The turnover of a calendar year is a time for rebirth and re-evaluation, a time of resolutions and looking forward to an even better year to come. January 2013 brought something new to the peace community — low flying aerial fumigation planes. Instead of inspiring hope, the fumigations have brought nightmarish visions for the year to come. Fumigation has been a reality for Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and campesino communities in other parts of Colombia since the 1990s, when the Colombian government began trying to eradicate coca production. This method of eradication was never used around the peace community before … until now.
Peace community members have heard the horror stories from other parts of the country. As one neighbor pointed out to me this month, “If this continues to happen, and they really fumigate all of the peace community’s crops, what are we going to do? Sixteen years fighting to not displace because of the armed groups all around us. Sixteen years resisting joining multinational interests in the region or the drug trade. Sixteen years — just to be fumigated out over the period of a couple of months? But what can we do? Without food, and with our land and waterways full of poisons, what can we do? What can we do to stop this before it’s too late?”
Aerial fumigation in Colombia was initiated in the 1990s by the Colombian government, and continued in 2000 with U.S. sponsorship under Plan Colombia. Those who have followed the politics and complaints about over the last two decades are familiar with the effect it reportedly has on subsistence farmers, the irreversible environmental damage it has caused in various regions, and the correlation that fumigation is said to have with displacement of campesinos from their lands.
The FOR team checking out the jungle path a week after Mulatos and Resbaloza fumigationsIn early January, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) team took a trip to Mulatos, a remote mountainous settlement in the San José de Apartadó district, where aerial fumigation hit the lands of subsistence farmers just after the new year. We visited after the first round of fumigations in the zone and before the peace community itself lost crops. Since our trip, additional families and some peace community members have lost crops in Mulatos and other settlements: La Resbaloza, La Esperanza, and Las Nieves.
The effects are devastating. Fields of rice, beans, cacao, onion, peppers, as well as the jungle and planted gardens around famer’s homes have been fumigated and have died. Standing in the middle of a fumigated garden, even a week later, the smell of the poisons gave me a headache within ten minutes.
And this is where the families are living: in the middle of poisoned land, drinking poisoned water, watching their food wilt and die. When I mentioned the strong odor at the house, the woman living there said, “Yes, I felt sick the first week, but then I sort of got used to it. I don’t smell the chemicals so much anymore.” Her newborn baby wiggled on the floor and her other young children ran about the house.
In Colombia and other parts of the world, aerial fumigation is carried out using a powerful version of the chemical glyphosate, manufactured in the United States by Monsanto. What is used in aerial fumigations is stronger than the version of glyphosate that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and sold in the United States as Round Up.
There is an ongoing policy debate about how harmful this particular chemical is, but as the decades go on, the communities suffering aerial fumigations have no doubt that the chemical does damage to their eco-systems and health. As the Washington Office on Latin America reported last fall,
Extensive anecdotal evidence from sprayed communities continues to raise legitimate concerns as to the chemical’s safety … widespread skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal issues on locals after fumigations take place. Furthermore, as the chemical spray seeps into the streams and aquifers it further damages humans and the environment. Studies show that glyphosate has a negative effect on aquatic life and biological diversity.
The International Red Cross addressed aerial fumigations in their Colombia Report of 2011, including testimonies from subsistence farmers, such as the one who said that “The spraying sometimes kills off all of our crops … we have to replant and go hungry while we wait for new growth.”
The ICRC report also points out that coca is in the vicinity of these farms, but not grown on the land owned by the farmers speaking out. This is where the issue gets particularly tricky: small harvests of coca are planted in the middle of the jungle, or on farms that back up to the lands of farmers who do not grow coca. When the planes come to spray, the poison kills jungle, garden, and anything green in the vicinity. It also damages wildlife and has harmful effects on human life in the area.
Another thing the farmers are reporting is that the coca itself is not being killed. As one peace community member said to me after his rice was fumigated:
Look, there is coca in the vicinity of our farm, but we aren’t growing it. After the plane came and sprayed, all of my rice died, but the coca up on the hill remained green. I don’t know if this is because the coca is resistant to the chemicals due to being grown with other chemicals or if the planes just missed the coca altogether and hit our rice instead. I just don’t know.
To the left of the house, the brown dry land in the middle of green is the bean crop and vegetable garden that were fumigated.If the fumigation of waterways, jungles, gardens and people with harmful chemicals isn’t enough to revisit policy on humanitarian grounds, another criticism of aerial fumigations in Colombia is that they are not effective in slowing coca production on a macro level.
According to Cultural Survival, in the same timeframe of aerial spraying, “the country has evolved from being a mere processor of the basic paste for cocaine, using coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru, to the world’s top producer of coca for cocaine, and second-largest producer of poppies for heroin.” The U.S. Office on Colombia reports that, “there has been little effect on the price, purity, or availability of cocaine in the Unites States as a result of the operation … the U.S.-supported fumigation program in Colombia has been a resounding failure.”
When FOR first arrived to accompany the peace community 11 years ago, coca was not present in the zone. It is a new development, another reality that suggests coca cultivation in Colombia is not on the decline, but rather moves fluidly from region to region without a blip in the trade.
Aerial fumigation is not the only way to remove coca crops; there is also the option to send in a team to physically uproot the plants, which is 100% effective in killing the crop. As one neighbor said:
Look, I’m not against the armed forces fighting coca cultivation, but I am against them displacing the civilian population in the name of killing a small field of coca. The fact of the matter is that these nurseries are small and the areas that are being fumigated are large. Any cacao or rice field in the vicinity is larger than that of the coca, so how is it that the food is being killed and the coca is surviving? The armed forces should send in their people to pull out the coca, not fumigate large areas where people live and plant food with the excuse that they are killing coca. They aren’t killing coca. They are killing the jungle and our food.
Indeed, the sentiment of sending in people to pull up the plants was echoed by many of the famers affected on our trip to Mulatos as an alternative to aerial spraying.
Pulling up the plants seems like a good alternative to fumigating large areas of biologically diverse jungle and populated civilian areas. But as a 2009 Witness for Peace policy analysis reminds us,
… the coca dilemma faced in Colombia is not a matter of killing weeds. That shortsighted solution doesn’t take into account the demand for cocaine in the U.S. or the poverty and the lack of state investment and job opportunities in poor rural areas of Colombia where the coca is grown. Our tax dollars are directly responsible for supporting and maintaining this callous program. Without their harvest to survive, subsistence farmers are left with few options: growing coca, joining armed groups as a desperate means to gain an income, or more commonly, relocating to urban centers and joining the ranks of displaced persons.
As an FOR volunteer, this new issue of aerial fumigations around the peace community is particularly heartbreaking. The last thing this community needs is another reason to consider displacement, especially because of something the state is doing. One thing is for certain: the threat of continued aerial fumigation is real. We will see how the policy develops in the coming months.