Fabio Larrarte pulls out a photo of a withered, brown plant. "They sprayed the yucca," he says. "The people of China have rice and the people of Mexico have corn; for us it is the yucca." The dead plant is the victim of a U.S.-funded program to fight the illegal drug industry in Colombia. Under this initiative, dubbed "Plan Colombia," the U.S. government will supply the country with $1.3 billion in aid over two yearswith part of it used to pay for aerial spraying of illicit coca fields. Larrarte and José Soria Java traveled to Washington, D.C., in March as representatives of the indigenous people who live in Putumayo province, the current site of the spraying, to demonstrate that the eradication campaign is harming more than coca.
"When theyre spraying, the herbicide drifts in the air," Soria says. "It doesnt just fall where its supposed to fall. It falls on food crops. It falls where there are animals. It falls into drinking wells."
Undaunted by the fact that Putumayo is home to La Paya National Park, the Colombian government insists that by using a global positioning system, pilots can control where the herbicide lands. But two years ago, when Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) visited the region, he found out firsthand how inaccurate aerial spraying can be. As Wellstone watched a spraying demonstration by the government, the wind suddenly shifted. Instead of zapping the coca, the herbicide fell in a fine mist over the senator.
"Applying it by plane, its impossible to avoid indiscriminate spraying of people," says Elsa Nivia, a scientist with the Colombian branch of the Pesticide Action Network. "Its ridiculous to assume the mist will just fly down vertically." The herbicide can drift at least half a mile from its intended target. Ecuador, which shares a border with Colombia along Putumayo, has requested a six-mile no-spray zone to protect its own people and rainforests.
The herbicide used in Colombia can cause rashes, burning eyes, vomiting, and headaches, says Nivia. Although one of its main ingredients, glyphosate, is approved for use in the United States, Nivia says that Colombian government reports suggest that the herbicide is being used in Putumayo in concentrations 15 times higher than EPA recommendations for agricultural application. No studies have been done on the effects of such amounts on humans or on vegetation.
The U.S. State Department acknowledges that the herbicide mixture can cause health problems, but points out that the paraquat, parathion, and other chemicals applied to coca fields are far more toxic than the glyphosate sprayed from above. The Colombian embassy estimates that coca farmers in Putumayo dump more than 23 million gallons of pesticides into the Amazon basin every year. Also, rainforest clearcuttingfor coca fields and landing strips for drug-trafficking planeshas destroyed "an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park" according to the embassy.
The war on coca hasnt halted this damage, however. In fact, coca cultivation in Colombia increased 25 percent in 2001, according to CIA data. The coca crop is a major source of income for up to 70 percent of the people in Putumayo. "Spraying is a misdirected policy," Larrarte says. "If we dont have alternatives, the people will continue to cultivate coca."