Feature: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Scorched Earth Policy Part 2

Cesar Cerda is a Quichua Indian whose village in Sucumbios is near the Putumayo frontier. “The planes come to the river. Sometimes they come to our side and spray,” he said. “Even when they don’t, the spray comes across the river and kills our food. Our platanos, our yucca, our coffee is all gone. Even our animals are dead, and there are no animals to hunt in the forest because they have gone somewhere else.”

Cerda said he and other Quichua representatives have complained to the government, to no avail. “They won’t come because they say there is no problem here. Why? Because they have made pacts with the United States. But the truth is that life on the river has changed since Plan Colombia started.”

Sister Carmen said that her church and the indigenous groups have sent repeated requests to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, asking for an investigation of the fumigation drift into Ecuador. “They always promise they will send someone, but they never have. Our government backs Plan Colombia, so why should they come? In whose interest would it be to investigate the complaints of the victims?” she asked.

Despite such official denials, the drifting poisons have affected so many people that a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the people of Sucumbios was filed against DynCorp by the International Labor Rights Fund in September 2001. The suit alleges that the drift in Ecuador is purposeful, rather than the result of pilot error or an accident of wind. Among the allegations in the lawsuit are that “the American oil industry maintains a lobbying group in Washington D.C. under the name the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership that lobbies the Congress of the United States, and the Executive Offices and related agencies of the United States, for continuous funding and expansion of Plan Colombia.”

The partnership, the plaintiffs said, includes Texaco, Inc., Occidental Petroleum, and B.P. Amoco, all of which “have or expect to have oil interests” in the Sucumbios region. “The spraying of plaintiffs’ persons, lands and livestock with toxic fumigants is nothing less than an act of mercenary war carried out surreptitiously by the DynCorp defendants,” the lawsuit alleges.

The CEO of DynCorp, in a letter to the labor fund leaders, called the suit baseless and irresponsible. “In fact, considering the worldwide support for the elimination of harmful drugs from our cities and schools, it has been suggested ... that the most logical supporters of such an action would be the drug cartels themselves,” he wrote.

Brown-Thompson also said the suit is unfounded. “We use satellite imagery to pinpoint areas to be sprayed, then send in planes to verify the presence of large areas of illegal crops,” she said. “After that, the crops are sprayed, and subsequently those sprayed areas are checked to see that no additional crops were affected.”

Several Texas crop-dusters told Fort Worth Weekly that to limit unwanted drift of chemicals, spraying is normally done very close to the tops of the plants being sprayed. Crop-dusters, as a point of pride, like to touch the plants they are spraying. “The planes are never more than one to three feet from the ground when we’re spraying cotton, maybe five feet when it’s corn,” said a pilot at Ballards Crop Dusting in Winter, Texas. But reports from Colombia and comments from the U.S. State Department indicate that the spraying in Plan Colombia is generally being done at heights of 50 to 100 feet.

Asked how much drift would occur with a plane flying at 10 feet, the Ballards pilot said, “at least 50 feet on either side of the plane.”

Corky Wilson, owners of Wilson Aerial Spray in Lockney, Texas, agreed. “Hell, if you’re flying at 10 feet you’re not crop-dusting. You’re burning. The only time we do that in Texas is to kill mesquite trees.”

Told that the United States admits its planes frequently spray at altitudes of 50 to 100 feet, Wilson laughed. “You’re burning the whole forest now. Hell, at 20 feet on a windless day you’ve got a 150-foot drift on either wing. At 100 feet you got a cloud that might travel miles.”

While most of the problems related to Plan Colombia appear to be occurring in the border regions of Colombia and Ecuador, startling new allegations have been made that spray planes are going deep into Ecuadorian Amazonia. Inez Shenguango Fonaqen, a Quichua Indian and the regent of the territory along the upper Rio Napo in Yasuni National Park, told the Weekly that central Amazonia is also being fumigated. “Planes come into Ecuador regularly,” she said. “They are spraying the jungle here, killing the jungle and jungle animals here.”

