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Last Updated:5/24/01
Narcotics Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Bogota Fact Sheet: The Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia, February 2001

Narcotics Affairs Section - NAS -- U.S. Embassy Bogotá

The Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia
Background and Environmental Impact

Q: What is the aerial eradication program?

A: The aerial eradication program in Colombia is a program of the Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police (DIRAN-CNP), supported by the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of Embassy Bogota. The DIRAN conducts regular flights with aircraft that spray coca and opium poppy crops with herbicides, focusing its efforts on large industrial cultivation.


Q: How are spray targets selected?

A: The Government of Colombia (GOC), not the USG, chooses the areas to be sprayed. The DIRAN reviews satellite imagery (provided by European donors) and flies over growing regions on a regular basis to search for new coca and opium poppy growth and to generate estimates of the illicit crop. Under Colombian law, the DIRAN has the legal and constitutional mandate to select the locations of the illicit crops that are to be sprayed. However, on occasion either the national directorate of dangerous drugs (DNE) or the GOC's Plan Colombia office (an office within the Colombian Presidency) will inform the DIRAN that certain areas of the country may not be sprayed as a matter of GOC policy, for example in areas of existing or future alternative development projects.


Q: What type of environmental monitoring and oversight is there?

A: The GOC has contracted an independent environmental auditor for the past several years. This individual reviews spray and no-spray areas with the DIRAN, and regularly monitors the results of spraying through field checks and analysis of data from the SATLOC system (the aircraft-mounted computer system which records the quantity of herbicide released from the spray nozzles). He does not, however, simply rely on information obtained from the CNP or NAS. Rather, he conducts field checks as well as reviewing photographs and SATLOC data to verify the accuracy of the spray missions (e.g., to check for possible spray drift or overspray), based on well-established parameters that have been developed over several years. On occasion, he also accompanies the spray pilots on eradication missions.

In addition, an August, 2000 revision to the Colombian law governing aerial eradication of illicit crops (Resolution 001 of 1994) provided for the creation of an "Inter-institutional Technical Committee" of Colombian government officials, which has an oversight/advisory function with respect to aerial eradication. This committee, headed by DNE and including representatives from the DIRAN, Plante (Colombia's alternative development agency) and local and national environmental agencies, is charged with reviewing and analyzing information on the effects of aerial eradication on human health and the environment, and making recommendations to the GOC (though not the ultimate decision) on areas to be sprayed.


Q: What herbicides are being used in Colombia for the eradication of illicit crops?

A: The only herbicide currently used for aerial eradication is glyphosate, which is one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals in the world. It is commercially available under many different brands in Colombia and worldwide. The aerial eradication program uses less than ten percent of the total amount of glyphosate used in Colombia each year. The remaining is used in the production of coffee; for pre-seeding rice, cotton, corn sorghum, barley, and soybeans; for weed control in plantations of fruit trees, plantains, bananas, and African palm; and as a maturing agent in the production of sugar cane. It is even used widely by growers of coca and opium poppy to control weeds.


Q: Has glyphosate been tested for environmental safety?

A: Glyphosate has been extensively tested and evaluated in Colombia, in the United States, and in other countries around the globe. Worldwide, it is among the most widely used herbicides by volume and is currently employed in over 100 countries for a variety of agricultural purposes.1 In 1974, after thorough review of testing results, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved glyphosate for general use. In the United States, glyphosate was used on about 5-10 million hectares annually in the 1980's and EPA estimates current use to be between 38 and 48 million pounds annually.2


Q: Does glyphosate harm cattle, chickens or other farm animals?

A: No. Glyphosate is poorly absorbed from the digestive tract and is largely excreted unchanged by mammals.3 When received orally or through the skin, it has a very low acute toxicity. 4 In long-term feeding studies of cows, chickens and pigs, levels of glyphosate were undetectable in muscle tissue, fat, milk and eggs.5


Q: Is glyphosate harmful to human beings?

A: No. There is an exhaustive body of scientific literature based on independent research conducted long before the Government of Colombia began spraying illicit crops with glyphosate. A major peer-reviewed article in which this body of literature was recently reviewed concluded that "under present and expected conditions of use, Roundup herbicide [the brand name for the glyphosate used in Colombia] does not pose a health risk to humans."6

Glyphosate is in fact one of the least harmful herbicides on the world market. Toxicological studies have shown that glyphosate is less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even Vitamin A.7 Glyphosate has been proven through testing to be unlikely to have any reproductive effects and poses little risk for genetic defects in humans.8 The EPA has declared that glyphosate is not cancer-causing in humans and classified glyphosate as "Category E," the most favorable category possible on a scale of carcinogenicity.9 Although it is a minor eye irritant, glyphosate did not have any adverse effects when applied to the skin during testing on humans.10 The EPA has also concluded that the chronic dietary risk posed by glyphosate food uses is minimal.11


Q: Does glyphosate destroy the soil and prevent plant growth?

