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Plan Colombia


An Update from the Colombian Interior

The letter below comes to Mennonite Church Canada from Justapaz, the Centre for Peace and Non-violence that operates out of the Mennonite Seminary in Bogota, Colombia. It describes the "on-the-ground" results of Plan Colombia, the USA's program to combat the cocaine epidemic in America. The government of Canada has agreed to ship over 30 Canadian made military helicopters to the US for its Plan Colombia efforts.

Fumigations: Condemnation from Putumayo

It's not often that the candid remarks of a Colombian army soldier echoes the sentiment of the local indigenous campesinos, but the implementation of Plan Colombia provides exception.

Earlier this month five indigenous communities from the southeastern province of Putumayo gathered to devise a "Plan for Life." Deep in the Amazon forest, they sought to develop comprehensive strategies for physical and cultural survival. They discussed the context of policies that are perpetuating their plight.

"Plan of War," as they refer to Plan Colombia, "means more hunger and more death. They [The United States government ] could send seeds for yucca, corn, plantain, but instead they are sending arms to destroy Putumayo... The only conclusion we can come to is that they are looking for toxins and chemicals to destroy us."

At about the same time, but further north in Putumayo, a counter-narcotics officer from the 24th Brigade also discussed Plan Colombia. "It appears to me that the United States is sending money to us because it has a problem, the roots of which are not addressed by fumigation....If there is a demand (for coca) there will be a supply."

Putumayon Indigenous, Colombian military representatives, NGO workers, church leaders, and local government officials agree: US "assistance" to the drug war via Plan Colombia is a smoke screen for US counter-insurgent intervention founded on economic interest with grave social costs. Plan Colombia's Indiscriminate aerial spraying exacerbates Colombia`s current economic problems and its arms lead to more death. Both of these U.S. "gifts" wage war on Colombia`s people and it's biologically vulnerable environment.

Aerial spraying is not an effective counter-narcotics strategy. Before Colombia was the world´s larger producer of coca paste, Bolivia and Peru provided the majority of the raw material for cocaine production. The U.S. sponsored aerial spraying campaigns of 1992-1998 resulted in a reduced level of coca production in Bolivia and Peru, but this decline directly corresponds with an increase of cultivation in Colombia.

As long as people in the U.S and Europe crave cocaine, there will be a coca supply. Aerial spraying will be no more effective in Colombia than it was in other Andean countries. Fumigations clearly do not equate with eradication. Ironically, the areas of Colombia with the most fumigations also experience the highest rise in coca cultivation (Ricardo Vargas, Accion Andina). Economic need drives poor families further into the dense jungle and sheltering mountains to raise the illicit leaf. "Is this what Clinton had in mind?," asked a local teacher.

So far the United States has sent $1.3 billion in support of the Plan Colombia, more than 75% of which comes in the form of military training, hardware, and aid. Through Plan Colombia the U.S. purports to be using a military strategy to address its drug problem. However, Colombians are quick to point out there is no "Plan U.S.A." counterpart treating drug addiction as a medical problem. This approach was found 23% more successful than eradication at the source by the State Department-sponsored Rand Study.

Indigenous and Campesinos Want Coca Alternatives

Putumayons ask why Plan Colombia money was not directed towards development projects providing sustainable alternatives to coca cultivation. Economic desperation is what drives many campesinos to take advantage of the active coca market. They would certainly take advantage of viable alternatives. However, there is no infrastructure to facilitate the raising and marketing of alternative forms of agriculture.

One indigenous campesina illustrated the point by comparing the market value of rice and coca. While rice pays 800 pesos per kilo, coca paste pays 3,500 pesos per gram. This represents a 37% increase from the 2,200 pesos per gram before fumigations. "I want to feed my daughter and send her to school. Do you understand my predicament?" she asks.

The central government does lip service in promotion of other crops, but these families have yet to see any such help. The federal government has therefore lost the trust of local government and civil society alike. Punishing agricultural production losses mount as a result of The Plan, but little support for preserving community life emerges.

Some farmers have tried unsuccessfully to replant on fumigated land. A local contact reported that corn started to grow again, then shriveled and died.

According to the current US State Department report, "Questions and Answers: Aerial Eradication Program" the chemical used in aerial spraying is glyphosate, or Roundup. They continue with this discourse even though they acknowledged in December of 2000 that the mixture contains Cosmoflux, a "soap," making it Ultra-Roundup (van Royen, NRC Handelsblad, 28, Dec. ´00). Environmentalists believe this surfactant is just one of the unpublicized agents and that other poisonous pesticides are added to create a glyphosate-based cocktail spray. Even without added products, the World Health Organization calls straight Roundup "extremely poisonous."

