Plan Colombia

Spraying Report

Project Home
Oil Responses
Enviro Monitoring
Plan Colombia
  Spraying Report
Indigenous Rights
The Secoya People
Project History
How You Can Help
Our Funders

ISIS Publications
Contact us

Projects Overview
  MilWaste Program
  Amazon Project
  Quantum Physics
  Science Dialogue
  Recoding Life
  ISIS Fellows

Page 7

Critiques of the Spray Campaigns

The U.S. State Department has dismissed many complaints as the self-serving fabrications of narcotraffickers. A State Department "question and answer" fact sheet poses the question, "If glyphosate is so benign, why are there complaints of harm from its use in Colombia?" and answers: "Negative press reports in Colombia concerning glyphosate have been largely based on unverified accounts provided by farmers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. In addition, we believe that the illegal armed groups are the source of many of the complaints. These groups receive vast sums of money from narcotraffickers to protect illicit crops and therefore have a significant interest in maintaining opposition to the spray program." 66

In fact, the complaints come from many sources. Both within Colombia and internationally, governmental and non-governmental institutions have called for review of the spray campaigns and for development of alternative approaches. As a report by the Transnational Institute shows, the critiques cover a range of perspectives: some simply criticize technical aspects of the campaigns' implementation, without actually recommending or demanding that they cease, while others recommend that they be suspended based on "technical, legal and economic objections," and still others reject aerial spraying categorically as a means for addressing the drug trade. 67 All these critiques share a common concern that the spray campaigns are damaging the health and livelihoods of Colombian citizens and damaging delicate tropical environments.

The governors of the six provinces most affected by the spraying have called for a halt to fumigation and propose voluntary manual eradication of coca crops as an alternative. They have requested that U.S. aid be used to support alternative development projects that can help farmers switch from coca to other viable crops. While U.S. aid has included a small amount of funding for programs of this kind, the governors say the money has not reached their communities; meanwhile, aerial spraying has wiped out many legitimate alternative development projects. 68

Colombia's Comptroller-General, Carlos Ossa, has called for a halt to spraying until environmental effects can be measured, and proposed that greater emphasis be put on economic and social programs to encourage farmers to switch to legal crops. 69

Colombia's Human Rights Ombudsman has called for the suspension of aerial spraying pending the development of plans to protect alternative economic projects, population centers and water resources, and the creation of contingency and compensation plans. 70

The UN Drug Control Programme's representative in Colombia and Ecuador, Klaus Nyholm, argues that aerial eradication is neither just nor efficient. Nyholm has called for a halt to the spraying of small producers and for a program of voluntary manual eradication. 71

European Union representatives have questioned the effectiveness of aerial eradication campaigns and of military responses to Colombia's problems; they support social and economic programs instead. Joaquin Miranda, President of the European Parliament's Commission for Development and Cooperation wrote to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana: "We believe, and it seems that experience demonstrates this amply, that new spraying-and the militarization that necessarily accompanies it-can do nothing but displace the problem, cause new irreparable damage to people and the environment, and increase the already enormous number of displaced persons without resolving the fundamental problems that oblige thousands of indigenous people and peasants to plant crops of coca and poppies." 72

In August 2001, over 100 physicians, scientists, and other professionals signed an open letter to the U.S. Senate expressing concern about environmental and human health effects of the spray campaigns. The signatories note that "the spraying protocol may violate EPA requirements and restrictions on herbicide use" through failure to follow pesticide label instructions, and that "human health or environmental protection considerations have not played any significant role to date" in the decision to conduct spray campaigns. They urge the U.S. Senate to "suspend all financing and support of the fumigation program until comprehensive, independent, and peer reviewed scientific and health studies have determined whether the environmental and public health impacts of this program are acceptable," noting that "these studies must consider the specific conditions of herbicide use in Colombia and whether or not the spraying protocol meets EPA label requirements for use of the herbicide." The signatories note: "While glyphosate and the additives it is used with have quite different toxicological properties from the herbicides that made up Agent Orange, the concerns are the same: we are exposing ecosystems and citizens of another country to a toxic chemical mixture, while failing to disclose the composition of the mixture and the conditions of exposure. Peer reviewed scientific studies support the plausibility of reports of significant illness related to human exposures and damage to farm crops and animals. Essentially, we are conducting an uncontrolled experiment in crop destruction, with impacts that are likely to extend beyond non-target vegetation." 73


Adverse effects of the spray campaigns in Colombia have been widely reported by affected communities, Colombian government authorities, and outside observers. Many of these effects are, in fact, predictable based on publicly available information about toxicological properties of glyphosate herbicides and standard guidelines for these herbicides' use. The human health effects reported by large numbers of people, including government authorities, appear to be both reliable and consistent with known effects of the chemicals being used.

The crop losses and environmental impacts, also broadly reported, are natural outcomes of the widespread aerial spraying of powerful and concentrated herbicides. Some reported effects on domestic animals, such as fish kills, are consistent with known effects of glyphosate herbicides. The destruction of wildlife and habitat loss are also the logical outcomes of aerial application of herbicides over the rainforest. The predictability of these outcomes raises grave concerns regarding the policy choices behind the spraying campaigns that cause them.

Although certain reported effects of the spraying, such as widespread livestock deaths and some of the most serious human health impacts, are not clearly explained by known toxicological properties of the chemicals known to be used in the spray campaigns, several "unknowns" in the situation may contribute to these effects. These factors include the use of higher than recommended concentrations; methods of application that violate label instructions and may have led to significant inhalation exposures; secondary effects such as contamination of water and loss of feed supplies; and use of additional ingredients whose toxicological profiles in combination with glyphosate herbicides are unknown or undisclosed. Any scientific studies intended to gauge the effects of spraying will need to take these factors into consideration. The fact that significant exposures may have occurred via inhalation makes further investigation of livestock deaths particularly important.

The great number of reports that have been made regarding the health and environmental impacts of spraying, the diversity of the sources, and the detail of the documentation, justify, in our opinion, calls for a moratorium on spraying. Such a moratorium would allow time to review crop eradication policies and study health and environmental effects.

Previous Page

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

67 Transnational Institute, "Fumigation and Conflict in Colombia: In the Heat of the Debate," Drugs and Conflict Debate Paper No. 2 (September 2001), available at, visited March 7, 2002

68 Judy Mann, "Waging Chemical Warfare in Colombia," Washington Post (March 16, 2001), p. C11.

69 Michael Easterbrook, "Government Study Raises Doubts on Drugs," Associated Press (September 2, 2001).

70 Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman, letter to Rómulo González Trujillo, Colombian Minister of Justice (July 12, 2001).

71 "ONU Critica Fumigación Aérea," El Tiempo, Bogotá (July 24, 2001).

72 Joaquim Miranda, President, European Parliament's Commission for Development and Cooperation, letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, Brussels(July 13, 2001), available at

73 Open Letter to the U.S. Senate, available at