A: No. Glyphosate enters a plant through contact with its leaves and only kills plants that are above ground at the time of spraying. It stops acting as an herbicide when it comes into contact with the soil, as glyphosate is rapidly and strongly bound to the soil. That is, the roots of a plant are not able to extract the chemical from the soil, and therefore cannot be damaged by that chemical. In soil glyphosate is quickly broken down by microorganisms and readily and completely biodegrades in the soil.12 Thus the rejuvenation of plant growth (naturally or through replanting) can begin immediately after spraying. Glyphosate is even used by coffee growers in Colombia to prevent erosion in sloping areas, because its application does not require the use of tools that disturb the soil.


Q: Does glyphosate contaminate the water where it is sprayed?

A: No. Glyphosate bonds tightly to the soil and thus is unlikely to wash into or contaminate drinking water.13 When it does enter a water source, it rapidly attaches to soil particles in the water and is quickly broken down by microbes. In water, glyphosate has a half-life of a few days.14 One formulation of glyphosate is specifically used to control weeds in or adjacent to water.


Q: Is glyphosate dangerous for the environment?

A: Glyphosate is only slightly toxic to wild birds and practically non-toxic to fish.15 It is minimally retained and rapidly eliminated in fish, birds, and mammals.16 As noted above, it rapidly decomposes in soil and water without any significant effects on the microorganisms that help perform this task.17 In fact, glyphosate is considered so benign that it is even used for vegetation control on the Galapagos lslands, one of the most fragile and environmentally protected areas in the Hemisphere.


Q: If glyphosate is so benign, why are there complaints of harm from its use in Colombia?

A: Negative press reports in Colombia concerning glyphosate have been largely based on unverified accounts provided by farmers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. In addition, we believe that the illegal armed groups are the source of many of the complaints. These groups receive vast sums of money from narcotraffickers to protect illicit crops and therefore have a significant interest in maintaining opposition to the spray program.


Q: How are complaints about glyphosate investigated?

A: The GOC thoroughly investigates all claims that spraying damaged legal crops or contributed to human health problems. These reports can be channeled through various GOC institutions, including the DIRAN, the DNE, the Attorney General, the Public Defender, the Ministry of the Environment, the Colombian National Police, or the Environmental Auditor's Office. Complaints are first examined to determine whether SATLOC computer records indicate that spraying indeed took place in the vicinity of the complaint on the specified date. This initial check ordinarily eliminates about 50% of the claims. The remaining complaints are investigated by field visits to determine whether damage was caused by glyphosate to legal crops, and if the legal crops in question were interspersed with coca. Almost universally, any damaged legal crops were planted among illegally grown coca.

Not a single claim of harm to human health as a result of the spray program has ever been confirmed. Many of the complaints attributed to the program have in fact been found to be attributable to the illicit growers' own use of toxic fungicides, herbicides (such as paraquat), and insecticides (such as parathion), which are far more toxic than glyphosate.


Q: What is the environmental impact of aerial eradication?

There has been much negative reporting and criticism from environmental groups and NGOs, on the environmental impact of aerial eradication, but one hears little of the far greater negative effects on the environment caused by illicit cultivation and narcotics processing. First, narcotraffickers choose growing areas not only because they are conducive to cultivation but also because they are far from urban areas. These areas have very fragile, and ecologically very important, ecosystems.


Q: ¿Is aerial fumigation contributing to deforestation in Colombia?

A: Deforestation is increasing at an alarming rate in Colombia and threatens the health of its population in the future. Aerial eradication of coca and poppy fields with glyphosate does not harm the soil and allows rapid regeneration of native plant species. Vast areas of rain forest and Andean forest have been destroyed, either cut or burned, to make way for illicit crops. According to the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (National Directorate of Dangerous Drugs; the Colombian equivalent of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy), drug cultivators cut down up to four hectares of forest for each hectare of coca planted or 2.5 hectares for each hectare of opium poppy. The GOC estimates that in 1999 425,600 hectares of forest were destroyed to plant coca and 78,516 hectares were destroyed to plant opium poppy. This deforestation severely alters the ecosystem, causing erosion, extinction of native plant/animal species, increases in C02 emissions and water pollution.18 Spraying discourages the cultivation of illicit crops and allows the natural forest to regenerate, while deforestation and environmental destruction are occurring fastest in areas where the spray program does not operate.


Q: ¿Is the use of glyphosate in Colombia restricted to aerial eradication of illicit crops?

