Colombia Resists Court Ordered Halt to Coca Spray

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 1, 2003 (ENS) - A Colombian court has ruled that the aerial spraying of herbicides to eradicate coca and poppy crops violates the rights to a healthy environment, security and public health as guaranteed in the Colombian Constitution. Coca provides the raw material for cocaine, and opium is extracted from poppies.

The ruling by the Superior Administrative Court of Cundinamarca, Colombia, made public on June 25, ordered that the aerial spraying of glyphosate herbicides be suspended until the government complies with the environmental management plan for the eradication program.

The government was also ordered to conduct a series of studies intended to protect human health and the environment.

But the Colombian government has announced that the herbicide spraying will not stop in spite of the judicial decision. Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón said that as soon as the government is officially notified of the decision it will be appealed before the State Council.

"If something affects the health of the country it is the war that the cultures [of coca and poppy] are generating. It is the money that the drug trafficking is giving to the guerrilla and the paramilitary," he said.

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A U.S. fumigation airplane spraying along a landing strip at the Villa Garzón military base in Putumayo, southern Colombia on February 15, 2002. (All photos courtesy U.S. Fumigation.org)
The herbicide used, glyphosate, is not harmful to health or to the environment, said Agriculture Minister Carlos Blanco Gustavo Sanz.

The Cundinamarca verdict is in line with an earlier declaration by the Colombian Constitutional Court which ordered the suspension of spraying in indigenous territories, and another by the State Council which ordered full compliance with the environmental management plan approved by the Ministry of Environment.

Yamile Salinas of the Colombian Ombudsman's Office said, "This ruling recognizes the potential risks that the herbicide and the manner in which it is being applied pose to human health and the environment in Colombia."

"The application of the precautionary principle is of singular importance because the court affirms that the significant and potentially irreparable risk posed by the spraying is reason enough to suspend the fumigation program," Salinas said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said late last month that Colombia is the source of almost three-quarters of the world's illicit cocaine, which it called the second most abused illicit drug.

In its annual report which tracks major changes in patterns of drug abuse and production worldwide, the UN agency said there are signs of progress in controlling cocaine worldwide, but the "main challenge is Colombia" where domestic cultivation increased five-fold between 1993 and 1999.

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Cut back coca plants survive aerial spraying.
The report, which was released as part of the June 26 observance of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, said, "The good news is that reversing an eight year trend, and for the second year in a row, Colombia achieved a very significant reduction of coca bush cultivation on its territory in 2002."

Cumulatively, this amounts to a "37 percent decline between 2000 and 2002," the UN report said.

Anna Cederstav, staff scientist with the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, said, "The U.S. Congress has required the State Department to evaluate environmental and health impacts of Plan Colombia. This decision by a court in Colombia must be taken into account by the U.S. State Department."

The government of Colombia developed Plan Colombia as a way to harmonize separate programs designed to promote the peace process, combat the narcotics industry, revive the economy and strengthen democracy. In response to Plan Colombia, the U.S. Congress approved and President Bill Clinton signed into law, on July 13, 2000, an assistance package of $1.3 billion.

The only chemical used for aerial eradication under U.S. Support for Plan Colombia is glyphosate.

Cederstav said, "It would be highly irresponsible for the United States to continue the eradication program in contravention of the Colombian court order to suspend the spraying until appropriate public health and environmental protections are in place."

The State Department says that glyphosate is one of the least harmful herbicides available on the world market. It enters a plant through contact with its leaves and only kills plants that are above ground at the time of spraying, and completely biodegrades in the soil, according to a State Department fact sheet on U.S. involvement in Plan Colombia, which explains that glyphosate bonds tightly to the soil and little runs off into watersheds.

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This stand of corn in Colombia was destroyed legally by aerial spraying to eradicate coca.
But last September, scientists and advocacy groups released six independent reviews that challenge claims made in the U.S. State Department’s September 4, 2002 report on the aerial coca eradication program in Colombia.

The scientists’ reviews assert that the State Department report does not demonstrate the health and environmental safety of the coca eradication program, but rather it underscores the risks and uncertainties associated with the program and fails to adequately assess the potential impacts to humans and the environment as required under the 2002 Foreign Appropriations Act.

The State Department says glyphosate has been tested, evaluated and approved for sale in the United States and Colombia, and stands by use of the herbicide.

"In light of the evidence presented and the court's clear decision on this matter, the Department of State cannot certify to Congress that the herbicide mixture, in the manner it is being used, poses no unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment, or that the herbicide is being used in compliance with the environmental management plan for the program," Cederstav said.

Salinas said, "This court order formally adopts many of the requirements for environmental and human protection that the Colombian Ombudsman and Comptroller General, along with both national and international nongovernment organizations, have been demanding for years. This decision is a victory for both public health and the environment of Colombia."