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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Sierra Magazine

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Lay of the Land

Salmon | WWatch | Ad Critique | Yucca Mountain | Coca in Columbia | Save Energy | Bold Strokes | Updates

Lethal Dose

War on coca poisons Colombia

By Vikki Kratz

Fabio Larrarte pulls out a photo of a withered, brown plant. "They sprayed the yucca," he says. "The people of China have rice and the people of Mexico have corn; for us it is the yucca." The dead plant is the victim of a U.S.-funded program to fight the illegal drug industry in Colombia. Under this initiative, dubbed "Plan Colombia," the U.S. government will supply the country with $1.3 billion in aid over two years–with part of it used to pay for aerial spraying of illicit coca fields. Larrarte and José Soria Java traveled to Washington, D.C., in March as representatives of the indigenous people who live in Putumayo province, the current site of the spraying, to demonstrate that the eradication campaign is harming more than coca.

"When they’re spraying, the herbicide drifts in the air," Soria says. "It doesn’t just fall where it’s supposed to fall. It falls on food crops. It falls where there are animals. It falls into drinking wells."

Undaunted by the fact that Putumayo is home to La Paya National Park, the Colombian government insists that by using a global positioning system, pilots can control where the herbicide lands. But two years ago, when Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) visited the region, he found out firsthand how inaccurate aerial spraying can be. As Wellstone watched a spraying demonstration by the government, the wind suddenly shifted. Instead of zapping the coca, the herbicide fell in a fine mist over the senator.

"Applying it by plane, it’s impossible to avoid indiscriminate spraying of people," says Elsa Nivia, a scientist with the Colombian branch of the Pesticide Action Network. "It’s ridiculous to assume the mist will just fly down vertically." The herbicide can drift at least half a mile from its intended target. Ecuador, which shares a border with Colombia along Putumayo, has requested a six-mile no-spray zone to protect its own people and rainforests.

The herbicide used in Colombia can cause rashes, burning eyes, vomiting, and headaches, says Nivia. Although one of its main ingredients, glyphosate, is approved for use in the United States, Nivia says that Colombian government reports suggest that the herbicide is being used in Putumayo in concentrations 15 times higher than EPA recommendations for agricultural application. No studies have been done on the effects of such amounts on humans or on vegetation.

The U.S. State Department acknowledges that the herbicide mixture can cause health problems, but points out that the paraquat, parathion, and other chemicals applied to coca fields are far more toxic than the glyphosate sprayed from above. The Colombian embassy estimates that coca farmers in Putumayo dump more than 23 million gallons of pesticides into the Amazon basin every year. Also, rainforest clearcutting–for coca fields and landing strips for drug-trafficking planes–has destroyed "an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park" according to the embassy.

The war on coca hasn’t halted this damage, however. In fact, coca cultivation in Colombia increased 25 percent in 2001, according to CIA data. The coca crop is a major source of income for up to 70 percent of the people in Putumayo. "Spraying is a misdirected policy," Larrarte says. "If we don’t have alternatives, the people will continue to cultivate coca."

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