A: No, glyphosate has been widely used in Colombia for a variety of agricultural purposes since 1975. The herbicides and fungicides used by coca and opium poppy growers are in fact much more toxic than glyphosate. Illicit growers use at least 75 different types of herbicides for weed control, including, ironically, glyphosate. They also use many highly toxic herbicides, insecticides and fungicides in much higher doses than is safe. These are very highly toxic products, which severely contaminate food crops and water, and lessen the ability of rain forest species to suppress pathogens. The GOC believes that some of them (e.g., paraquat and parathion) are responsible for many of the complaints attributed by growers to aerial glyphosate application.19

Coca growing regions typically also contain many laboratories for the processing of coca leaf to coca base, and coca base to cocaine hydrochloride. These processes require the use of many highly toxic chemicals, both solids and liquids, which after processing are dumped into rivers and streams. The substances used with most frequency are cement, potassium permanganate, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, ethyl acetate and ammonium hydroxide. According to the DNE, the processing of cocaine hydrochloride from one hectare of coca requires 50 kilograms of solid precursor components and 57 gallons of liquids.20


Q: ¿Doesn't the aerial eradication program hurt the small farmer who has no other way of earning a living?

A: The aerial eradication program is directed principally at large-scale illicit crops but smaller fields cultivated by small-scale farmers are frequently financed by drug traffickers and are just as illegal. Many Colombians are currently undergoing severe economic difficulties. This unfortunate fact should not be used by anyone as an excuse for following an illegal way of life, destroying the environment and causing more damage to Colombia. Furthermore, illegal drug traffic contributes to economic instability in Colombia, distorting the prices of legal products and raising the prices of land for all Colombians.


Conclusion

Aerial eradication is only one aspect of the integrated anti-narcotics approach reflected in Plan Colombia. It has been, and will continue to be, combined with other key programs, including drug interdiction, judicial reform, democracy strengthening measures, voluntary manual eradication, alternative development programs, assistance to displaced persons, protection for human rights, and support for the peace process.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Footnotes
1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Reregistration Eligibility Decision (R.E.D.) Facts, Glyphosate, 1993, p.1.

Williams, Gary M., et al. 2000. Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 31: 117-165.

2 Greenpeace, Glyphosate Fact Sheet, webpage.

Herbicide Factsheet: Glyphosate (Roundup). Journal of Pesticide Reform, Fall, 1998, vol.18, no.3, p.3.

3 Extension Toxicology Network, webpage. (A pesticide information project of the Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University and University of California at Davis)

4 International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.68;

5 Malik, J., G. Barry & G. Kishore. 1989. Minireview: The Herbicide Glyphosate. BioFactors 2 (1): 17-25.

International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.59.

6 Williams, Gary M., et al. 2000. Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 31: 160.

7 Idrobo, J. M. (President of the Colombian Ecological Society), Información sobre glifosato obtenida del Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario ICA: aspecto de salud y seguridad ambiental del herbicida ROUNDUP, 1992, p.3;

Ministerio de Justicia y del Derecho, Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (National Directorate of Dangerous Drugs in Colombia, DNE), Unidad Administrativa Especial, Plan de manejo ambiental para la aplicación del herbicida glifosato en la erradicacíon de cultivos ilícitos: informe final," Bogotá, July, 1998, p.44-76.

8 Stevens, James T. & Darrell D. Sumner. Herbicides in Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology, Volume 3, Cases of Pesticides. Wayland J. Hayes & Edward R. Law, editors. New York: Academic Press, 1991.

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Reregistration Eligibility Decision (R.E.D.) Facts, Glyphosate, 1993, p.2.

9 United States Environmental Protection Agency. 1992. Pesticide Tolerance for Glyphosate. Federal Register 57 (49): 8739-40.

10 International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.15.

Ibid, p.89.

11 United States Environmental Protection Agency, Reregistration Eligibility Decision (R.E.D.) Facts, Glyphosate, 1993, p.3.

12 United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Technical Factsheet on GLYPHOSATE, webpage.

13 International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.31.

14 United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Technical Factsheet on GLYPHOSATE, webpage.

International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.34.

15 Extension Toxicology Network, webpage. (A pesticide information project of the Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University and University of California at Davis)

16 Ibid.

17 International Program on Chemical Safety, Environmental Health Criteria 159: Glyphosate, World Health Organization: Geneva, 1994, p.15.

18 Ministerio de Justicia y del Derecho, Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (A recent report from the National Directorate of Dangerous Drugs in Colombia, DNE, provides an excellent summary of the environmental harm resulting from illicit cultivation), Cutivos ilícitos, erradícación e impacto ambiental, (Illicit Crops, Eradication and Environmental Impact), June, 2000, p.15-30.

19 Ibid., note, p.22-24.

19 Ibid., note, p.29.

As of May 24, 2001, this document was available online at http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/ar/colombia/wwwhglyp.htm
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