Ineffective & Possibly Carcinogenic, But Colombia Will Go Back To Attacking Coca With Glyphosate

Colombia Drugs

A police plane sprays herbicides over coca fields in El Tarra, in the Catatumbo river area, near Colombia’s northeastern border with Venezuela (AP/Luis Robayo)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Less than a year after the government halted its use over concerns that it could cause cancer, Colombia plans to resume using glyphosate, a controversial weed killer, on illegal coca crops.

Glyphosate had been used for 20 years in Colombia’s battle against coca, the vast majority of which will be turned into cocaine for distribution through the global black market. President Juan Manuel Santos banned the practice last year after the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, labeled the substance as a “probable carcinogen.”

The Associated Press reported on April 18 that although glyphosate will be back in use, it will no longer be sprayed from planes: “Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said that instead of dumping glyphosate from American-piloted crop dusters, as Colombia did for two decades, the herbicide will now be applied manually by eradication crews on the ground.”

Critics of the moratorium cited U.S. government figures which showed an increase in coca production over the past year. The AP reported: “After six straight years of declining or steady production, the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia jumped 39 percent in 2014 and 42 percent more last year to 159,000 hectares (392,000 acres), according to the U.S. government.”

However, experts cited by the AP suggested the program had been expensive and questionably effective, compared to alternative, low-tech solutions:

“A better eradication strategy, the experts insist, is the one already in place and which the government has been promising to scale up. In that approach, work crews pull up coca bushes by the roots, thus ensuring plants can’t grow back as happens after exposure to glyphosate.”

In addition to concerns about the safety and effectiveness of glyphosate, the spraying also frequently traveled far from its intended targets onto neighboring farms, or countries, as Newsweek reported in August 2015:

“Often, wind would carry the pesticides to neighboring Ecuador, which eventually filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, arguing that the sprayings had caused serious damage to people, crops, animals and the environment. In 2013, the case was settled out of court for $15 million. But Colombia’s citizens and victims have never seen a single peso for the damage done by the fumigations.”

Bolivia, meanwhile, has had surprising success with an unconventional eradication strategy of its own. “Bolivia has adopted a policy based on dialogue, where coca cultivation is allowed in traditional areas alongside alternative development [in others],” Antonino de Leo, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bolivia, told VICE News in August.

After kicking DEA agents out of the country, government officials allowed traditional cultivation of coca, which has many health benefits, while simultaneously discouraging the production of cocaine and offering farmers alternative ways to earn money. Cocaine production dropped by 11 percent in 2014.

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