Glyphosate has been in the news a lot lately. Also known as Roundup, this chemical has been used for the past twenty years as part of the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, a program supposedly designed to decrease the production of coca, the principal ingredient in the production of cocaine, the drug that notoriously has lined the pockets of Colombian narcotraffickers, guerillas, paramilitaries, among other powers. But although 4 million acres have been sprayed over the past two decades, the millions invested in spraying don’t seem to be working too well; in fact, coca production levels have actually increased this year. In March, the World Health Organization released a report stating that glyphosate is carcinogenic. This report caught the attention of many on an international level, and Colombia’s ombudsman office, Ministry of Health, and even the president have all made statements demanding that aerial fumigations of glyphosate be stopped. Let’s be clear: these are steps in the right direction, and ending aerial spraying of glyphosate is a very good thing.
However, not all are on board with ending the usage of glyphosate in Colombia. The Colombian Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon, is one of them. He says that “These tools (fumigations) reduce narco-traffiking, insecurity, and crime,” and he feels that under no circumstance should the state stop fumigations. Former US ambassador to Colombia William Brownston agrees, adding that “Colombia is a sovereign country and it must do what reflects its national interest, but they should take a serious look at the scientific evidence. There is not one single example of a person who has suffered damages from glyphosate in Colombia in the past 20 or 21 years.” Unsurprisingly, current senator and U.S. presidential hopeful Marco Rubio too throws his full support behind continuing aerial fumigations.
Naturally, Monsanto, the corporation who infamously brought us Agent Orange in Vietnam and produces the glyphosate used in Colombia, denies the WHO report, saying, “This conclusion is inconsistent with the decades of ongoing comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world that have concluded that all labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health. This result was reached by selective ‘cherry picking’ of data and is a clear example of agenda-driven bias. ”
You may remember that last Novermber I wrote about Ricardo Murillo on the Seed blog, a farmer from Bebedó, a member of the Mennonite Brethren church, and a beneficiary of the cacao program who has been displaced twice by violence and more recently due to losing his crops to fumigations. In January, I heard stories from Buenavista, an indigenous Wounaan community located close to the Pacific Coast. Community members have long drunk the water from the river because it is not contaminated, as there is no mining nearby. But lately adults and children alike have suffered from a mysterious respiratory illness that some say is being caused by aerial fumigations farther inland that is leaking into the river system. In February, while visiting farms in Dipurdú, I met three farmers who had lost cacao, yuca, plantains, and bananas to fumigations. In March, I heard from two more cacao farmers from El Tigre, one of which lost 4,000 cacao trees, not to mention the rest of his crops from fumigations in December. He also tells of health problems caused by swimming or bathing in the river. These are just a few stories only from the San Juan and Baudó regions of Chocó, told to only me, from only the last year. Imagine how many more stories exist in all of Colombia from the past 20 years of this failed program.
So now we have conflicting stories, reports, and evidence from different sides. Pinzon states that fumigations help decrease narcotrafficking, insecurity, and crime. But just the opposite seems to be true. Statistics point to the fact that fumigation of glyphosate is not effective at eliminating coca; but I would say it is very effective at killing legal crops and poisoning soil, crops that sustain campesinos that without usable land are forced to abandon the life they know. They become a number, one of millions displaced by the armed conflict, a conflict primarily rooted in the injustice and violence directed toward campesinos by the wealthy elite of Colombia. That doesn´t sound like stability or security to me, but rather perpetuating a culture of violence and injustice.
And what about Brownstone’s claim? Well, science has pointed to the fact that RoundUp is in fact quite harmful to human health, something that any Colombian campesino who has been affected by the chemical would tell him. He should talk to the farmers of the cacao program or the people of Buenavista. To me, this, as well as Marco Rubio’s statements further demonstrate the vast disconnection that exists between politicians sitting behind desks in Bogota and Washington and campesinos, afro-colombians and indigenous people, those unjustly affected by those policies.
Which brings us to Monsanto. Let’s say for argument’s sake that they are right and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if that is the case, how can spraying a chemical cocktail that kills many varieties of plants indiscriminately over farmland, water sources, and ecosystems where campesinos, live, sleep, eat, and wash NOT negatively affect the health of said persons, not to mention those ecosystems?
Aerial fumigation needs to stop. What is the answer, then, to stemming the flow of cocaine? I don’t know. Colombia’s context is complex, and there is not one simple solution. But aerial fumigation needs to stop. If the political elites truly want an end to the 50-year-old armed conflict, they need to look at their history and listen to the campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples who have suffered from the violence, fumigation, and injustices directed at them. But as long as those in power are benefiting from the conflict, as long as there remains that incentive, whether through narco money or from northern funding of an un-winnable war on drugs, there will always exist the drive to maintain the status quo. But we continue on in the struggle to change the system. Constructing true peace may be a long and complicated process in Colombia, but ending fumigations is taking a step in the right direction.