Asked how they could come in unnoticed until now, Shenguango said, “They come at night with no lights and fly over the jungle. I have asked the government for film camera to prove it, but the government won’t give me one. They say our communities are inventing the problems and inventing the story.”

Two things hint that she may not be off the mark. The first is that in July 2001, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson told reporters, “There are ... plans to outfit some crop-dusters with night-vision scopes to enable pilots to spray after dark, when they are less exposed to fire from guerrillas, paramilitaries, or farmers who grow coca.”

The second came from Brown-Thompson. Asked about the possibility of night incursions into Ecuador, the State Department spokeswoman said: “They cannot be our planes entering Ecuador. But I can only speak for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. I cannot speak for other areas of government.”

If bringing stability to Colombia and reducing drug flow and drug money were the only goals of Plan Colombia, the U.S. was curiously late in bringing its gifts to the table. The war in Colombia had been going on for more than 30 years before Plan Colombia was funded. Cocaine use in the United States had already peaked during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and ’90s and was on the decline long before intervention in Colombia became a White House imperative.

What was new was the creation, in 1996, of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership to represent U.S. companies with interests in Colombia. The group immediately began a well-financed lobbying effort to push for just such intervention. The companies represented by the business partnership included Occidental Petroleum, Enron, Texaco, and BP Amoco. Each of those companies had huge stakes in Colombia; all had suffered financial losses because of the endless civil war — and had much to gain by a peace that might also open up a depopulated and deforested region to oil exploration.

If oil companies can exploit areas like Putumayo and Sucumbios, other Texas companies will also benefit, like Dallas-based Halliburton that Vice President Dick Cheney formerly led, which provides services, equipment, and expertise to the energy industry and has extensive involvement in the region.

In April 2000, a few months before the passage of Plan Colombia, the U.S. Geological Survey released a new World Petroleum Resource Assessment that estimated there were between 130 and 300 commercially viable but undiscovered oil fields in the region covering southern Colombia, northeastern Ecuador, and northwestern Peru. The heaviest concentration is in Putumayo in Colombia and across the river in Sucumbios, Ecuador. Estimates as to the size of the fields began at a minimum of 1 million barrels —less is not considered commercially viable—and topped out at 750 million barrels. But those estimates may be low: One of the fields predicted by the survey was discovered earlier this year — the Ishpingo-Tamococha-Tiputini, or ITT oil field in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, with 1.4 billion barrels of proven reserves. Fifteen foreign companies are currently bidding on the rights to develop it and extract the oil.

Leslie Wirpsa, a doctoral student in international relations and a research fellow at Stanford University, is studying oil in the region, after working for years as an investigative reporter in Colombia. The ITT field alone “doubles Ecuador’s known oil reserves,” she said. In Colombia, the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, earlier this year signed contracts with two firms and hopes to sign with several more, to explore for oil in Putumayo. Ecopetrol estimates that the region holds a minimum of 2.4 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves.

There are problems standing in the way of most of the oil exploration in both Putumayo and Sucumbios, however. In Colombia there is the civil war and the drug trade; in Ecuador much of the oil is beneath ancestral indigenous lands or within the boundaries of Yasuni National Park, the Limoncocha Biological Reserve, or the Cuyabeno Reserve. Incursions into all of those regions have drawn protests from local and international environmentalists.

Another problem for oil developers is the difficulty of pinpointing oil reserves beneath the thick jungle canopy that covers much of the region. Satellite photography, an invaluable tool in oil exploration, cannot see through such forests.

In some parts of the world, satellite imaging works despite thick forests because of variations in that cover, which imply variations in underlying geological formations, explained Gordon Staples, a researcher for RADARSAT, a Canadian satellite imaging company. “But in areas of dense tropical jungle the geology is that much more complex,” he said. Pinpointing oil deposits via satellite imaging “is considerably easier if there is no ground cover.”

