Feature: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Scorched Earth Policy Part 1

A U.S. spraying program in Colombia doesn’t seem to be stopping the drug trade, but it’s poisoning everything else.

By Peter Gorman

There are several thousand miles of desert, jungle, road, river and red tape between the Colombia-Ecuador border and Rafael Rondon’s desk at Catholic Charities in Fort Worth. Only a handful — thus far — of the refugees who have streamed away from that region in recent months have made it this far north, to seek help from Rondon, or his counterparts at several other local refugee missions. Like so many other thousands in the last 30 years, they are fleeing war, a war whose wounds show in their blinded eyes and open sores, their labored breaths, their tales of attack and destruction. What doesn’t show is their memories, of fields laid waste, villages turned into ghost towns, forests silent, old people and babies dying.

Still, who knows if Fort Worth is far enough? It has been in the past, for those seeking asylum from the military and paramilitary groups that have been fighting a civil war in Colombia for decades. But these new refugees cannot be so sure. After all, only a few minutes as the crow flies from Rondon’s office, the name of one of their attackers is emblazoned high above a busy Fort Worth freeway — DynCorp, the company whose planes have rained down poison on their animals and fields and homes. And DynCorp’s partner and employer in such attacks is the same entity whom these refugees must now ask for asylum — the United States government. More than that, Texas is home to many of those who have lobbied for these onslaughts, the companies that would like to develop the rich fields that lie below now-poisoned farms.

The war in Colombia and Ecuador is not being fought with missiles and tanks. Its weapons are not high-tech. The U.S. government, with the help of DynCorp — a company whose heavy-handed overseas operations have come under international criticism before — is, in effect, waging war with crop-dusting planes and weed-killer. According to those who have seen the battlefields and the wounded, what is supposed to be a War on Drugs is turning out to be a massive ecological disaster that is driving all life — literally — from many square miles of remote and once-beautiful countryside in South America. “Plan Colombia,” many believe, is a war, like that which now looms in Iraq, being fought not to save little people, but to help Big Oil.

“On the worst days, there are sometimes more than 30,” Sister Carmen Rosa Perez said. “They come in to our church with nothing but their muchilas, backpacks. They’ve left everything to get out of Colombia. Or even worse, they come from our own border here in Ecuador. They are sick. Some have sores and rashes from the fumigation. They can’t breathe; they complain their joints ache or that they can no longer see clearly. No one believes us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Sister Carmen Rosa Perez works at the Iglesia Miguel de Sucumbios in Lago Agrio, an Ecuadorian city about 10 miles from the border with Colombia. Across Putumayo River is the Colombian department — or state — of Putumayo.

The three-year-old church is an unpainted one-story concrete building, still under construction. There, workers see to the immediate medical and physical needs of the refugees, then send them to another church-maintained facility that tries to find them work. Those who don’t find jobs are given small parcels of land on which to grow their own food. But, Sister Carmen noted, “Most of them just disappear from us. They go off into the jungle, along the rivers to clear new fields, once they are physically able.”

In the past, most of the refugees who came through Lago Agrio were seeking escape from the civil violence in Colombia, perpetrated by paramilitary groups of the left and right and by the Colombian army itself. But since October 2000, many of the nearly 4,000 refugees who have come to Sister Carmen’s church have been fleeing a massive coca eradication program being carried out on behalf of the United States by contractors from DynCorp. And in the past several months, more and more Ecuadorians as well have sought help, brutalized either by the military conflict spilling across the river or by the loss of their crops to defoliation.

“At first they came to escape the violence, but now they mostly come to try to find work and food to feed their families. The spraying has killed all their crops, all their animals. Even the animals of the forest are gone,” Sister Carmen said. She speaks plainly. She is not new to this. She came from Colombia, in Putumayo, eight years ago, after graduating from a religious university.

The people she is talking about are campesinos — dirt farmers — and indigenous Indians, people who find themselves and their ancestral lands caught up in a conflict they can hardly comprehend.

The health problems that Sister Carmen sees, and the horror stories she hears, are the result of whole valleys in Colombia — and, almost certainly, across the border in Ecuador — being sprayed with chemicals that, in the U.S., even pets and farm animals aren’t supposed to be allowed near. One of them is a variant of Roundup, a weed-killer available at your local Home Depot. The other is a Colombian product not even listed or tested by U.S. health authorities.

