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ECUADOR-COLOMBIA: Crisis Over Coca Spraying Escalates

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Dec 18 2006 (IPS) - Relations between Ecuador and Colombia are becoming more and more tense, with no solution in sight to a crisis triggered by the resumption of aerial fumigation of coca crops along the border between the two countries.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Francisco Carrión told IPS that he had sent a letter to the Organisation of American States (OAS) and spoken with OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza by phone to ask the regional body to intervene.

We have requested that “the issue be submitted to the OAS Executive Board, and probably the General Assembly as well,” said Carrión.

He added that Ecuador will bring a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the spraying of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate along the border, due to the damages caused to the environment, food crops, and human health.

Carrión met Monday with Ecuador’s ambassador to Colombia, Alejandro Suárez, to discuss the problem and the state of relations between the two countries. The ambassador was recalled for consultations Friday, to protest Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s orders to resume spraying last week.

Carrión said Suárez would stay in Quito until a solution to the problem was found.

In the eyes of the Colombian government, “glyphosate is not harmful, but in our view, it is,” said the minister, who insisted on the need for the two countries to carry out a joint study on the effects of the defoliant, which is sprayed on coca plantations but also affects legal crops and local residents in rural areas and villages along the border.

Carrión said he would only talk to Colombian Foreign Minister María Consuelo Araújo if the spraying was suspended.

Ecuador invited United Nations rapporteurs to visit the border zone and draw up a report on the effects of glyphosate on the local population.

The Ecuadorian government will press Bogotá to help establish terms of reference for five scientific studies proposed by the United Nations to determine the impact of fumigation with glyphosate on human health, the environment, and food crops.

Ecuador’s outgoing President Alfredo Palacio told the press last week in the province of Sucumbíos along the border with Colombia that Ecuador is staunchly opposed to the fumigation.

On Dec. 7, 2005, then Colombian foreign minister Carolina Barco and Carrión signed an accord in which Colombia agreed to suspend aerial spraying until independent studies established the extent of its toxic effects.

Ecuadorian president-elect Rafael Correa said that at this point in the dispute, what is needed is direct dialogue with Uribe.

In such a touchy situation, “the last thing that should be done is to cut off communication,” said Correa, who takes office on Jan. 15.

The president-elect said on Sunday that the central focus of a meeting with Uribe should “obviously be to stop the spraying,” which he described as “a hostile act by Colombia against Ecuador.”

Correa is hoping for a “frank” conversation in which the Colombian government would understand how upset the Ecuadorian people are, in order to overcome the tension.

If it fails to understand, he added, “we will obviously have to take measures of another kind. Which ones? They will find out when the time comes.”

Minister-designate of foreign relations María Fernanda Espinosa told the Ecuavisa television network Monday that the spraying could cause genetic damages to people who are affected.

Espinosa cited studies by scientists from the Catholic and Central universities in Quito, which found alterations at a cellular level that cause fetal malformations and genetic damages in people near fumigation zones.

“César Pazmiño, at the Central University, has sent me a number of very serious studies,” said the future foreign minister, who is known as an expert on environmental issues for her performance as regional director of the World Conservation Union. “He has a PhD. in genetics. We are really concerned about this,” she added.

Espinosa also argued that there are “political reasons” why the Colombian government should not resume spraying operations.

“There are written accords with the Colombian government for the suspension of fumigation on the northern border, and it was agreed with then foreign minister Barco that it would only be resumed after dialogue and a mutual agreement. That has not happened; this was a unilateral decision on the part of Colombia,” she said.

Uribe told the press in his country Saturday that he had not ruled out the resumption of manual destruction of coca plants – the raw material for cocaine, of which Colombia is the world’s leading producer – as long as some 10,200 hectares were first destroyed by aerial spraying.

He also said confidently that Ecuador would understand the decision to eradicate illegal coca crops by spraying, and argued that glyphosate is not harmful to human health.

The Interinstitutional Committee Against Fumigations (CIF), which brings together more than 10 human rights, environmental and indigenous organisations in Ecuador, sees the resumption of spraying as a provocation aimed at the leftwing Correa’s future government, and as an act of scorn for the agreements signed in December 2005.

CIF had asked the Ecuadorian government to recall its ambassador from Colombia and to take legal action before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The spraying “is a new violation by the Colombian government of the individual and collective human rights of the people along the border, especially their rights to life, health and food,” Jhonny Jiménez, with the Peace and Justice Service (which forms part of CIF), told IPS.

In the Dec. 7, 2005 agreement, Colombia had promised to create mobile teams to eradicate coca bushes by hand, which it failed to do.

“This shows that the Colombian government considers aerial fumigation the only eradication method, even though it has been proven that spraying destroys food crops, aggravating the food and health situation of border communities,” argued Jiménez.

The activist said that in CIF’s view, the Colombian government’s performance “shows that it is far from interested in putting an end to illicit crops, and even less so in putting an end to drug trafficking, which nourishes armed groups and the economy of the United States itself.”

“The aim is to displace broad sectors of the population, who have repeatedly been sprayed over Christmastime, as occurred in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005. This also demonstrates that the agreement signed last year was just a mockery of Ecuador, because the only reason the spraying stopped was that it was part of the pre-established schedule,” said Jiménez.

Dr. Adolfo Maldonado, with the local environmental group Ecological Action, which also forms part of CIF, said the concentrations of glyphosate used in spraying along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border are much higher than those employed in conventional agriculture.

In addition, aerial fumigation is more dangerous than manual spraying because the poison is spread over wide areas, including villages, legal crops, local flora and fauna, and water sources.

“This fumigation delegitimises the petition made by the U.N. through a mission that visited Ecuador in February this year, which provided evidence pointing to the need for a study on the effects on health and the environment in the area along the border,” said Maldonado.

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