Colombia’s aerial fumigation push fuels fear of coca conflict

Rural Colombians in illegal coca industry raise fears spraying with glyphosate will harm environment, residents’ health.

Henri, a Colombian coca farmer, stands by a piece of fallen tarp at a makeshift laboratory near his coca patch in the country's Guaviare department [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

Boqueron, Guaviare department, Colombia – Henri* lies in a hammock on his front porch with a pistol on the table beside him.

The 36-year-old coca farmer says he was forced to resume the risky business of growing the plant from which cocaine is made in order to make a living after promised government subsidies failed to materialise.

“It’s a hard life here,” he says, becoming visibly uncomfortable when asked about the gun in an interview at his wooden cabin home in Colombia’s remote south-central region of Guaviare.

The house sits at the end of a bumpy car ride down an unpaved, dirt lane and a long walk through tangled vegetation, while his illegal coca patch can only be reached by trekking deep into the jungle.

“What else am I going to grow if there isn’t even a road here?” Henri says. “We don’t have anything, we have to grow coca out of obligation. If we don’t, what will we live off?”

The department of Guaviare, in south-central Colombia [Sebastien Billard/Al Jazeera]

Aerial fumigation

Henri is one of an unclear number of Colombian farmers harvesting coca illegally in the South American nation, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Yet while poor coca farmers may plant the seeds of what is a multibillion-dollar industry, they rarely reap the rewards – and Colombian government efforts to crack down on illegal farms have not deterred poor Colombians from cultivating the raw ingredient of cocaine.

Now, with President Ivan Duque’s government close to resuming aerial fumigation of illegal coca patches in an effort to disrupt drug trafficking, farmers say they fear for their health and livelihoods, as well as a potential increase of violence in their already hard-hit regions.

Various Colombian scientific studies over the years have shown the method contaminates rural water supplies, damages fertile soil and destroys entire swathes of non-coca crops in agricultural areas.

Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, the illegal drug derived from coca [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer identified (PDF) the herbicide glyphosate – used in Colombia’s aerial fumigations – as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, though the US Environmental Protection Agency disagrees, saying the chemical is not a carcinogen.

After the WHO’s findings, aerial fumigation was immediately banned by Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos. Locals also say previous aerial spraying caused rashes and illnesses in their communities, but Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify those claims.

“Aerial fumigation is the worst that could happen, the most damaging, for everything. For water, for animals, for trees,” says Henri from the middle of his coca patch, a machete in one hand and a white scarf draped over his shoulder to wipe sweat from his brow.

“Over there,” he says, pointing to pastures far in the distance. “There’s livestock, a house, small children and they’re going to destroy all of that when the fumigation planes pass over.”

Government efforts

Aerial fumigation is not new to Colombia and has been backed by the United States for more than 25 years as Washington encouraged Bogota to crack down on coca harvesting as part of the global “war on drugs”.

Globally, about 20 million people use cocaine, which is an illegal substance in most countries. The US, along with the UK and Spain, are among the world’s biggest consumer markets for the drug.

In Colombia, a 2016 peace deal signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group had a significant focus on moving rural farmers away from illegal crops. But long lags in the delivery of funding to set up government-led crop substitution and voluntary coca eradication programmes caused many farmers to lose faith in the state’s promises – and return to coca.

Meanwhile, since his 2018 election victory, President Duque had controversially promised to restart the fumigation of illegal crops in an attempt to end drug trafficking and the violence that stems from it – a pledge that was encouraged by former US President Donald Trump.

Coca farmer Henri says he fears aerial spraying will harm the environment [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

Duque has since said his government would reduce Colombia’s coca crops, which the UN said decreased from 154,000 hectares (380,500 acres) in 2019 to 143,000 hectares (353,000 acres) last year, by 50 percent before the end of 2023 – and the right-wing leader appears poised to keep that promise.

In July, Defence Minister Diego Molano announced that the armed forces eradicated 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres) of illicit crops so far this year and seized more than 34 tonnes of cocaine, a 30 percent increase compared with the same period last year.

The government is now waiting to see if it has met new environmental and health requirements set out by the Constitutional Court in 2019 – a requirement to restart aerial fumigation with glyphosate. It is unknown when a ruling will be announced.

The government says aerial fumigation is more effective – 400 to 600 (988-1,483 acres) hectares of coca could be destroyed daily compared with just 170 hectares (420 acres) with manual eradication, it argues – and that it protects eradication teams from attacks by armed groups and landmines. Security forces are regularly maimed, and sometimes killed, in manual eradication missions.

