With coca cultivation on the increase, the Colombia government may yet resume using a controversial herbicide to eradicate crops less than a year after halting its use over health concerns.
President Juan Manuel Santos ordered an end to aerial fumigation of drug crops using glyphosate last May after the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the chemical compound may cause cancer.
However, during a recent radio interview, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the government is considering deploying crop eradicators to manually spray coca with a glyphosate-based weed killer, reported the Associated Press.
Villegas also said that "the suspension of aerial spraying caused an increase" in coca production, reported Vanguardia. According to the US and the United Nations, data from 2014 shows that Colombia is now the world's largest producer of coca. Villegas has also said that according to more recent data, 2015 also saw a significant increase in coca cultivation, although he has not specified by how much.
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The return to using glyphosate for fumigating coca crops is important for several reasons. The Colombian government has repeatedly acknowledged its concern over the increase in coca production over the last two years, and may be struggling to come up with a strategy to keep those numbers from rising further. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 hectares of coca in Colombia.
While all use of glyphosate was supposed to stop after October 1, 2015, according to RCN Radio, police were allowed to continue running pilot tests in which manual eradicators sprayed illegal crops with herbicide. This method allowed them to eradicate up to six hectares of illegal crops a day, compared to 1.5 hectares a day if they pulled coca up by the roots.
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The argument that manually spraying coca with herbicide is more efficient may have convinced the government to once again approve the use of glyphosate. However, as the Associated Press pointed out, doing so is expensive, dangerous for manual eradicators, and does not stop the plants from growing back.
The glyphosate announcement might have been timed to coincide with the United Nation's Special Session on drug policy, which began April 19. President Santos is reportedly set to argue in favor of a flexible approach to drug policy, but the country may also feel the need to emphasize that it is doing all it can to get the coca problem under control.