Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Aug 25 2006 (IPS) — If the U.S.-backed aerial spraying of chemicals does not stop immediately, Colombia will pay a heavy price for environmental destruction and lost livelihoods in its indigenous communities, warns a new study by a U.S.-based environmental research group.

The 23-page study documents numerous cases of damage to human health, destruction of food crops and contamination of water that have occurred as a result of the six years of aerial spraying of chemicals.

The aerial spraying of coca crops is part of the U.S. government’s 1.2-billion-dollar Plan Colombia, which aims to target the supply side in order to deal with the problem of narcotic consumption at home.

Titled “Alternative development strategies: the need to move beyond illicit crop spraying,” the report shows that despite years of chemical spraying, both the U.S. and Colombian governments have failed to reduce coca production, which has remained relatively stable.

In 2000, the total area of coca crops was estimated to be around 163,000 hectares. Today, coca is grown on no less than 144,000 hectares, according to researchers, who relied both on independent and official sources.

“The aerial spraying has been completely ineffective and rather counterproductive,” Anna Cederstav, programme director at the Oakland, California-based Inter-American Association for Environmental Defence (AIDA), told IPS.

AIDA researchers who authored the study say that nearly 90 percent of the farms affected by the hazardous chemical spraying were devoted to legal production of food crops, such as fruits, vegetables and organic coffee – not coca. Yet no one has been compensated for the damages.

Moreover, they point out that farms which are supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as part of international efforts to provide alternate means of living to coca growers have also been hit by indiscriminate spraying.

In May and June last year, for example, coca farms in the southeastern region were sprayed even though many other legal farmers in the area had obtained expensive organic certifications to sell their harvest on the international market.

The study notes that in many cases, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were not consulted by the authorities responsible for spraying, even though they were required by Colombian and international law to do so.

In Colombia, many indigenous communities are believed to be supportive of Marxist guerillas associated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have been at war the government in Bogota and the right-wing paramilitary militias for the past 40 years.

Those closely monitoring the political conflict in Colombia have often pointed to the involvement of FARC and the paramilitaries in the illegal trade in coca production and refined cocaine to the United States and Europe, but both sides have dismissed such claims.

Comparing the lack of results of the U.S.-backed spraying programme with the successes of community-based development programmes, the study suggests that there is a need for alternative development projects.

“There exist other successful programmes to eradicate illicit crops that don’t have as high economic, social, environmental and health costs as the spraying effort,” said Rafael Colmenares, director of Ecofondo, an umbrella group representing more than 130 environmental organisations in Colombia.

To him, “it is these programmes that should be backed, as they can bring a real, lasting solution to this problem.”

Alternative programmes suggested in the study include the sustainable system for conservation, environmental management based on community participation and voluntary coca eradication programmes supported by the United Nations.

Using a simple cost-benefit analysis, the study notes that between 2000 and 2005, about 1.2 billion dollars were invested in spraying more than 713,000 hectares of coca and poppy plants, which reduced the crop average by less than 26,000 hectares.

By contrast, during the same period, about 213 million dollars were spent on alternative development programmes to “successfully protect or eradicate illicit crops from 1,600,000 hectares.”

Noting that many local programmes in Colombia have proved beneficial for thousands of families, the study calls for the U.S. and Colombian governments as well as the U.N. to increase their support for alternative projects to eradicate illicit production of narcotic crops.

“We are convinced that the immediate implantation of alternative, sustainable and participatory programmes can bring about real solutions to the complex problem of illicit crop cultivation,” said Astrid Puentes, AIDA’s legal director.

“Continuing spraying, while ignoring programmes that deliver food and jobs to the rural poor, will lead to the intensification of the crisis in Colombia and result in serious environmental impacts,” she said.


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