‘Misguided plan’

But back in Guaviare province, impoverished local farmers such as Henri say coca is the only way to make a living because it would cost more to grow and transport any other crop to nearby towns.

Outside Henri’s cabin, a slope drops down to a narrow river on which a thin tree trunk acts as a bridge to the other side. Another five-minute walk on the other side of the river, a cleared patch of forest appears and rows of emerald coca leaves glimmer under an intense sun. Harvests take place about every 10 weeks all around Colombia and several other coca harvesters, known as “raspachines”, will travel here to help.

Henri does not make cocaine himself, instead turning the coca leaves into a type of paste at a makeshift laboratory next to his growing patch. A potent smell of petrol and ether, substances used in the transformation process that have seeped into the ground, fills the air.

But while the Colombian government has touted its crackdown on coca production, rights groups say such efforts will be futile if farmers in remote parts of the country do not get long-term, institutional support after decades of conflict. They have also criticised Duque’s government for pushing to resume aerial fumigation.

“Glyphosate fumigation … puts peoples’ rights and lives at risk while doing little to reduce coca cultivation in the long-term,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, who called on the US to exert pressure on Colombia to end the practice.

“The Biden administration has rightly been putting human rights and the rule of law at the centre of its statements on Latin America. But its words will mean very little in rural Colombia if the US doesn’t openly oppose aerial coca fumigation, a misguided plan that puts the rights of countless vulnerable Colombians in peril,” Vivanco told Al Jazeera.

Other options

While aerial fumigation is banned, coca in Colombia is destroyed using other forceful measures. The police and army spray glyphosate and uproot coca plants by hand, while coca farmers found on site when eradication operations take place face hefty prison time.

Al Jazeera spoke to more than 10 people involved in coca production in Guaviare about the resumption of aerial fumigation and all expressed deep concerns.

“As farmers, we reject aerial spraying with glyphosate because we know it brings many consequences in terms of illness, and by just fumigating a coca crop you are fumigating two or three hectares (five or seven acres) of forest,” Gonzalo Toloza, a 48-year-old social leader in the village of Boqueron, told Al Jazeera. “We believe the government should look for other methods to end coca, and that they come through on promises made to rural farmers.”

Pedro Arenas, a former mayor of San Jose del Guaviare, the capital of Guaviare department, now runs Viso Mutop, a think-tank that promotes drug policy reforms. He said he wants the government to suspend aerial fumigation with glyphosate until more advanced studies on the health risks are completed.

Pedro Arenas, a former mayor of San Jose del Guaviare, said he does not want the US to put money towards Colombia’s aerial fumigation programme [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

“Glyphosate has been questioned in courts of law – in the United States and also in Europe – we even know that Germany in 2023 could ban it completely,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are working very hard so that the Biden administration does not put money into the fumigation programme.”

Questions have also been raised in Washington, as Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this month reintroduced an amendment that would prohibit US funds from being used to directly aid aerial fumigation, “unless there are demonstrated actions by the Government of Colombia to adhere to national and local laws and regulations”.

In its March 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (PDF), the US State Department said a resumption of aerial coca eradication in Colombia “would be a most welcome development”. A spokesperson for the department told Al Jazeera that it is up to the Colombian government to decide on aerial fumigation, however.

“In addition to cocaine’s devastating effects on public health, coca cultivation and cocaine production is ravaging Colombia’s forests, waterways, and national parks,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Narcotraffickers profoundly damage their country by deforesting tens of thousands of hectares for coca cultivation, and dumping acids, gasoline, and other chemicals into Colombia’s rivers and land.”

Al Jazeera reached out to the Colombian government for comment over several months for this story, but received no response to the questions posed.

Investing in alternatives

But experts have continued to argue that Colombia needs to invest in alternatives to coca harvesting – and move away from forced eradication – if it wants to be successful in its fight against drug trafficking.

Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said currently there is no project up and running as part of the government’s crop substitution programme, known by the acronym PNIS. “A very small number have started, but many of them will take several years to be productive, so the idea of replacing the income that these farmers would have gotten from coca with something else simply hasn’t come to fruition really anywhere,” she told Al Jazeera.

In an August report, Colombia’s comptroller said the lag in assistance to PNIS beneficiaries persists, with less than 1 percent of eligible families (726) having completed the substitution process. The report said the delay increases the risk that eligible families will replant coca.

Most of the families working in the coca industry that Al Jazeera spoke to said they had received the first half of the payments more than three years ago to give up their crops. That initial payment gave them enough to live on until the rest of the funds came through to establish new economic projects. No one Al Jazeera spoke to has received the second payment.

