Fumigations Continue in Colombia Despite Court Ordered Suspensions
Uribe and Bush Administrations in Clear Violation of Colombian Law
By Peter Gorman
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
April 29, 2004
Despite two Colombian court rulings during 2003 ordering the suspension of US-sponsored Plan Colombia aerial fumigation of coca and poppy crops until environmental and human impact studies can be carried out, Colombia continues to spray Monsanto’s Roundup-Ultra on fields and US officials continue to maintain an eerie and criminal silence on the issue.
The most recent ruling came 10 months ago, on June 13, 2003, when Colombia’s Administrative Tribunal of Cundinamarca, the second highest court in the country, responded to a class action lawsuit brought by concerned citizens arguing that Plan Colombian spraying violates Colombian citizens’ right to a healthy environment. The court agreed and ordered the immediate suspension of all narco-crop fumigation nationwide. The verdict supplemented two earlier court decisions ordering the suspension of spraying on indigenous land and compliance with the Environmental Management Plan put in place for Plan Colombia fumigation.
Colombia itself cheered the court victory when Yamile Salinas, then-of the Ombudsman’s Office, in a statement released shortly after the verdict, noted: “This court order formally adopts many of the requirements for environmental and human protection that the Colombian Ombudsman and Comptroller General, along with both national and international non-government organizations have been demanding for years.”
“That was a legally binding decision,” says Astrid Puentes, a Colombian human rights attorney with Earthjustice, the legal branch of the Sierra Club. “It should have put an immediate end to the spraying until those tests were done or a legal appeal in favor of continued spraying overturned that order.”
In fact, Uribe, on the day after the court order, announced that he would continue the spraying as long as he was president.
“He is in clear violation of Colombian law,” says Puentes, “but no one can stop the president in this. So while that decision should have been enough to protect the health and human rights of the environment and people of Colombia, it continues anyway. The Administrative Court recognized the harm to health and biodiversity, soil and water bodies that the aerial fumigation is doing, but those with vested interests choose to ignore that.”
Among those with vested interests beyond the Colombian and US governments are Texas’ Bell Helicopter Textron – which provides Huey helicopters used to move troops and supplies, and Connecticut’s Sikorsky Helicopter, which supplies Blackhawk choppers used to protect spray planes, as well as Kansas’ Monsanto, which provides the Round-up Ultra used in the spraying. DynCorp, of Reston, VA, is the most vested of all: As the State Department’s primary outsourcing company in Colombia it has a roughly $600 million dollar contract to actually do the spraying and maintain the spray planes and helicopters utilized in the fumigation operation. Each of those companies maintains high-level lobbying firms in Washington.
At issue is the core of the supposed US assault on cocaine and heroin trafficking in the Western Hemisphere. When Plan Colombia was initiated by former president Bill Clinton in 2000, its stated aim was to eliminate the coca and poppy plants in Colombia used to make cocaine and heroin. If they were eliminated, the thinking went, not only would much of drug traffic in the US disappear, but the funds generated by that traffic in Colombia, which support both paramilitary and rebel groups involved in that country’s brutal civil war would dry up as well.
But while the plan as envisioned by Clinton and expanded into The Andean Initiative by President Bush looks good on paper (at least to the naive, who actually believe the US has a real interest in stopping the drug trade in Colombia or anywhere else), there been an enormous amount of collateral damage from the spraying. Moreover, the US, which entered into the plan with the stated intention of improving human rights in Colombia, has lost all pretense of credibility toward that end and is clearly active in contributing to worsening the human rights situation there. And by continuing to back Uribe and spray herbicide since the Cundinamarca court order to stop the spraying, we are breaking the law in both Colombia and here at home in doing so.
The class action lawsuit hinged on the fact that in 2001, a legally binding Federal Environmental Management Plan was put into effect in Colombia by the minister of the environment. One of the stipulations of that plan was that a battery of impact studies would be conducted to determine whether or not the fumigation was harmful to the environment and humans.
Those studies have never been done, and so the Colombian Administrative Tribunal’s decision was made in favor of the plaintiffs. But Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez – who was the mayor of Medellín during the Medellín cocaine cartel’s heyday and whose campaign manager looks to be one up to his eyes in the cocaine trade – disregarded the order and announced he would continue to spray while his administration’s National Directorate of Narcotics appeals the decision to Colombia’s highest court.
In the US, there were also laws connected with the monies being utilized to pay for the spraying. One of them states that all fumigation is done in compliance with Colombian law. What had covered the US legally – if bare-assed naked counts as covered – prior to the court order, was a March, 2002 letter from the Colombian minister of exterior relations to the US State Department, which reads in part: “the Government of Colombia hereby certifies that the aerial spraying program supported by the United States is being carried out in accordance with each and every applicable Colombian law on the matter.”
But where that might have been close enough for government work a year ago, continued spraying in light of last June’s court decision clearly makes it illegal for the US to continue to support the spraying before impact studies are done. The US State Department has not returned several phone calls or answered several emails asking for the justification for such illegal action.
It Doesn’t Get Better, It Just Gets Worse
In addition to the continued illegal spraying of herbicide in Colombia, there have been a number of other recent developments related to Plan Colombia – largely ignored by the US media – that hint at Uribe tossing out democracy in favor of dictatorship.
On September 30, Colombian Minister of the Environment Cecilia Rodriguez modified the Environmental Management Plan. Among the changes was the height at which spray-planes could fly. Where the legal height had been 100 feet – absurd for crop dusting as spraying at that altitude can create drifts that extend for miles, according to several Texas crop dusters – the ceiling was raised even higher. Also changed was the prohibition against spraying in Colombia’s national parks – “something,” says Earthjustice’s Puentes, “which had been going on illegally but which overnight became legal.”
