Since 2000, the United States has provided substantial cash and technical support to Colombia in an attempt to eradicate cocaine production in the country. Support under the Plan Colombia programme, which started in 2000, amounts to $5billion with total assistance – mostly military – amounting to $8billion, according to Amnesty International. The US has encouraged aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate herbicide as part of the anti-drug programme. However, some see this as an ineffective approach. ‘Spraying doesn’t address the real roots of the problem,’ says Grace Livingstone, author of America’s Back Yard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. ‘The reason people grow coca in Colombia is due to poverty, landlessness, lack of access to markets and the low price of growing crops like coffee.’
In May, the Colombian government suspended the spraying programme. ‘It became increasingly clear that using glyphosate was causing all sorts of health problems, nausea, sickness, temporary blindness, intestinal problems...’ lists Livingstone.
Glyphosate also entered the water supply, killing fish and causing burns to animals, according to Livingstone. The chemical was also sprayed on the edge of the Amazon and national parks, both fragile ecosystems. The glyphosate formula used in Colombia was developed to stick to leaves, but this property also made it stick to clothing and skin, causing further burns, according to Livingstone.
Over the years, politicians and civil society groups in Colombia have called for a halt to the chemical’s use, although a strong lobby in favour of spraying remains active. Meanwhile, other countries involved in the ‘war on drugs’ in South America, such as Peru, never approved aerial spraying in the first place.
Glyphosate manufacturer Monsanto claims in a fact sheet that, ‘When glyphosate is used according to label directions, it poses no unreasonable risk to people, wildlife or the environment.’ But a March 2015 World Health Organization report claims that studies of the chemical show, ‘[T]here was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.’ The organisation now classifies the chemical as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’.
This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine