it does so, Colombia cannot put Ecuador’s right to health at risk for any reason, said Paul Hunt, U.N. special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Hunt is drawing up a report, at the request of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, on the impact of the fumigation on human health in Ecuadorian border zones next to areas where Colombian authorities have carried out spraying.

The Uribe administration argues that there is "no scientific doubt whatsoever" as to the harmlessness of spraying drug crops with the herbicide glyphosate.

But the government in Quito has repeatedly threatened to take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and demands that Colombia stop spraying within 10 km of the border.

The discrepancy between the two governments highlights the crucial importance of sound, independent studies that merit the confidence of all impartial observers, said the U.N. rapporteur.

Colombia has been spraying drug crops – coca and poppies – since 2000, when the U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency Plan Colombia was launched.

The aerial spraying of glyphosate has become a profoundly politicised issue, Hunt said in a press conference in the Colombian capital Friday. When an issue is politicised like this, human rights tend to become the first victims, he added.

The health and lives of common people, especially the poor, have been forgotten, he said, although he acknowledged that illicit coca crops were a serious, complex burden on the Colombian government, for which they are "no easy answers."

Colombia is the leading global producer of cocaine, supplying 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, the world’s top market for drugs.

The drug trade fuels this South American country’s decades old civil war in which leftist guerrillas are fighting the army and its allies, far-right paramilitary militias led in many cases by druglords, which have partially demobilised as a result of negotiations with the Uribe administration.

One of the aims of Plan Colombia is to destroy drug crops to cut off sources of financing for the insurgent groups and break down social networks in coca-growing areas.

The Ecuadorian government, whose foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, is a well-known environmentalist, has pointed to a study showing that Ecuadorians living within three km of the border had 600 to 800 percent more damage to their chromosomes than people living 80 km away.

The study by the Pontificia Catholic University in Quito was published by the Brazilian scientific journal Genetics and Molecular Biology.

Hunt had written to the Colombian government in April asking to visit the country at the time of his mid-May mission to Ecuador, but his request was turned down due to other commitments. However, last month the Uribe administration invited him to visit on Sept. 20-22.

The special rapporteur, an independent expert of the U.N. Human Rights Council, was unable to meet with the Colombian ambassador in Quito, where he did meet with Colombians affected by the spraying, who had travelled to Ecuador for the purpose. He also visited three border communities.

Hunt said he received "credible, reliable testimony" showing that glyphosate fumigation along the border between the two countries can cause damages to the physical and mental health of people in Ecuador.

"For example, I was informed that military helicopters sometimes accompany the aerial fumigations, and that the experience can be terrifying (for villagers), especially children, even though the helicopters stay in Colombian airspace," said the New Zealand-born expert.

The mission he headed did not take blood samples or carry out lab tests in Colombia, because Hunt’s mandate was limited to assessing the effects of spraying on the health of Ecuadorians.

Ricardo Vargas, a leading Colombian expert on drug-trafficking issues and a member of the non-governmental organisation Andean Action, said that limiting the special rapporteur’s investigation to Ecuador ran counter to the principle of defending the universal right to health.

"If there are damages among Ecuadorian communities, there must be damages among Colombians. But this second issue is invisible. Colombians don&#39t have channels to make their voices heard or to be represented," he told IPS.

The spraying in Colombia is "part of the war strategy," he said. "While in Ecuador the state answers to the community and responds to what is happening there, in the case of Colombia…any criticism of the government’s policy is interpreted as an attack."

In March, the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on the international drug trade that the Colombian National Institute of Health had not verified one single case of adverse effects to human health linked to spraying with glyphosate.

In 2006, 171,613 hectares of coca and poppy crops – used to produce cocaine and heroin, respectively – were fumigated in Colombia, according to the report.

Colombia has demanded that Ecuador prove that the spraying affects human health. But according to Hunt, it is Colombia that must "demonstrate that aerial spraying does not affect human health or the environment."

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos told the special rapporteur in Bogota that, for the sake of "the principles of transparency and goodwill," the government has made available on the Internet details concerning "the exact composition of glyphosate and the additional components used in the aerial spraying."

But in Vargas’s view, "that hasn&#39t been very clear," and the mixture of chemicals used in conjunction with the glyphosate has undergone "a series of modifications."

"If the government is talking about transparency, you would expect that any independent body or civil society organisation could have access to the aircraft before they take off, to take samples in order to find out what is really in the mixture they use," he argued.

"And that is crucial," he added, because the tests carried out in Colombia indicate that a commercial mixture for legal crops is used, which is "completely different" from the mixture used to fumigate coca and poppy crops.

"In that respect, the Colombian government has not been transparent, and the studies that have been conducted do not have a solid basis," he said.

Ecuador’s protests forced the Colombian government to prioritise manual eradication of coca bushes this year, instead of spraying.

But IPS was told by people in the border province of Putumayo that brigades of coca eradicators take bribes from coca farmers to leave the bushes intact enough so that they can be replanted.

Meanwhile, the proposals set forth by local communities for legal alternative crops are only rarely taken into account, IPS has found on visits to different parts of the country.

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