Aerial Fumigation in Colombia: The Bad and The Ugly

Aerial Fumigation in Colombia: The Bad and The Ugly

. 8 min read

Duque’s Plan to Resume Fumigation

Right as the scales of justice slowly began to tip in favor of the people, Colombia’s counternarcotics practices have tilted back towards destruction and damage as it reconsiders the practice of aerial fumigation. From 1994-2015, under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the United States government sprayed a chemical called glyphosate over coca crops in an attempt to decrease cocaine production. After the World Health Organization (WHO) raised health concerns about the chemical in 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos ended the use of aerial fumigation, and the Supreme Court of Colombia banned the chemical for said health reasons.

Now, under pressure from the Trump administration, Colombia’s new president Iván Duque has vowed to restart fumigation. Earlier in the year, it looked uncertain as to whether Duque would be able to meet the stringent requirements the Court laid out for resuming fumigation, but with President Trump whispering in his ear—or rather, ranting about Colombia’s drug problem on live television—Duque’s has had much more motivation to try to meet the requirements. For further encouragement, Trump even threatened to cut off aid and loans unless Colombia decreased cocaine production. For reference, the majority of aid the United States gives to Colombia is explicitly for “International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.” The loss of this funding would devastate any attempt at alternative development programs meant to decrease drug production. As such, this financial pressure holds grave implications for Colombia, only exacerbating their drug trade problem.

Yet restarting aerial fumigation seems like the wrong response. Colombia is the only coca-producing country in the world to have used glyphosate to destroy coca crops. While Duque pledged to not fumigate in protected areas and national parks, his promise doesn’t resolve most of the concerns with aerial fumigation. For example, the wind carries the chemical beyond the coca crops since pilots spray from high up in the air. Furthermore, these pilots can accidentally spray the wrong crops since it’s hard to tell the difference between coca and non-coca crops. Even if the pilots can discern the difference, there’s often no way to eradicate coca crops without spraying non-coca crops since farmers frequently hide illegal plants among legal ones. Finally, farmers might still be out in the field while fumigation is occurring.

Coronavirus has put a pause on Duque’s plans. The Constitutional Court ruled that in order to pursue aerial fumigation, the government would have to inform affected communities. The Court mandated this in order to give communities time to prepare for fumigation; they wanted people in affected areas to be able to ask questions and voice concerns about the new policy. However, many of these communities don’t have access to the internet, and therefore can’t be reached via online platforms. As such, coronavirus has stalled Duque’s plans since there’s no way to notify the communities of fumigation when travel and large gatherings, that are necessary to provide information, have been restricted. But, rest assured, the government is finding ways around this mere temporary road block.

Academic Controversy Over Glyphosate

In order for the judicial ban to be lifted, there needs to be “scientific and conclusive evidence that aerial fumigation poses no health and environmental hazard.” The reason Colombia has even been able to consider restarting fumigation is because of the disagreement in academia over whether glyphosate actually does represent a threat to human health, or if studies have overestimated its impact.

The side that views glyphosate as a dangerous chemical has convincing evidence. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) convened 17 experts from 11 countries to survey glyphosate. The way the IARC classifies agents is based on a scale of four: group one agents are “carcinogenic to humans,” group 2A agents are “probably carcinogenic,” group 2B agents are “possibly carcinogenic,” and group three agents are “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity.” The IARC classified glyphosate as group 2A, along with 88 other “probably carcinogenic” agents. Additionally, the most recent meta-study on glyphosate reviewed and re-analyzed 13 studies discussing its effects on animals, finding that glyphosate does significantly increase the risk of developing tumors in mice. Finally, the most specific study regarding the effect of glyphosate on communities in Colombia was published in 2017. It used data from the Ministry of Health and cross referenced illnesses in patients with the dates and locations of fumigation. The study found that exposure to glyphosate increased the risk of dermatological and respiratory problems, as well as miscarriages, across different municipalities while controlling for other important demographic factors.

On the other hand, the United States Environmental Protection Agency published a report in December 2017 finding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The European Chemicals Agency Risk Assessment Committee also found “no evidence to link glyphosate to cancer in humans,” and refused to classify it as a chemical causing mutations or reproductive issues. This has only further entrenched skeptics in their views since both of these agencies are quite reputable.

The main issue is that both sides are interpreting statistical evidence differently; they’re often working with the same dataset, but have ideological disagreements on how to view the conclusions from their research. These beliefs may be informed by the social location of the researchers. For the most part, academics have been the ones declaring glyphosate a dangerous chemical. Meanwhile, policy-making institutions, who are often beholden to political and industrial pressures, have been more reluctant to renounce the chemical. These ideological disputes can be very hard to reconcile, especially when underpinned by political and monetary considerations. This makes it nearly impossible for groups to agree on any course of action regarding glyphosate.

The Role of Lived Experience

Among people who have actually experienced fumigation in their communities, the verdict is unanimous: it’s destructive.