Despite all the concerns raised by human rights workers and environmentalists, removal of that ground cover — and of humans and animals — in Putumayo and adjacent areas of Ecuador — is proceeding apace, via the spraying. Oddly enough, what doesn’t seem to be going away is the cocaine.

In 2002, under the aegis of Plan Colombia, more than 250,000 acres of coca were destroyed in Colombia. In 2003, that number is being increased to nearly 400,000, or, supposedly, almost every acre of coca under cultivation in Colombia.

Coca takes a long time to grow from new plant to harvest — three years from seed, six to eight months from cuttings. If American assessments of Plan Colombia’s effectiveness are correct, Colombian coca production should have been decimated over the last couple of years. And it should drop to almost nothing in the next year to three years, unless farmers are able to replant with cuttings. To do that at a volume that would keep up current cocaine supplies, they’d need more than 3 billion plants, the equivalent of an enormous greenhouse effort. And how would billions of cuttings be distributed around the country without being noticed?

The State Department has no real answer. “I’ve never thought of that before,” said Brown-Thompson. “Why don’t you ask the Drug Enforcement Administration?”

A DEA spokesman was equally helpful. “I get what you’re getting at; the numbers don’t add up. But Plan Colombia has nothing to do with the DEA. That’s State Department all the way,” said the DEA official, who asked not to be named.

The reason there is no answer is that there are no cuttings — at least nowhere near three billion, or even three million. Colombian coca growing is being done from seed. Which means it takes three years to grow. If Plan Colombia has truly been wiping out larger and larger chunks of the crop annually, there would be fewer and fewer mature plants to harvest — and by next year, no Colombian coca harvest at all.

Those kinds of numbers should by now have created a major supply problem for cocaine dealers around the world. But in Fort Worth and across the country, law enforcement officials said cocaine prices and availability have remained roughly constant for the last several years.

That suggests that the elimination of coca from southern Colombia has had no effect on world supply. Which means that the coca that produces the world supply is grown elsewhere, maybe in unsprayed, protected valleys, or that Peru and Bolivia are still producing sufficient supplies.

Those conclusions, of course, would suggest that Plan Colombia is a sham — and reinforce the belief of the Sucumbios plaintiffs that the spraying program that is displacing thousands of people, ruining farmland, killing animals, and defoliating the rainforest is being done for other ends.

The pursuit of rebels by the Colombian military in the south, along with the spraying of coca fields there, is forcing both the rebels and the campesinos to cross into Ecuador and eastern jungles for safety. Pressure on both groups is about to increase, as the U.S. steps up its fumigation plans. With the drift into Ecuador already eliminating a large segment of the population on the border, with the added pressure of thousands of refugees cutting new fields from the jungle there, it shouldn’t take long to clear the entire region of both people and rainforest.

Then there will be many more refugees coming north, some as far as North Texas — not the vast majority, not the poor or the indigenous people, the people at the heart of the Colombian conflict. They won’t make it this far.

“Two years ago, at the onset of Plan Colombia, refugee organizations in the U.S. began to gear up for the arrival of Colombians fleeing the conflict,” Rafael Rondon said. Fort Worth, he said, might even become home to a community of Plan Colombia refugees.

The first pioneers of such a community are already here, people like Inez. That’s not even her real first name — she fears for her life and for her chances of political asylum here if she talks to the press. Ironically, it was her courage that forced her to flee her homeland. After she wrote publicly about Colombia’s civil war and the fumigation program, she says she received threats. The irony in her case is that she isn’t running from the left-wing guerillas or the formerly U.S.-backed right-wing paramilitaries. Her story can’t be readily checked out. But according to an immigration official, Inez says, in effect, that she’s running from the folks with the Roundup.

Peter Gorman is a Fort Worth-areafreelancer. He can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.

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