Vast stretches of southern Colombia now look like desert - crops withered away, the ground parched and brown, vegetation burnt by chemicals.

Plan Colombia, the anti-drugs plan financed by $1.3 billion of American aid, aims to stop cocaine production by destroying every plant that grows in this fragile Amazonian ecosystem.

It's not just drug plants that are being destroyed: Fields of plantain, almost a mile from the nearest drug field, are withered and brown.

The campaign has been going since the end of last year but the $80m to help coca farmers switch to legal crops has not arrived. "What are we supposed to do?" asks Cecilia Amaya, who heads a peasant association. "The promised help has not arrived, and we suspect it will never arrive. Corrupt politicians have already pocketed it."

The US Environmental Protection Agency says glyphosate-based products should be handled with caution and could cause vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, mental confusion and tissue damage. But in Colombia the chemical is being sprayed on people tending their fields and is leaching into the local drinking water. "We are getting cases every week of some mild poisoning and the eye, skin and breathing problems which occur after the planes have passed over and dropped their loads," said a nurse at San Francisco Hospital in Puerto Asis.

Meanwhile Plan Colombia is failing to stop the drugs being grown. Large-scale plantations are being replaced by an explosion of new coca crops in small plots behind peasant shacks, protected from the crop dusting planes.

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Posted 28 May, 2001 by Roger Lovejoy