Indigenous Colombians, Afro-Descendent Colombians, and Colombians from local communities came together to write a letter to Duque outlining the harms of fumigation and why it shouldn’t be restarted. The letter states that fumigation encourages “triple deforestation.” This is the process where first, coca farmers clear land to prepare it for illegal crops. Then, aerial fumigation destroys the crops and makes the land non-viable. As a result, the farmers move to another location and start the same process all over again. The farmers bring with them armed violence, gangs, and other aspects of the drug trade, which even further devastate local communities. The Office of Human Rights and Displacement in Colombia estimated that 39,397 people were displaced from fumigation in 2002, and 36,200 in 2001. The letter continues on to state that their communities rely on the flora and fauna around them, and the toxicity of glyphosate destroys these delicate ecosystems.

The claims of these local communities regarding the environmental effects of glyphosate can be verified through research; the chemical has severely damaged the Colombian ecosystem. The destruction of coca crops comes with the erosion of soil and poisoning of aquatic life. The effects are especially long-lasting because temperate ecosystems take more time to regenerate. This has only hurt the farming industry, contributing to issues of food insecurity.

More concretely, countless farmers have testified to their horrible experiences with glyphosate. Some have battle scars. Jose David Hernandez described how glyphosate would irritate his skin to the point where it would bleed, and he still has white scars left from the treatment he received for the chemical. Manuel de Jesus Sanchez was in his rice paddy when planes fumigated his crops, and now has skin problems and eyesight issues. Others have horror stories. Blanca Nohemi Arcos and Doris Iles told Colombia Reports of how their pineapple crops were mistaken as coca crops by pilots, and the spraying of the chemical eliminated their main source of income for that season. Pedro Arenas remembers how his friends were forced to move since they lost their whole livelihood as a result of spraying over non-coca crops.

The Colombian and United States governments were aware of all this suffering, but still chose to continue with fumigation until 2015. Between late 2001 and October 2002, the Colombian Ombudsman received over 6,500 claims of damage for food crops. The office even reported these health issues and stated they stemmed from aerial fumigation. Similarly, the Amazon Alliance criticized the United States State Department for continuing with fumigation despite adverse health and environmental effects. Nevertheless, these communities were almost entirely overlooked until 2015 when the WHO got involved. Yet, it’s shocking that it took an actor like the WHO to get the United States and Colombian governments to acknowledge, much less actually address, the pleas of the people suffering in glyphosate-affected communities.

Prioritizing Lived Experience

With so much disagreement in academia over analytical alpha thresholds for statistical significance and the reliability of various studies, the best place to look for evidence of whether glyphosate is actually harmful is within communities that experienced aerial fumigation. The testimony of minority groups within these communities as an example of “lived experience” is valuable. None of the studies listed above can take into account the specific circumstances that exist in Colombia in areas riled with conflict and how glyphosate might differentially affect people in those regions. As David Restrepo, the environmental director for the Center of Security and Drug Studies at the University of the Andes, said, “The studies saying glyphosate is relatively safe were done on factory farms in stable conditions in the US, not on families growing yuca in a conflict zone. There is no parallel.”

Clearly, science has limitations in the case of Colombia. It can go so far as to locate causal relationships between glyphosate and health issues (even if there exists disagreement over the truth-value of these relationships), but quantitative studies can’t describe what people on the ground actually experience. People in glyphosate-affected communities should be considered experts in the issues surrounding the chemical instead of interesting side-notes. This is especially true when those people are suffering as a result of the disagreement over whether glyphosate is toxic or safe; it raises the stakes for refusing to take action and means policymakers should err on the side of caution rather than accepting inconclusive scientific evidence.

There’s less incentive to lie about skin issues or health problems as a result of glyphosate, but companies that conduct studies on glyphosate have a strong investment in seeing it categorized as a safe material so they can continue selling it. This is specifically true for the company Monsanto that produces glyphosate and has invested large sums of money into studies that claim the chemical is safe. The balance between scientific evidence and lived experience is critical for ethical policy-making—numerous reports of health concerns and economic disruption to communities must be taken as seriously as state and industry backed scientific investigations.

This isn’t a novel concept. Courts in the United States have accepted lived experience as evidence before. For example, in Monroe County, West Virginia, a group of citizens defeated a massive corporation in court not by citing complicated scientific studies, but by sharing their stories regarding environmental injustice.

What this framework of prioritizing lived experience implies for Colombia is that aerial fumigation mostly does more harm than good for the communities it affects. With such academic uncertainty surrounding glyphosate, lived experience ushers policymakers to stop the practice in order to ensure the government does not condone the suffering of thousands of people at the hands of a toxic chemical.

The Colombian government may be better off investing in practices like alternative livelihood programs meant to support local communities in their resistance against the drug trade by investing in the establishment of legal and thriving developed economies. Programs like this would better contribute to a long-term solution for narcotics than short-term eradication methods, which fail to create change without the requisite infrastructure in place to prevent the drug trade from just shifting locations. Under this model, farmers wouldn’t have to resort to growing illegal crops during desperate times. This is the kind of action that prioritizes the people first over bottom lines and politicking.