Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • Colombian herbicide spraying under attack

[BOGOTA] The Colombian government is continuing to spray the herbicide glyphosate over thousands of acres of land in a bid to destroy illegal coca plantations, despite local concern that it damages crops and is harmful to human health.

Both the Colombian government and the US Environmental Protection Agency maintain that the herbicide — which is sold by Monsanto under the name Roundup — is entirely safe.

But critics contend that spraying the herbicide from aeroplanes over large areas of land has damaged local produce such as plantain, cassava, maize, and fruit trees. Furthermore there have been allegations from people living in the affected regions that animals are dying as a result of exposure to the chemical, and that it is no longer safe to drink water or eat food that has been similarly exposed.

Colombian president Álvaro Uribe-Velez argues that aerial spraying with glyphosate is the only way to exterminate the Colombian drug problem, and last year the anti-narcotics department fumigated 320,000 acres in this way. The US administration, which has given more than US$1.3 billion to combat drug traffickers in the past three years, has strongly supported this policy.

Local concern over use of the pesticide led to the commissioning of an official report from the Ombudsman Office, which investigates citizen's concerns about their government. In the report, which was released last October, director of the office, Eduardo Cifuentes, said that aerial spraying used to eradicate plantations of illicit substances "is harmful to the rights of citizens as regards food, human health and a healthy environment”.

Cifuentes recommended that a study be set up to design a system of monitoring the use of chemicals in coca-growing areas. People who live in such areas are exposed not only to glyphosate, but also to other chemicals such as ether and gasoline, which are used to transform coca leaves into white cocaine powder.

In response to the report's recommendations, the Colombian National Institute of Health (INS) commissioned an epidemiologist, Gloria Lucía Henao, to design a technical framework for the use of pesticides in the regions affected. The Health Ministry is expected to make announcement about whether or not it will endorse the model's recommendations in February.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says that glyphosate is harmless at levels below 0.7 parts per million. But, according to officials from the INS, scientific data is lacking with regard to aerial spraying of the chemical.

The INS is now proposing to carry out a study on the effects of aerial spraying on human health. But as well as being costly, collecting medical data from populations in coca-growing areas can be extremely difficult, given nearby conflict between guerrillas and paramilitaries. “It’s difficult to ask a researcher to go there and do the job — it's not safe”, says Marcela Varona, co-ordinator of INS health laboratory.

But another epidemiologist, who has requested to remain anonymous, claims that the INS has not pursued scientific research in this field because the government — or at least the previous government led by Andrés Pastrana — would not allow them to.

Related external link:

Report from Ombudsman Office on Herbicide Spraying (in Spanish)  PDF document

Photo credit: Larry R. Barber, USDA Forest Service. Image 0796038. 3 February 2003