Directions on Roundup Ultra warn about guarding humans, animals, and desired plants from exposure to the chemicals. And yet, U.S. officials connected to Plan Colombia insist that the chemicals are safe. They are allowing them to be sprayed, not a few feet off the ground, not only onto coca plants, but from planes flying so high that pilots cannot target their deadly deliveries with enough precision even to pinpoint a particular farm, much less avoid animals, forests, humans, or food crops growing nearby. In a country where an average farm might be an acre or two, the drift effect alone is affecting areas the size of large plantations.

In fact, even on the Ecuadorian side of the river, where authorities insist no direct spraying is taking place, fumigation is having profound effects. The “frontier region has changed drastically since Plan Colombia’s inception,” Sister Carmen said. “They are taking this beautiful place and killing everything. On the river the old chacras, fields, are yellow and brown with everything dying. ... The campesinos say their yucca and plantain are dead, just brown and dead. Coffee, bananas, there is nothing there. Animals are dead and there is no meat.

“When it is all done,” asked Sister Carmen, “what will we have? Our jungle will be gone, the people gone, the animals gone. But the U.S. will have what it wants. It will have the oil business here.” Asked if she thought the coca would be gone too, she chuckled. “All of this doesn’t seem to be bothering the narcos,” she said. “Remember, I am from Colombia. The narcos have the real plantations all over the country, not just in the south. The real plan here isn’t to stop the coca. It is to get rid of the rebels to get to the oil.”

Since October 2000, this remote region of Amazonia has become the center of U.S. efforts to eradicate the coca growing and burgeoning opium poppy industries, an effort known as Plan Colombia under Bill Clinton and, in an expanded form, as George W. Bush’s Andean Initiative. What was once a civil war has grown into an alleged war on drugs, the expenses of both sides paid for primarily by U.S. tax dollars and U.S. drug profits. It is being fought largely with U.S.-supplied equipment and arms, much of its training and planning engineered by the U.S. military and State Department. And its key element — coca fumigation — sits squarely in the hands of U.S. companies.

When Bill Clinton unveiled Plan Colombia in late 1999, its stated goals included eradicating the coca and opium poppy plants used to make cocaine and heroin, respectively, while helping the Colombian government end its civil war, reduce human rights abuses and reestablish political stability through aid to its military and police forces. There was beauty in the plan’s simplicity: Eliminating the plants would eliminate the drugs; that would eliminate the drug money that has kept rebel groups armed and fed; that would eliminate the violent instability that has threatened to tear the country apart. Thus, almost all the problems facing Colombia would be solved simultaneously. President Bush has expanded the vision to include the destruction of all “terrorist groups” operating in Colombia but has otherwise kept the program’s goals and funding in place.

In its early years, Plan Colombia directed most of its millions toward military ends. In 2000, therefore, when Congress approved $1.3 billion for the plan as an emergency measure, the sweepstakes winners were three military contractors: Sikorsky Helicopters, Bell Helicopter Textron Corp. and DynCorp. Sikorsky, of Stratford, Conn., secured a $360 million contract for 30 Black Hawk helicopters. In Fort Worth, Bell got a $66 million contract for 33 of its Huey helicopters.

But it was DynCorp that became the lynchpin of Plan Colombia. The company, based in Reston, Va., received nearly $500 million to upgrade and renew an ongoing coca-spraying contract. DynCorp, which primarily utilizes former military personnel for its government contracts worldwide, does most of its personnel recruitment for government contracts through its Fort Worth-based arm. The Fort Worth office, for instance, recruited police officers and aircraft mechanics to support the United Nations mission in Bosnia in the 1990s — where, according to reports and lawsuits, DynCorp personnel then took part in the forced prostitution trade, victimizing the people that the U.N. mission was supposed to protect.

The company’s contract in Colombia calls for it to help in drug interdiction, troop and supply transport, reconnaissance, search and rescue missions, aircraft maintenance, pilot training for helicopters and crop-duster planes, and a host of other jobs. Most importantly, DynCorp was given the lucrative aerial fumigation contract to eliminate all the coca and poppy plants growing in Colombia. Monsanto, the pharmaceutical giant from St. Louis that provided Agent Orange as a defoliant during the Viet Nam war, was also a beneficiary: Roundup — its brand name for glyphosate — was chosen as the Plan Colombia herbicide.

