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Reports from the ground: destruction of food crops and harm to livestock and farmed fish

Sources including the UN Drug Control Programme, municipal police within affected areas, and human rights monitors have documented adverse effects of aerial spraying, including the destruction of many acres of food crops; harm to livestock and farmed fish raised by poor rural communities; and damage to natural ecosystems.

According to the UN Drug Control Programme's representative in Colombia and Ecuador, Klaus Nyholm, the United Nations has collected extensive evidence that herbicides are being sprayed on small farmers' food plots. "We know that despite the government's policy, sometimes small farmers' plots are hit as well, and that legal crops such as bananas and beans are being fumigated by mistake,'' he told a news conference in Bogotá. 23

Within the Colombian government itself, the Human Rights Ombudsman reported in February 2001 that the aerial spraying had destroyed crops in eleven government-sponsored crop substitution and alternative development programs, programs specifically intended to provide poor farmers with economic alternatives to drug crop production. The Ombudsman expressed special concern about the effects of spraying on indigenous communities, including Cofáns, Awa, Paeces, Sionas and Pastos. 24

In January 2001, the BBC and the New York Times reported on the effects of spraying in Putumayo. The BBC quoted Jesús Ortega, Mayor of the small town of Puerto Guzmán: "Several months ago they sprayed here...but they did not respect the conventions laid out in the government decrees. It was done in an indiscriminate manner, without considering that it was going to affect agricultural food crops such as bananas, yucca, corn, and beans as well as pastures and forests. They sprayed water courses, cattle, and people." Ortega cited spontaneous abortions among livestock following the spraying, as well as adverse health effects in people. 25 After viewing the Valley of Guamuez from an army helicopter, a New York Times reporter added his own eyewitness account to farmers' complaints about the destruction of legal crops: "fields that once were bright green with coca and other plants were a pale brown, wiped free of vegetation for miles around." 26

An inspection and accounting by the municipal police in the single township of Valle del Guamuez (population 4289) in the Province of Putumayo found that 17,912 acres had been sprayed with herbicides as of February 21, 2001. Of this area, less than 12% was dedicated to coca cultivation. Crop and animal losses in the 59 settlements and neighborhoods that make up the township included: 2263 acres of bananas, 1030 acres of yucca, 1032 acres of corn, 7064 acres of pasture, 1665 acres of other crops (coffee, peanuts, fruit trees, timber, and vegetables), 1112 acres of forest, 38,357 domesticated birds (chickens, ducks), 719 horses, 2767 cattle, 6635 guinea pigs, 128,980 fish (from aquaculture), and 919 other animals (pigs, cats, dogs). 27 A similar review for the municipality of La Hormiga, also in Putumayo, reported the destruction of 20,239 acres of food crops and adverse effects in 171,643 farm animals (including large livestock, poultry, and farmed fish). 28

In the Cimitarra River Valley in Santander, the European Network of Brotherhood and Solidarity with Colombia found that, after aerial spraying between August 5 and 25, 2001, the 242 families interviewed (less than 10% of the total number affected) had lost a total of 1350 acres (over two square miles) of food crops including corn, yucca, bananas, rice and yam. They also reported adverse effects on 600 acres of fruit trees and pasture land. The report notes that "the lack of food and the contamination of water supplies caused the death of a number of domestic animals (including cattle, mules, and chickens) as secondary impacts of spraying." 29

Plausibility of Complaints

Responding to complaints of adverse effects from the spray campaigns, the U.S. government has argued that reported effects are implausible or impossible. Our review suggests that, in fact, the complaints lodged by affected communities are plausible and that many of the reported effects would be expected based on what we know about the formulation's toxicological properties. Information distributed by the U.S. State Department defends the aerial spray campaign on the basis of the following claims: "glyphosate has been extensively tested and evaluated;" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has "approved glyphosate for general use;" "glyphosate is poorly absorbed from the digestive tract and is largely excreted unchanged by mammals;" "when received orally or through the skin, [glyphosate] has a very low acute toxicity;" "toxicological studies have shown that glyphosate is less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even Vitamin A;" and a "major peer-reviewed article...concluded that 'under present and expected conditions of use, Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans.'" 30

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23 Cesar García, "U.N. Calls for Drug Crop Monitors," Associated Press (July 24, 2001).

24 Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, Human Rights Ombudsman, "Sobre el impacto de fumigaciones en 11 proyectos de desarrollo alternativo en el Putumayo," Resolución Defensorial No. 004, February 12, 2001.

25 "Guerra contra los cocales," BBC World Service (January 18, 2001), available at (visited November 15, 2001).

26 Juan Forero, "No Crops Spared in Colombia's Coca War," New York Times (January 31, 2001).

27 Luz Angela Pabón, España, Municipal Police Inspector, Valle de Guamuez, Putumayo, Colombia "General Summary of Losses due to Fumigation through 21 February 2001."

28 Lisa Haugaard, Latin American Working Group, "Ten questions for Colombia Policy," question 7. Available at

29 Red Europea de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia, 2001, Op. Cit.

30 U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Narcotics Affairs Section, "The Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia: Background and Environmental Impact," (visited November 7, 2001).