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Studies Show Coca Spraying Harms Health and Environment » Colombia Journal

Studies Show Coca Spraying Harms Health and Environment

By · August 20, 2001 · Save & Share

Studies conducted on both sides of the border between Ecuador and Colombia have raised an alarm about the health and environmental effects of spraying herbicide on coca crops in Colombia, but officials in both countries have dismissed the results. A study carried out between February and April by Colombian biologist Elsa Nivia in that country’s Putumayo department, and another done by the Quito-based environmental organization Ecological Action in May and June in Ecuador’s Sucumbíos province, indicate that spraying with the herbicide glyphosate is causing health problems and affecting non-drug crops.

Nivia is a representative of Rapalmira Colombia, an affiliate of the international Pesticide Action Network, which has spent more than 20 years studying the harmful effects of agricultural chemicals. According to Nivia, Roundup Ultra, the herbicide being sprayed in Colombia, contains glyphosate, as well as surfactants known as polyoxyethyleneamines and another additive, Cosmo-Flux 411F, which increase the compound’s toxicity by a factor of 22.

Nivia said the herbicide is highly toxic even in the one percent concentration permitted for use in the United States, and added that the concentration used in Colombia is as high as 26 percent. Spraying of Putumayo coca plantations was intense from late December until February and continued sporadically in March and April (see, Death Falls from the Sky).

Symptoms that appeared among residents of the Colombian municipalities of Valle del Guamez and Río San Miguel in Putumayo, also appeared in indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana. “About an hour after the planes go over, you start smelling an odor like gasoline, which makes it hard to breathe. Then you get a headache, as if you had a hangover, and your eyes burn. Then the children start crying and feeling sick. Finally we get fevers,” said one campesino who gathers coca leaves in the Valle del Guamez area of Putumayo.

“The symptoms described in studies by the manufacturer (of Roundup Ultra) are consistent with those that have been reported in Valle del Guamez,” Nivia said, referring to technical information provided by the U.S.-based Monsanto Corp. The same symptoms reported by residents of Valle del Guamez and Rio San Miguel in Putumayo, also appeared among residents of indigenous communities in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, on the Ecuador side of the border.

The symptoms appeared “after a dense cloud with a strong smell came and made our eyes burn,” according to Abelardo Sáez, a campesino leader from Puerto Aguarico in Sucumbíos, who spoke at the presentation of the results of the Ecological Action and Rapalmira studies.

In April, 38 campesino organizations belonging to the Union of Associations of Orellana and Sucumbíos claimed that the spraying in Colombia was harming their crops and the health of local residents. “Neither the Health Ministry, nor the Agriculture Ministry, nor the military wanted to listen to us,” Sáez said. “I’ve lived on the border for 30 years and have never seen coca or the illnesses we’re seeing now. I want reparation for the damage and harm this has caused us, for our children’s illnesses, for our burned crops, for our dead animals. We don’t want (the government) to improve our income; we just want it to let us survive. We don’t want to pay for something we haven’t done,” he said.

Ecological Action has registered the campesinos’ complaints. In May and June, the group carried out a study of the effects of the spraying on three Sucumbíos communities–San Francisco, San Francisco II and Nuevo Mundo–located less than two kilometers from the sprayed area, and other communities five and 10 kilometers away. “We wanted to identify the most common pathologies among the people affected by the spraying and map these pathologies as a function of the distance from the spraying sites,” said Dr. Adolfo Maldonado, who coordinated the study.

The study sample consisted of 144 of the 2,000 residents. The researchers also examined environmental damage in various communities, as well as cases attended by health workers at the hospital in Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos, and in health centers operated by the Catholic Church in the province. The researchers found that all Ecuadorian residents in the study who lived within two kilometers of the spraying sites suffered the same symptoms as the Colombians living in the spraying zone, as did all those living in the communities five kilometers from the spraying. In the communities 10 kilometers from the spraying sites, the proportion of residents affected dropped to 89 percent.

According to the study by Ecological Action, skin problems from the chemicals were still visible three months after the spraying. In the six communities studied, there were also losses in the coffee harvest. The researchers said productivity had been reduced to only 10 percent of the normal level and plants were not bearing fruit. Rice crops also decreased by 85 to 90 percent. “The coffee flowers did not develop fruit, and when they did, it was only an empty husk. Rice, banana and cacao plants are burned. The flavor of the cassava has changed, so it’s no longer possible for indigenous communities to make their ritual chicha. With the sacred plants contaminated, the shamans have left the communities, and now the people feel unprotected,” said Patricia Granda, a researcher at Ecological Action.

Gabriel Martínez, political attaché at the Colombian Embassy in Ecuador, questioned the credibility of the Ecological Action study, “The document has questionable elements, because you have to understand the health and phyto-sanitary conditions in the area. Similar illnesses existed before the spraying, and they are only problems endemic to tropical regions. Similarly, substantial crop losses occur because of poor crop management,” he said.

Maldonado disputed the Colombian diplomat’s claims, “If we have a series of pathologies that occur with great frequency near a particular point and decrease as the distance from that point increases, it means there is–or was–something at that point. That’s just common sense, especially if the symptoms differ completely from pathologies found in other areas with similar characteristics,” he said.

In addition, records at the Catholic Church’s health centers include endemic illnesses such as malaria, but during the spraying they reported an increase in symptoms consistent with those described by Monsanto in cases of exposure to the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup Ultra.

The residents of the Ecuadorian communities, meanwhile, feel they have been left unprotected and called on government officials to visit the area. While the administration of President Gustavo Noboa refused to schedule a visit, in early July it sent a diplomatic message to Colombia asking that the neighboring country “abstain from aerial spraying with glyphosate in areas located less than 10 kilometers from the border.”

Martínez pointed out that 54 percent of Colombia’s coca production is based in Putumayo, and that most of the spraying was aimed at large-scale coca crops in areas controlled by paramilitaries. “It isn’t true that 100 percent of the population has been affected. It isn’t true that the aim has been to harm indigenous communities. Nor is it true that legal crops are these communities’ economic mainstay. The spraying must be understood as necessary in the context of the Colombian conflict,” Martínez said of the spraying in Valle del Guamez and Río San Miguel in Putumayo.

On July 27, Bogotá Civil Circuit Judge Gilberto Reyes Delgado ordered a temporary halt to the spraying of poppy and coca crops in response to a complaint filed by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon. He lifted the suspension on August 6, however, saying there was no evidence that the herbicide was harmful to human health or the environment. That decision came after Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, warned that the suspension would jeopardize U.S. aid.

This article previously appeared in Latinamerica Press. It can also be found in Spanish at Noticias Aliadas.

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