The lawsuit follows seven years of persistent but unsuccessful diplomatic efforts on Ecuador's part to convince its neighbor to the north to establish a 10 kilometer (six mile) no-spray zone along their shared border.
Colombia is expected to argue that the aerial fumigation of illegal coca farms, which provide the raw material for cocaine production, is a linchpin of the war on drugs. Ecuador claims that the chemical sprays have sickened its people, poisoned farmland and damaged ecologically sensitive areas.
At a press conference in Quito announcing the lawsuit, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said, "With the purpose of establishing the existence and dimensions of the afflictions suffered by Ecuador as a result of these and past fumigations, last year President Rafael Correa created the Ecuadorian Scientific Commission, comprised of eminent scientists from our country.
"The results of the commission's work have been crucial to reaching the irrefutable conclusion that Colombian aerial fumigations have had noxious effects on our people and our environment," she said.
A plane sprays herbicide on alleged illegal coca farms (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
"There is no doubt that the fumigations conducted by the government of Colombia constitute a grave violation of the sovereignty of Ecuador and of the most basic principles of international law," she said, "which prohibits a state from causing harm to the population, land and well-being of a neighboring state."
Since spraying began in 2000, Colombia has refused to consider such measures, the lawsuit asserts. Instead, its planes and helicopters loaded with herbicide have flown right up to and sometimes directly over the border, releasing chemicals designed to eradicate all forms of plant life.
The spray has drifted to the Ecuadorean side, where villagers have reported feeling the mist settle on their skin. People in Ecuadorean border communities, many of them poor subsistence farmers or those raising small cash crops, have suffered skin lesions and rashes, burning eyes, nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, and intestinal bleeding. Some have died.
Ecuador alleges that the spraying has killed livestock and crops, forcing the abandonment of villages, while harming ecologically sensitive areas of high biodiversity.
Nearly one third of the country's territory is protected or park land, and Ecuador is estimated to have the highest average biological diversity of any nation on Earth.
Since 2000, the United States has been financing the aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia, which is the world's leading producer.
In 2006, the Colombian National Police's Anti-Narcotics Directorate sprayed 171,613 hectares of illegally grown coca and opium poppy, according to a March 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the U.S. State Department.
According to the lawsuit, Colombia has refused to disclose the exact makeup of the herbicide it uses, though the active ingredient is known to be glyphosate (N-phosphonomethyl). The active ingredient is reportedly combined with other chemicals to make aerial sprays more potent.
Ecuador protested the violation of its territory as soon as spraying began in 2000, and has sought to resolve the countries' dispute through negotiation and diplomacy.
As a last resort, it submits its argument to the International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction is confirmed by the American Treaty for the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, also known as the Pact of Bogotá, to which both Ecuador and Colombia are parties.
Ecuador's suit seeks three things:
A coca plant (Photo courtesy U.S. Justice Department)
Colombian government officials have come to agree with recent reports by the International Crisis Group that aerial spraying against coca plants is largely ineffective, yet Colombia still refuses to alter its spraying practices along the border with Ecuador.
As part of its case before the International Court of Justice, Ecuador has appointed as its agent Diego Cordovez, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and former Ecuadorean foreign minister.
Ecuador's legal team is led by Paul Reichler, a partner in the Washington, DC, office of law firm Foley Hoag LLP who specializes in public international law, which governs relations among sovereign nations.
The filing of Ecuador's suit is unrelated to the cross-border attack undertaken by Colombia on March 1, which killed a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the anti-government guerrilla group that had taken refuge in the hinterlands of Ecuador.
The raid was condemned in resolutions by the Organization of American States and by the Rio Group, an organization of Latin American states. Colombia apologized in both resolutions, and promised not to violate Ecuadorean sovereignty again.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.