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State Department fact sheet on Aerial Eradication of Illicit Crops, November 6, 2000
United States Support For Colombia

Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
U.S. Department of State, November 6, 2000


The Aerial Eradication of Illicit Crops: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

QUESTION: What is the aerial eradication program?

ANSWER: 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 the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. The DIRAN conducts regular flights with aircraft that spray coca and opium poppy crops with herbicides, focusing its efforts on large industrial cultivation.

QUESTION: How are spray targets selected?

ANSWER: The Government of Colombia, not the U.S. Government, chooses the areas to be sprayed. The DIRAN reviews satellite imagery from 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 crops. 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 Government of Colombia'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 policy, for example in areas of existing or future alternative development projects.

QUESTION: What is the role of the U.S. Government in the aerial eradication program?

ANSWER: The Embassy's NAS Aviation Office supports the Colombian National Police's aerial eradication program with technical advice, fuel, spray aircraft, and a limited number of escort helicopters. The NAS Aviation Office coordinates regular reconnaissance flights piloted by personnel from a Department of State contractor that provides maintenance and technical support and some pilots. These flights focus on the areas identified by the Colombian National Police in their estimates of the illicit crop and, with the use of an aircraft-mounted global positioning computer system, identify the precise geographical coordinates where that crop is being grown. A computer program then sets up precise flight lines with a 170' width (the width of a spray swath) within that area.

The DIRAN notifies the NAS Aviation Office of all decisions as to which areas of the country may not be sprayed, and spraying is then conducted only in those areas that the Government of Colombia has approved. If the DIRAN has approved spraying in a given area, spray pilots then fly down the prescribed flight lines set up by the computer program and spray the crops located there. The majority of the spray pilots in country are Colombians, but Department of State contractor pilots (both U.S. citizens and third-country nationals) also fly some spray missions.

Prior to any spraying, the spray pilots file flight plans with the DIRAN for each proposed spray mission, informing the DIRAN of the precise geographical blocks and coordinates to be sprayed. DIRAN personnel accompany the pilots on every mission, both in the search and rescue helicopter and in the escort helicopters that accompany each flight, and the DIRAN performs as the mission commander on all aerial eradication missions. Representatives from the Prosecutor General and Attorney General Offices also accompany the flights on occasion.

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

ANSWER: The Government of Colombia 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 computer system. On occasion, he accompanies the spray pilots on eradication missions.

In addition, an August 2000 revision to the Colombian law governing aerial eradication of illicit crops provided for the creation of an Interinstitutional Technical Committee (ITC) 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 (though not the ultimate decision) on areas to be sprayed.

QUESTION: What chemicals are being used in Colombia for the eradication of illicit crops?

ANSWER: The only chemical 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 10% 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 by growers of coca and opium poppy to control weeds.

QUESTION: Has glyphosate been tested for environmental safety?

ANSWER: Yes. 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. In 1974, after thorough review of testing results, the U.S. 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 1980s and the EPA estimates current use to be between 38 and 48 million pounds annually.

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

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

QUESTION: Is glyphosate harmful to human beings?

ANSWER: No. There is an exhaustive body of scientific literature based on independent research conducted long before the governments of Colombia and the United States 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."

Glyphosate is in fact one of the least harmful herbicides to appear on the world market. Toxicological studies have shown that glyphosate is less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, and even vitamin A. Glyphosate has been proven through testing to be unlikely to have any reproductive effects and poses little risk for genetic defects in humans. 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.

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

ANSWER: 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 a herbicide when it comes into contact with the soil. There it is quickly broken down by microorganisms and readily and completely biodegrades in the soil. 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.

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

ANSWER: No. Glyphosate bonds tightly to the soil and thus is unlikely to wash into or contaminate drinking water. 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. One formulation of glyphosate is specifically used to control weeds in or adjacent to water.

QUESTION: Is glyphosate dangerous for the environment?

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

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

ANSWER: These reports have been largely based on unverified accounts provided by farmers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. Since their illegal livelihoods have been affected by the spraying, these persons do not offer objective information about the program. 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.

QUESTION: How are complaints about glyphosate investigated?

ANSWER: The Government of Colombia thoroughly investigates all claims that spraying damaged legal crops or contributed to human health problems. These reports can be channeled through various Colombian government institutions, including the DIRAN, the DNE, the Attorney General, the Public Defender, the Environmental Ministry, 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 licit 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 insecticides and fungicides such as paraquat and parathion, which are far more toxic than glyphosate.

QUESTION: Is spraying contributing to the deforestation of Colombia?

ANSWER: Deforestation is increasing at an alarming rate in Colombia and threatens the future health of all Colombians. As indicated above, the spraying of coca and opium poppy fields with glyphosate does not harm the soil and allows for the rapid regeneration of native plant species. Damage from deforestation is wrought by drug cultivators who must cut down up to four hectares of forest for each hectare of coca planted, two-and-a-half hectares of forest for each hectare of opium poppy, and who then poison the surrounding streams with the chemicals used in narcotics processing. 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.

QUESTION: Why doesn't the United States Government fund alternative development programs instead of spraying illegal crops?

ANSWER: The United States Government works closely with Colombia's national plan for alternative development (PNDA) and is convinced that alternative development is an essential part of the solution to the world's illegal drug problem. In 1999, the United States Government began a three-year, $15 million program to support alternative development in Colombia. The Plan Colombia assistance package that passed in the summer of 2000 provides an additional $91 million specifically for alternative development. Such development, however, is a long-term process and will work best in Colombia when accompanied by aerial spraying that decreases a farmer's chances of profiting from criminal activity. For much of the coca growing areas, especially deep in the Guaviare, other factors such as soil quality, remoteness, and inadequate infrastructure make alternative development in those regions an option unlikely to succeed.

QUESTION: Doesn't the spray program hurt the small farmer who has no other way of earning a living?

ANSWER: The spray program is directed primarily toward large-scale cultivation of illicit crops, but smaller fields cultivated by campesinos are often financed by narcotraffickers and are equally illegal. Many Colombians presently suffer from severe economic hardship. This unfortunate fact should not be used by anybody as an excuse to pursue a livelihood that is unlawful, environmentally destructive, and causes further harm to the nation of Colombia. Furthermore, the illegal drug trade contributes to economic destabilization in Colombia by distorting the prices of legal goods and driving up land prices for all Colombians.

As of September 6, 2000, this document was also available online at

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