According to the State Department, the spray should kill coca, is used responsibly, and does not destroy soil, prevent plant growth, or contaminate water. Neither, reports the State Department, does the herbicide Roundup harm farm animals or humans. (see State Dept. web page on fumigations.

Obviously, something is amiss. Water is contaminated, fish are dead in aquaculture ponds, and livestock and small livestock died. People have rashes, oozing boils, and are nauseous and vomiting. Women experience miscarriages and give birth to children are born with birth defects. Doctors privately -- never officially --acknowledge that fumigations are responsible for these symptoms. Medical studies find links between these symptoms and exposure to glyphosate. (Rachel Massey, Consultant to the Environmental Research Foundation, in Rachel's Environmental and Health Weekly, 7 December 2000

What´s more, In 1996 Monsanto agreed to stop advertising the product as 'safe, non-toxic, harmless or free from risk'" (Massey, Environmental Research Foundation).

Local contacts believe the damage goes even beyond these obvious health problems.

Long-term damage to the landscape

A mayor as well as the official from the 24th Brigade expressed concern that the delicate biosystem is being destroyed. "The jungle has always provided for it`s inhabitants. It`s very sad that what was once green is turning into desert," said the counter-narcotics official from the 24th Brigade. From the perspective of the indigenous, it amounts to state-sponsored eco-terrorism and violation of the sacred.

The environmental organization Corpo Amazonia, funded by the Colombian government, articulated the need for microbiological soil and water analytical work to document the magnitude of the environmental damage. "These chemicals are killing animals and making people sick. What will be the long-term effects of the fumigations on the environment?," asked one staff person.

Water contamination and soil damage are long term and crippling, suggesting that the current situation is but a foreshadowing of future socio-environmental dysfunction. Unless there is quantitative evidence that toxins from the aerial sprayings Are a form of ecocide and thus violating human rights, the fumigations will continue. At present there is no technical documentation and therefore no grounds for health complaints.

The social context makes technical documentation dangerous and, according to a representative from the Putumayon health department, there are few labs that can run the necessary tests. Monsanto, the U.S. corporate producers of Roundup, are equipped to perform the study.

For now, the chemical spray settling on coca plants, corn, and children alike is a commercial secret. Betsy Boatner of Action Plan from Enviro-Plan Colombia Meeting said, "We can't be really sure what is the exact chemical composition of the herbicide(s) being sprayed" without independent technical verification. Putumayan contacts called for international support in seeking technical expertise to bear on what the peasants face in making their land whole again.

Fumigations have profound negative social consequences as well as the environmental impact. "The two are intricately woven together, and our social fabric has been stressed and torn....Entire communities must relocate, unemployment is skyrocketing, and we can not afford to send our children to school any more, " said one mayor.

Human Rights Violations

The violation of human rights accompanies covert environmental and social violence in Putumayo, as elsewhere in Colombia. Civil society is caught in middle of the armed conflict and feels paralyzed by pressure from all sides. Local contacts in Putumayo said that everyone

has a story of human rights violation at the hands of military or illegal armed group, but they are too scared to speak. Telling one's story would likely result in violent repercussions.

The United States high commander on human rights, working in the U.S. embassy in Bogotà, said that the commission will accept and analyze canalize reports on human rights violations from reliable sources. Without a verifiable, first-hand account or some sort of documentation, advocates cannot pressure the government or hold anyone accountable -- just as with environmental injustice. The vicious cycle continues in silence -perpetuated by fear of reprisal, lack of accountability, and officials distanced from their people.

In this tangled web of greed, violence, corruption, and desperation one thing is certain: U.S. "assistance" is exacerbating Colombia's myriad problems. The US government correctly names its projection of power as "war." The victims are many: small farmers, children, indigenous communities, biodiversity, and the environmental integrity of whole neighborhoods. In this alleged "war on drugs," coca production remains relatively unharmed.

The U.S. government intends to continue military intervention through Plan Colombia. The 24th Brigade plans to fumigate again in April. Will the international community allow the United States to continue these attacks on people and land under the thin guise of cooperative peacemaking and a drug war?

As sure as there are forces of death waging war on Colombia, there is remnant struggling to restore life and create space for a just peace. "Hope burns that much brighter against a dark back drop," commented one Catholic priest. If Colombians can preserver in the midst of injustice and violence, certainly North Americans who care about them can as well.

Support life-giving efforts in Colombia by:

  • denouncing military intervention in Colombia
  • applying continued pressure on Congress to support policy- and economic incentives for a negotiated, peaceful solution to the problems connecting the United States and Colombia.
  • demanding third-party reports on the real impact of Plan Colombia maneuvers.
  • members of Justapaz