Why Colombia is Reluctant to Stop Fumigating Drug Crops

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Colombia’s president reportedly plans to suspend the use of glyphosate in aerial fumigations, a controversial practice that politicians and security officials have consistently used to measure success in the drug war, and perhaps explains why some remain so reluctant to stop spraying. 

Following a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos, Conservative Party leader David Barguil said the president would soon issue the order, following recent recommendations by the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization, reported El Colombiano.

The issue will be discussed further on May 15, when Colombia’s National Drug Council will analyze the health risks of gylphosate — recently labeled a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Colombia’s Drug Council will also look at the possible impact that this suspension may have on drug production.

Since 2001, gylphosate — the active ingredient in the household herbicide Roundup — has reportedly been used to fumigate more than 1.5 million hectares of illicit crops in Colombia. 

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has said aerial fumigation is an important tool for the military to combat cocaine production, and that security forces would continue to fumigate until Santos ordered them to stop.

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Colombia’s aerial fumigation policy has been extremely controversial since it began in 1994. The recent findings by the IARC added new fuel to arguments used by longtime detractors of the policy

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Rural communities affected by aerial spraying have complained that fumigation of coca plants also results in the destruction of legitimate food crops, and that the chemicals used have led to health issues and birth defects.

Nonetheless, aerial fumigation has remained the preferred method for Colombian (and US) government officials when attacking drug cultivation at their source. This is partly due to the dangers involved with manual eradication — with groups such as the FARC planting landmines in coca fields and attacking eradicators — as well as it being a labor-intensive task.

There are, however, other considerations at play for politicians when considering the ongoing use of aerial fumigation. One is money. As reported by the Washington Office on Latin America, the US State Department has spent between $1 billion to $2 billion on herbicides, pilots, escort helicopters, and other costs related to Colombia’s fumigation program since 1994.

Another is that aerial fumigation allows politicians to demonstrate they are taking action and making progress in fighting drugs; with the number of acres fumigated providing convenient, ready-made deliverables for constituents. Indeed, over the years, the number of coca crops under cultivation has become an important proxy for measuring success in the broader war on drugs.

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