The big losers in Plan Colombia were the farmers of Putumayo — regardless of whether they grew coca or yucca and beans. Despite assurances from the U.S. State Department that spraying would be a precision operation used only on coca fields of more than seven acres, thousands of people with small family farms were sprayed as well, got sick, and were ultimately displaced by the spraying. Many farmers complained that their animals were dying and their food crops were poisoned. Some said the old people and babies in their villages have died after the crop-dusting planes delivered their poisons.

The U.S. denied the allegations, insisting that the product being used, a variant of Monsanto’s household herbicide, was safe. On April 30, 2001, shortly after Plan Colombia’s coca fumigation began, William R. Brownfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that, “The agent used in aerial eradication is the herbicide glyphosate ... . It is one of the least harmful herbicides to appear on the world market ... Accounts claiming that glyphosate causes damage to humans, animals and the environment are unfounded.”

Brownfield was either misinformed or lying. Four months earlier, Dutch journalist Marjon van Royen had published an admission by the State Department in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handlesblad, that it wasn’t Roundup, but Roundup Ultra that was being utilized in the spraying in Colombia. Additionally, the State Department admitted that a Colombian product called Cosmoflux was added to the spray mixture as a surfactant to help keep the herbicide on the plant long enough to do its work. But with their admissions, the State Department was quick to add that both Roundup Ultra and Cosmoflux were approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That was nonsense. The EPA had never heard of Cosmoflux and, according to a spokesperson, even now the agency has not tested it. “We don’t examine products made for use in a foreign country,” said EPA spokesman Luke Hanson.

The questions of whether Roundup or Roundup Ultra is being used, and the presence of Cosmoflux, are not minor considerations in gauging the collateral damage that spraying might do to food crops, animals, and people. Roundup Ultra is considerably stronger than the regular Roundup found in garden centers. It was approved for use in the U.S. only in November 2001, and then only for certain commercial, non-agricultural applications. The handling instructions correspond to the highest Environmental Protection Agency toxicity rating, Class 1, while common Roundup falls into the lower, Class 3 rating.

Then there’s Cosmoflux. When environmentalists pointed out to the State Department that no toxicological tests had ever been performed on the combination of Roundup Ultra with Cosmoflux, the British company ICI, which makes one of the key ingredients of Cosmoflux, decided to withdraw its component from the final product. According to a 2001 report in the London Observer, “ICI does not want its name dragged into such a programme, particularly as there have been reports of children in Colombia who have inhaled the chemicals falling ill.”

Rebecca Brown-Thompson, public diplomacy officer for the State Department’s narcotics and law enforcement bureau, said that, “We have found a Colombian company to make it,” but would not reveal the manufacturer.

Despite U.S. denial that Roundup Ultra combined with Cosmoflux is hazardous to humans and animals in Colombia, the warning label of common Roundup alone suggests otherwise. Regarding humans: “Do not allow workers into treated areas for a period of four hours.” Regarding animals: “We recommend that grazing animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, tortoises and fowl remain out of the treated area for two weeks.” Regarding plant life: “Avoid contact of herbicide to foliage, green stems, exposed non-woody roots or fruit of crops, desirable plants, and trees because severe injury or destruction is likely to result.”

The Roundup label makes particular note of drift as well. In a section boldly headlined “ATTENTION,” it states in capital letters: “AVOID DRIFT. EXTREME CARE MUST BE USED WHEN APPLYING THIS PRODUCT TO PREVENT INJURY TO DESIRABLE PLANTS AND CROPS.”

Those warnings proved to be much closer to the truth than Brownfield’s assessment when actual results in Colombia were examined. Complaints from campesinos and indigenous people led to two health and environmental studies, carried out in Colombia’s Putumayo department and Ecuador’s adjacent Sucumbios province shortly after Plan Colombia spraying began. The Colombian study, done by biologist Elsa Nivia between February and April of 2001, indicated that more than 4,000 people in Putumayo were suffering from acute eye irritation, respiratory problems, heart arrhythmias, skin lesions and rashes, temporary paralysis and temporary blindness, among other health problems. Additionally, thousands of animals had died, and the vast majority of area food crops were destroyed.

The Ecuadorian study, done in May and June of the same year under the direction of Dr. Adolpho Mondonaldo, was even more revealing, as Ecuador was not supposed to be sprayed or affected by chemicals drifting from the Plan Colombia fumigation. Dr. Mondonaldo, studying villages on the Ecuadorian side of the border river, found that 100 percent of those living within two and five kilometers of the river suffered the identical symptoms as those living in Putumayo. Among those people living 10 kilometers from the river, 89 percent suffered identical symptoms. And as in Colombia, damage to food crops was severe, reducing production by 85 to 90 percent.

