Colombia Halts Aerial Coca Fumigation

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Colombia’s president has ordered an end to controversial aerial fumigations of drug crops with the herbicide glyphosate. However, in some ways, he is arguably replacing one controversy with another. 

The Defense Ministry and other authorities must begin phasing out glyphosate fumigations, and the practice must be completely eliminated no later than October 1, President Juan Manuel Santos announced in a press conference.  

Chemical giant Monsanto produces glyphosate under the trade name Roundup. The substance is used in Colombia’s US-funded aerial fumigations, which aim to eradicate drug crops, particularly coca, the base material for cocaine. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Colombia’s Health Ministry have both raised concerns about the herbicides’ potentially adverse effects on human health. Monsanto has said glyphosate poses no risk to humans when used properly. 

Santos cited glyphosate’s potential health risks as the main reason behind his decision. He also cited a recent report by the White House that said Colombia coca cultivation rose 39 percent in 2014. “This indicates fumigations are not having the effect we’re looking for,” President Santos said. 

The president also said that the decision to end glyphosate fumigations was not a concession to Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The rebels, who are currently engaged in peace talks with the government, are believed to derive the majority of their funding through cocaine production. 

Colombia will look to replace glyphosate fumigations with alternative drug crop eradication methods, including manual eradication, Santos said. 

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In the short-term, Santos’ decision appears to have little political cost. Ending the use of a potentially harmful chemical is unlikely to earn him many enemies domestically (asides from the usual critics). Meanwhile, despite having urged Colombia to continue glyphosate fumigations, the United States appears to have taken Santos’ decision in stride. US ambassador Kevin Whitaker said he accepted the decision and reiterated his nation’s support and cooperation with Colombia on counternarcotics efforts.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how Colombia’s drug policy will adjust to this new scenario. So far, the president has only mentioned increased manual eradication as a replacement for fumigation. But this practice has fallen out off favor due to the number of casualties it often accrues. FARC guerrillas are known to booby-trap coca field with land mines and target manual eradicators with snipers.

Santos — who has banked his political legacy on a negotiated peace with the FARC — is likely keen to avoid such casualties, which could potentially upset peace talks. But with Colombia apparently set to reclaim its infamous title as the world’s largest cocaine producer, Santos may face a tricky road ahead in terms of defending his policy decision. 

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