According to Puentes, the Environmental Management Plan changes were made under direct pressure from Uribe, and shortly after them, Rodriguez quit her post. Uribe replaced Rodriguez as environmental minister with Sandra Suarez in early November, 2003. Suarez formerly headed the office in charge of Plan Colombia – the office in charge of the aerial spraying. “Uribe’s administration weakened the environmental conditions of the management plan,” says Puentes, “then stacked the deck by appointing Suarez.”
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Foreign Operations who has long questioned the Plan Colombian fumigation, bristled at the thought of in-park spraying, and attached an amendment to the Fiscal 2004 Foreign Operations Bill, which would prohibit the use of US funding in the fumigation of Colombia’s 24 million acres of national parks, but didn’t have the political clout to make it stick. It is estimated that about 15,000 acres of illegal cultivation is ongoing in the parks.
Colombia’s national parks are among the world’s most biodiverse areas, and environmentalists worldwide have fought their fumigation on the grounds that it will wreak havoc on their fragile ecosystems. Several Colombian politicians have also fought the park spraying on the grounds that it is constitutionally illegal, as the Colombian Constitution makes the parks completely off limits to both development and modification. They plan to challenge it in court on both that issue and the ground that the spraying will contravene several international treaties, including the Biodiversity Covenant, ratified in 1994, as well as the Rio De Janiero Summit Treaty of 1992. Moreover, Colombia’s national treaties protect the lands of indigenous peoples, many of who live within Colombia’s national parks and whose lands are expected to be among the first areas to be sprayed there. Thousands of indigenous are expected to be forced to move if park spraying occurs on a large scale.
But Suarez – clearly on Uribe’s party line, if not payroll – has defended herbicide spraying in the parks on several occasions, noting that the chemicals used to process coca are already damaging the parks, and that allowing Roundup Ultra to be sprayed by DynCorp contractors will not increase the damage already being done. Camilo Gonzalez Posso, a former minister of health in Colombia agrees that the chemicals used to process coca on national park and indigenous lands are having a “tremendously harmful” impact but adds “that is not an argument that justifies throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Fortunately, Uribe has bowed to public pressure, and in March 2004 announced that though he has the legal right to spray in national parks, he will hold off for the time being.
The Bush administration, however, has noted that spraying the parks is the only way to save them, and that not fumigating the parks will be “an invitation to the growers to destroy the forests and their natural resources,” according to Time magazine. Uribe upped the ante on fumigation-protesting when he recently, and on several occasions, announced that anyone objecting to fumigation in any part of Colombia or “working to protect human rights and the environment” would be viewed as a sympathizer with terrorists, according to Anna Cedarstav, a staff scientist with Earthjustice.
Perhaps the Uribe administration’s most publicly astounding assault on the human rights community’s sensibilities in connection with the Plan Colombia spraying – as purposeful spraying of Indigenous lands, overt spraying onto farmland and so forth are not publicized – occurred last November 2. An international environmental commission studying the effects of recent fumigation in the Colombian province of Arauca was stopped by a US-trained Colombian anti-narcotics battalion and had their film, cameras and notes confiscated. The commission, which included Colombians and representatives of France, the US, England and Spain, had previously met with Colombian Vice President Carlos Frank about their work.
That the Bush administration has not commented on any of these recent developments – and that the State Department has ignored repeated requests both by phone and in writing to address them – is par for the course and absolutely shameful. And the continued backing of the fumigation while Uribe flaunts Colombian law is flat out illegal.
Every study but the two carried out by the US and Colombia has shown that the fumigation is having a major impact on both human life and the environment. (The sham U.S. study, carried out by the Environmental Protection Administration, not only evaluated an incomplete chemical mix – it didn’t have the full complement of chemicals as mixed being used to evaluate – but relied exclusively on data provided by the State Department. No member of the EPA spent one hour of time on the ground in Colombia, as they have no standing there. And even then the EPA had major questions about the fumigation.) One recent study carried out by the respected Dr. Adolfo Mondonaldo of Ecological Action, shows the “presence of genetic damage in a population” of people exposed to the Plan Colombia fumigation. American toxicologist Mark Cherniak recently presented a paper to the Council of State of Colombia stating “the exposure to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-up) represents a risk in expectant mothers.”
The problems don’t end there. Food crops have been destroyed, rainforest ravaged, tens of thousands of peasants have been displaced because their crops, livestock and water sources have been poisoned.
The most humane solution would be a permanent cessation of the fumigation. Given that is not going to happen in this political climate, there minimally needs to happen what was ordered by the Colombian courts: a temporary suspension of the fumigation until environmental and human impact studies can be made and safety guidelines put into place. Yet even that is not happening and is not going to happen. What would be thhe harm in a temporary suspension of the fumigation until environmental and human impact studies can be made? Nothing. Which suggests that both the US and Colombia know that if impact studies were made the fumigation would be permanently stopped. But if that turned out to be the case, since all the fumigation thus far – for all the alleged success it’s had in eliminating Colombia’s coca crop – hasn’t actually lessened the supply of coca in the US one iota, what would be the harm in stopping it permanently?
Politically it would be embarrassing for the Bush Administration, of course, but Bush’s out would be that the whole plan was former president Clinton’s cockeyed idea. So it must be more than that that’s preventing those studies.
To many, it continues to look like the spraying is meant more to clear the land of people so that oil exploration can get going full steam in the region than it is to eliminate coca crops.
“We know at least one element of Plan Colombia” says Astrid Puentes, “is the US-training of Colombian soldiers to protect the Occidental Oil pipeline in Canon Limon from rebel attacks. Some people think the fumigation will clear the land for exploration as well.”
And if that were the case, it would explain why those pesky studies aren’t being carried out.
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