The State Department did not officially respond to the studies. In fact, months earlier the agency had already shown its deep concern for any harm its program might be doing. “As their illegal lives have been affected by the spraying, these persons do not give objective information,” its December 2000 report said.

On Aug. 29, 2002, U.S. Embassy officials in Quito, Ecuador, again challenged the studies. They conceded that the research did seem to indicate Ecuadorians in the border areas were suffering health problems, but complained that the study did not provide much in the way of proof of what might be causing those problems.

Dr. Maldonado responded with simple logic. “If we have a series of pathologies that occur with great frequency near a particular point and decrease as the distance from that point increases, it means there is—or was—something at that point,” he said.

The complaints were not coming from those with what the U.S. described as “commercial plantations”—more than seven acres. The vast majority came from farmers who, as a CIA 2002 bulletin noted, had less than one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of the extremely labor-intensive coca under cultivation.

And the complaints were not coming only from what the Colombian government repeatedly called “environmental extremists.” In the spring of 2001, the German government complained that chemical drift had destroyed several fishponds they’d underwritten; Colombia’s own Human Rights Ombudsman office contacted the State Department to call for an end to the fumigation. Klaus Nyholm, chief of the United Nations drug control efforts in Colombia, weighed in as well, claiming that the spraying was driving coca farmers to clear new areas of virgin jungle in which to grow their crops.

The indigenous peoples of Putumayo also complained bitterly about the spraying in an open letter to the Colombian and U.S. governments and to several environmental groups. The July 10, 2002, letter — titled “SOS From the Indigenous Peoples of Putumayo” — was signed by members of 13 tribal groups. “We hold the Colombian government responsible for the misery, hunger, destruction and violence that fumigation causes in our territories,” it said. “Fumigation is death. Fumigation is ethnocide. Glyphosate kills. It destroys food crops and pastureland and contaminates the water. .... The indigenous people of Putumayo reject the cultivation of illicit crops. But we equally reject the violent methods with which it is combatted.”

The closest the United States has come to accepting the possibility of problems was in a report presented to Congress by the Bush Administration last September, on the health and environmental risks of glyphosate. The report noted that aerial spraying of the herbicide “may cause eye irritation to farmers on the ground” but poses no “unreasonable risks or adverse effects’’ to humans or the environment. One administration official compared the irritation to having “baby shampoo in your eyes. It goes away after 72 hours.” (Johnson & Johnson, makers of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, refused to respond to the allegation that their shampoo could cause 72 hours of painful eye irritation in babies.) Environmentalists railed against the report, noting that the administration was investigating itself with no outside oversight.

Not all the problems caused by Roundup Ultra are immediately apparent. According to the product’s safety sheet, when the herbicide is burned, 4 percent of the volume released into the air is acetonitirile. That’s methyl cyanide (CH3CN); metabolized by the human body, it becomes hydrogen cyanide (HCN), the same gas used in the Nazi death camps. It is so dangerous to humans that the safety instructions include cautions that, if the weed-killer is burned, people should stay out of the smoke, and that firefighters or others exposed to such smoke should wear “full protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus.”

Drug Enforcement Administration documents produced in connection with early glyphosate spraying of Colombian marijuana fields list some of the hazards of inhaling burning glyphosate as “chest pains, cough, abdominal cramps, dyspnea [difficulty in breathing], nausea, headache, chills, lassitude and fatigue.” Other DEA documents conceded additional health problems include “pale to ashen-grey skin, shallow pulse, hypotension, transient paralysis” and respiratory distress.

The issue is important because the coca growers in Colombia, like the farmers throughout Amazonia, utilize the slash-and-burn method of agriculture: They cut a section of forest and burn the vegetation on it to produce potash, which enhances soil nutrients. “There are no tractors here,” said Sister Carmen of Sucumbios. “The people also cut and burn their fields after spraying, and we think they are suffering for breathing of those burning chemicals. But there are large interests here at work, political and economic interests.”

Brown-Thompson, of the State Department, said she was unaware that burning glyphosate would produce hydrogen cyanide. “But then why is that a problem?” she asked. Told that the farmers in the region were slash-and-burn agriculturalists, she pleaded ignorance. “I didn’t know that. They really do that there?”(Click here to continue...)

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