The current government blames a number of factors for the slow implementation of the programme, including bad planning by the previous government in charge when it began and the rise of armed groups in many regions and their resistance to the substitution process, as well as an increase in coca cultivation in general in rural areas, as outlined in a 2020 report.

Forced eradication, Dickinson said, increases the potential of conflict for community members planting coca crops, “many of whom are poor farmers who rely on this income to support their families and really don’t have any alternatives”.

She also highlighted the threats that some coca farmers still face in parts of Colombia under the control of armed groups if they fail to comply with coca production. “If you are living in a community that’s dominated by an armed or criminal group, it’s not that easy to just stop planting coca and start planting something else, because often there is an implicit threat behind the production and growing of coca,” Dickinson said.

Like many in his town, Edinson*, a man in his late 30s who provides for his wife and three children, was displaced by armed conflict between paramilitary and rebel groups fighting in the region. Al Jazeera is not disclosing what town Edinson lives in due to fears of retribution.

He left coca as part of PNIS but says he received only half of the payments, some $1,000. He planted some plantain and cacao crops – but it has not been enough to sustain his family, he tells Al Jazeera. While he has not gone back to coca production, he travels regularly to work as a picker on coca farms, travelling eight hours in some cases to work for weeks-long stretches.

Edison is part of the government substitution scheme but has only received part of the money [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

On an average day, Edinson says he can earn between 50,000-60,000 Colombian pesos ($13-$15.50) – a huge boost to the meagre income he receives from growing alternative crops. He says he worries that should the government find out what he is doing, he will be removed from the PNIS programme.

“I ask the government to fulfil the objectives of the PNIS so that people can grow legal crops,” Edinson says, while carefully packing away the mosquito net he will take with him. “We have no alternatives.”

‘Serious conflict’

Near the small town of Charras, two hours from San Jose del Guaviare, former FARC commander Ricardo Semillas, 34, remembers seeing aerial fumigation when he was fighting deep in the jungle of various Colombian regions a decade ago.

“We saw farmers who were fumigated with that poison (glyphosate) on top of them,” said Semillas, who still uses his nom de guerre and now lives at a reintegration camp with about 100 other ex-combatants. “They didn’t respect human life, they threw that stuff on top of the crops without even caring if people were there.”

He told Al Jazeera that renewed aerial fumigation could exacerbate conflict in the country’s already violence-plagued rural areas.

Ricardo Semillas holds up a photo of himself when he served as a FARC commander [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

“People in the countryside need to be respected. A return to aerial fumigation is going to create conflict, without a doubt … serious conflict,” he said, making reference to FARC dissident groups and other illegal armed groups operating in the region.

Adam Isacson, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think-tank, said a resumption of fumigation could spur a wave of violent rural protests and blockades, similar to those seen in southern Colombia in 1996 and in the northeastern Catatumbo region in 2013.

Such protests, which Isacson said could be instigated by farmers’ associations as well as armed and criminal groups, also could be as dramatic as the mass demonstrations that rippled across Colombia this year.

With a host of unknown illegal armed groups operating in rural areas, the situation is more complex than ever, Isacson added. “The previous protests by coca farmers happened when there were just a few national armed groups. But now, there’s a whole galaxy of small, regional groups constantly competing,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Dropping fumigation and mass protests into such a volatile situation – during a pandemic, no less – risks outbreaks of violence in several parts of the countryside at once.”

Fernando Cuenca Miranda, 44, used to grow coca but has successfully established himself as a sugar cane and cashew nut farmer. He urged the Colombian government not to go back to aerial glyphosate spraying, saying ‘it completely destroys other crops’ [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

Moving away from coca

Still, some Colombian farmers have moved away from coca production.

Back in rural Guaviare, Lida Zaraida Cadena, 33, now cultivates passion fruit alongside her husband. She stopped cultivating coca eight years ago, before the peace process had even begun, after growing tired of how people perceived her family for their involvement in the industry.

But Cadena remains vehemently against aerial fumigation, which she says has a detrimental effect on all types of crops. “It kills. It totally kills the plantain, the yucca; crops like pineapple, for example, all those passion fruit crops,” she tells Al Jazeera, pointing to her plants. “I think it is awful they’re going to restart, it’s not the solution.”

According to Cadena, a lack of opportunities is what forces many people to grow coca. Poor farmers have tried to move away from it like she did, she says, but failed as new crops go wrong and they lack the know-how to profitably sell their produce.

“We’ve all got hopes for a better future, to see our children in a better country, with better circumstances,” Cadena says. “We are fully aware of the damage cocaine creates. Fully aware. But we are also fully aware that many people don’t have anything.”

*Full name not disclosed due to fears of reprisals from government agencies.

Source: Al Jazeera