Effects of Fumigation

One of the chemicals used to fumigate in Colombia is Fusarium EN-4, a descendent of a defoliant used by the US in Vietnam that, even after 30 years, is still leaving babies severely deformed and handicapped. There is a lack of information available publicly about the semi-secret research project that the US conducts with EN-4 chemicals and little evidence is available to show exactly what the effects of such chemicals are on human beings. However, after a mysterious outbreak of an EN-4 based chemical in Peru (of which the US government denied all knowledge) campesinos reported widespread sickness among livestock. On top of this Colombian researchers have shown that the mortality rate for humans subjected to EN-4 is 76%. Also, far from attacking the coca plant specifically, and contrary to reports put out by the White House-based Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are over 200 other species of plants whose genus are targeted by EN-4 and are therefore susceptible to attack.

The other chemical currently being used in Colombia is Glyphosate, which is promoted as a "mild" herbicide by its producer Monsanto, but is classified as "extremely poisonous" by the World Health Organization. In an irresponsible effort to make Glyphosate more effective, the US have chosen to add the chemical Cosmo-flux to the Glyphosate, which, according to Dr Elsa Nivia, the regional director of Colombia’s Pesticide Action Network, increases its biological activity permitting improved results with smaller concentrations. Yet reports by Accion Andina, indicate that the new Glyphosate-Cosmo mix is being used in concentrations of 5 times the recommended level of one liter per acre. The result is a highly concentrated herbicide, which has increased cohesiveness and stickiness, making the chemical much harder to breakdown or remove.

The effect on the health of people living in fumigated areas has been devastating, particularly among the young and elderly. In areas such as Putumayo and Bolivar departments of Colombia where there has already been widespread fumigation there have been mass reports of ill health and sickness following the spray runs by US-piloted State Department fumigation planes. After a recent visit to some of the effected areas, the US-based NGO ‘Witness for Peace’ reported that peasants became extremely sick after spray planes had passed overhead, with symptoms including vomiting, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, skin rashes and even hair-loss. Edgar Perea, a doctor at the hospital in the Putumayo village of La Hormiga, told the visitors, "I have treated people with skin rashes, stomach aches and diarrhea caused by the fumigation. And I have treated five children affected by the fumigation in the past 25 days." A journalist investigating the fumigation-induced illnesses reported that 80% of children fell ill after spraying in some areas.

This evidence is contrary to the official view that Glyphosate is not harmful to humans or the environment and its continued use is very worrying. The long-term consequences of these chemicals on human health are unknown, and there is fear of sterility of the population and deformity of children conceived in polluted areas.

The effect on livestock is also severe, pigs and chickens have died in large numbers and cattle have suffered from hair-loss and, on occasion, are found dead after contact with contaminated grass or water. Fish are more vulnerable and there are reports of the complete extinction of local fish stocks when water is polluted as a consequence of fumigation. As a direct result of this food and economic resources are lost, further isolating and impoverishing families and rural communities, thus increasing their reliance on coca. As the governor of Putumayo department, who recently went to the US with three other governors of affected departments to call for an end to fumigation, said, "This is an attack on the people."

Fumigation of legal crops, an ever-increasing scenario, is also posing huge problems to rural communities and, in some areas, is threatening their very existence. Nearly 100,000 gallons of Glyphosate has been sprayed over Putumayo alone in the on-going eradication program and spray planes regularly release their cargo from over 100 feet despite Monsanto’s recommendations that it should not be applied from anywhere above 10 feet. Discharging the chemical from higher altitudes can lead to what Monsanto describe as ‘drift’, which in turn contaminates water and legal crops nearby thus destroying food supplies.

However, there are also reports that legal crops and water sources have been purposely sprayed, and in an article printed in the Washington Post on January 7th 2001, entitled ‘Aerial Attack Killing More Than Coca’, several witnesses reported that their town itself was sprayed. In the same article inhabitants of the village of La Hormiga said that legitimate crops had been targeted even more than coca. The results of crop destruction are so severe that Flover Edmundo Meza, the mayor of one of Putumayo’s municipalities (whose own farm was fumigated), foresees widespread hunger throughout the area due to crop destruction. The mayor predicted that up to 35,000 people in his municipality alone could be effected.

Hunger will ultimately lead to a large increase in the numbers of displaced people in Colombia - adding to the over 2 million that already exist. Yet both the US and Colombian authorities have denied the claims, even when backed up with irrefutable evidence, of the fumigation of legal crops. In an interview with the Dutch journalist Marjon van Royen, General Socha, head of the Colombian police’s anti-narcotics unit, when asked to look at photos of the destruction (due to fumigation) of the Indian reservation of Aponte in southern Colombia, responded, "It is false. The proof you want to hand over to me is false". This sentiment seems to be the official government line as doctor Josi Tordecilla, who works in the reservation, found when he asked for more medicine from central government to treat symptoms of spraying. He was refused on grounds that spraying related illnesses were all "lies".