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Colombia chemical spraying furor continues

Pact to end anti-drug spraying on the Colombia-Ecuador border may have created more problems than it settled.

Last Modified: 30 Oct 2013 10:31
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More than 10,000 families on the Ecuadorean border have been affected by the spraying [AFP]

Quito, Ecuador - The secrecy surrounding a friendly settlement in a case that Ecuador brought against Colombia in the International Court of Justice for damage caused by anti-drug spraying along the border has further angered those affected by the fumigation.

Ecuador dropped the lawsuit filed in 2008 in The Hague-based Court, as a result of the agreement signed September 9.

The settlement stipulates that Colombia is to pay $15m in compensation, to be invested in areas in Ecuador affected by the aerial spraying of coca crops with the glyphosate herbicide near the country’s border.

But how and when the investments will be made has not yet been clarified.

The Colombian government also pledged not to carry out aerial spraying over the next year within 10km of the border with Ecuador, between the southwest Colombian provinces of Putumayo and Nariño and the northern Ecuadorean provinces of Sucumbíos, Carchi and Esmeraldas.

But that 10-km strip could be narrowed to 5 and eventually 2km within two years, according to the conditions explained in appendix 1 of the settlement agreement.

Exclusion zone

The appendix states that after the first year, once the scientific analyses are studied, the binational technical group will assess whether Ecuadorean territory was affected by the spraying. If it was not, the exclusion zone will be reduced to 5km wide for one year, and after that, to 2km.

That is the main concern of peasant farmers who say their health, crops and livestock have been affected by glyphosate spraying.

[I]f a single drop of glyphosate falls we will protest because we are prepared to carry this through to the end…

Daniel Alarcón, head of FORCCOFES

Reducing the width of the exclusion zone to 2km "is unfair, but the agreement has already been signed, and since it was between governments, we were left high and dry; but we will continue the struggle," Daniel Alarcón, the head of the Federation of Peasant Organisations in the Ecuadorian Border Zone of Sucumbios (FORCCOFES), said.

The settlement does not provide a real solution because "they will continue spraying near us," he said.

"It will affect us - we hope only minimally - but if a single drop of glyphosate falls we will protest because we are prepared to carry this through to the end, to get reparations for the damage caused."

Alarcón was referring to the health problems and deterioration in the quality of life that tens of thousands of people have suffered as a result of Colombia’s spraying near the Ecuadorean border between 2000 and 2007 with the aim of eradicating coca crops.

According to a survey conducted by Forccofes, some 15,000 families live in the border area in question, and the 10,000 families living along the San Miguel river have been affected the most by the spraying.

Cancer on the rise

"The effects are still being felt; the land has not returned to normal production levels," said Alarcón, who lives in 5 de Agosto, a community in the border district of General Farfán. "Cancer was almost unheard of here before, and now people are continuously dying of cancer because of the glyphosate, which has contaminated the water sources."

The agreement between the two countries refers to the chemical composition of the herbicide that figures in the environmental management plan authorised by Colombia’s environment ministry in resolution 1054, from 2003.

According to the settlement, the mixture - which according to the government is used throughout the national territory - contains 44 percent glyphosate, one percent Cosmoflux, and 55 percent water.

But the label for the Monsanto corporation’s Roundup glyphosate herbicide recommends a concentration of 1.6 to 7.7 percent glyphosate, with an absolute upper limit of 29 percent.

There are no studies on the impact of Cosmoflux.

An econometric study carried out this year by two professors at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, on the health effects of aerial spraying, found that it had "a very significant" impact in terms of the likelihood of miscarriage. It also found a correlation between aerial spraying and skin problems.

Uruguayan political analyst Laura Gil, who disseminated the terms of the settlement in Colombia on October 1, said that it was "unacceptable for Ecuadoreans to receive more [safety] guarantees than Colombians."

Secret negotiations

She added, however, that "agreements like this strengthen relations. It’s better to try to settle things through negotiations, rather than through a legal sentence, even though the International Court of Justice is a mechanism for the peaceful settlement of conflicts.

"But it is not acceptable for it to be done through secret diplomatic negotiations," she added, pointing out that the content of the binational agreement did not go through the Colombian Congress.

"It’s obvious why not: because the legislators would demand a halt to the spraying."

Amira Armenta, an expert with the Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy programme, wrote in a September 12 article that the settlement would not really change anything because Colombia would continue spraying in border provinces.

According to the latest study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Nariño and Putumayo are the provinces with the highest density of coca cultivation - 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of the country’s total coca cultivation in late 2012.

"In the last decade, Nariño has suffered from the highest levels of spraying in the country, and in spite of that it continues to boast the title of biggest producer," Armenta writes.

The settlement also states that before spraying in a border area, the Colombian government will give the Ecuadorean government 10 days notice, indicating the exact locations and dates of the fumigation.

"This is much more than what could have been achieved in a legal ruling, because it is very difficult for an international court to require a country to assume a commitment of this nature since the country can claim that it affects its sovereignty," Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said about the agreement. "But it is possible to achieve when it is a friendly settlement."

Ecuador and Colombia also agreed to sign a special expedited protocol for addressing complaints from Ecuadorean citizens in border areas. But the protocol, to be adopted "within 15 days" after the settlement was signed September 9, has not yet been announced.

A version of this article was first published by Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.

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