Colombia set to end aerial spraying of coca fields

Over twenty years ago, Colombia embarked on a campaign of spraying farmland and forest with herbicides in an attempt to reduce coca crop production. Backed by the US administration of President Bill Clinton, the policy of spraying suspected coca crops became a central pillar of Plan Colombia. The US contributed funding for a fleet of planes, crop dusters and pilots, as well as equipping and training Colombian commandos. In 2004 another US$380 million was allocated under the George W. Bush administration for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. By the end of the last decade the US had invested an estimated US$1.3 billion.

From the onset, the policy was mired in controversy because of the deployment of military contractors or Private Military Companies and the environmental damage it caused. The use of the defoliant glyphosate was known to have serious implications for local eco-systems, but was not harmful to human beings according to the manufacturer Monsanto, the US and Colombian governments. This complacency has been overturned since a study by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was published online in the Lancet Oncology in March. It said that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, was “classified as probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The findings prompted the Colombian ministry of health to recommend that spraying should be suspended. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaking during a visit to a Bogotá hospital last week, said he is asking the country’s National Narcotics Council to suspend aerial spraying at the group’s next meeting, on Thursday. The council is mostly made up of Mr. Santos’s ministers, and two officials in his government said the group would likely opt to suspend fumigation.