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February 2, 2008 - Truthout (US)

Perspective: US Herbicides Exact High Toll on Indigenous Populations

By Thomas D. Williams

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Despite years of ongoing, critical public health controversies in Colombia and Ecuador over the US-assisted aerial herbicide spraying of coca and poppy crops while trying to reduce illegal cocaine and heroin production, US State Department officials are pursuing that very same spraying strategy today.

In fact, a couple of months ago, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's administration temporarily cast aside the latest of several State Department exhortations to begin massive herbal spraying operations on poppy crops producing heroin there.

Colombian aerosol dusting of a mix of Roundup Ultra, Cosmo-Flux and other plant-penetrating agents began seven years ago. (In 2006 alone, the United Nations reported the spraying of approximately 172,025 hectares of coca crops, producing cocaine. That equals a bit over 664 square miles.)

In the meantime, untold thousands of Colombians and Ecuadorians have become sick from the blended chemical spray. Studies have shown the environmental dangers of inhalation and skin and eye saturation of the floating mist. And critically valuable maize, yucca and plantains have been destroyed in large swaths of the fertile country.

For years, DynCorp International of Fort Worth, Texas, has had the lucrative US multimillion-dollar annual contract for Colombian aerial spraying operations.

The company is being sued in Washington, DC, and US District Court by a class of 3,000 Ecuadorians who claim spray blown over the border from Colombia has sickened them.

"Glyphosate is used all over the world without these kinds of claims," said Gregory Lagana, a DynCorp spokesman. "We spray in Colombia, and there Glyphosate is used extensively. But we don't have any complaints where we spray it and what we do when we spray it. If there are health problems in Ecuador, they are certainly caused by something else." The spray itself, said Lagana, "is prescribed by the governments of Colombia and the United States. Monsanto makes the spray."

Monsanto, the herbicide manufacturer, has from time to time been identified by various Internet sites as the supplier of Roundup Ultra to Colombian spraying operations. But, through spokeswoman Tamara J. Craig Schilling, Monsanto refused to say whether the company is or was a supplier for Colombian spraying. Schilling refused to disclose the differences between regular Roundup and Roundup Ultra. The company claims Roundup is not harmful if instructions on the label are followed. Schilling said a Monsanto official in Mexico referred all such inquiries to the State Department. But, Monsanto also lists an office in Colombia inside its website.

Along with Dow Chemical, Monsanto was one of several US Army suppliers of the infamous Agent Orange, the herbicide used to deforest huge areas of jungle during the Vietnam War. The chemicals were alleged by many in multiple lawsuits to have caused birth defects and cancers among a large population of natives as well as US soldiers and their families.

Despite DynCorp spokesman Lagana's claims that Colombians are not being sickened by the spray, an American Friends service report, as early as 2002, said there were indeed health repercussions in Colombia as well. They cited the Putumayo Health Department report as saying: "Three municipalities targeted by spray campaigns from December 22, 2000, to February 2, 2001, indicated that medical personnel in three local hospitals reported increased visits due to skin problems, gastrointestinal infections, acute respiratory infection, and conjunctivitis following spraying."

In August 2001, a commission from a European Human Rights Organization found in a visit to the Province of Santanter that: "Contrary to official declarations about the harmlessness of Glyphosate, we were able to verify skin conditions (rashes and itching caused by the skin drying to the point of cracking) in both children and adults who were exposed directly to spraying while they worked their land or played outside their homes."

In fact, in spite of Lagana's insistence that Colombians haven't complained about the spray, a Colombian judge temporarily stopped spraying operations in July 2001 as a result of health complaints from indigenous groups.

Then in January 2002, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations ruled "The UN (Human Rights) Commission should urge the United States and Colombia to discontinue the aerial herbicide application program and seek alternative eradication methods."

Based on a complaint from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the council concluded: "The combination of (1) health, food resource, and environmental impacts to Colombians and Ecuadorians, (2) the toxicity of the spray mixture and the failure of the United States and Colombia to instruct sprayers to observe health and environmental safety recommendations, (3) the failure of the United States and Colombia to disclose sufficient information about the mixture and its application, (4) the failure of the United States and Colombia to conduct sufficient health and environmental assessments, and (5) the potential human rights abuses that may result from future health studies, clearly places the United States and Colombia in violation of the rights of Colombians and Ecuadorians to a clean and healthy environment, health, life, sustenance, property, privacy, and access to information."

Ecuador has threatened for months to go to The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, to pursue a case against the herbicide spraying by Colombia drifting across their common border. Repeated attempts over several weeks by this writer to contact an Ecuadorian government spokesperson concerning the herbicide spraying controversy failed.

"Colombia is convinced that the herbicide used in aerial spray of coca and poppy crops is harmless for human health and the environment," said Jurgan Kaiser, a Colombian government spokesman. "A scientific study recently undertaken under the auspices of the Organization of American States (Inter-American Commission against Drug Abuse) confirmed this. For more information about this, check the commission's web page at"

But a search of that site leads to a report on that scientific study that mentions many conflicting conclusions about the environmental impact of the herbicide mix sprayed in Colombia. It intricately discusses the pros and cons of a scientific treatise essentially concluding that the poppy spray is harmless to humans and the environment.

The US State Department believes the spraying of herbicide in Colombia is not harmful to the environment or to humans, said its spokeswoman Susan Pittman.

Contrary to government officials' and manufacturers' claims of non-toxicity, at least five inquiries have found that Roundup causes serious human health problems.

Specifically, seven scientific investigators, studying symptoms of Ecuadorians exposed to a mix of Roundup Ultra and other additive chemicals, concluded: "A total of 24 exposed and 21 unexposed control individuals were investigated using the comet assay. The results showed a higher degree of DNA damage in the exposed group compared to the control group. These results suggest that in the formulation used during aerial spraying Glyphosate had a genotoxic effect on the exposed individuals."

Mitra's Natural Innovation blog cites four more studies: "A group of scientists led by biochemist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen in France found that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup at concentrations lower than those currently used in agricultural application.

"An epidemiological study of Ontario farming populations showed that exposure to Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, nearly doubled the risk of late miscarriages. Seralini and his team decided to research the effects of the herbicide on human placenta cells. Their study confirmed the toxicity of Glyphosate, as after eighteen hours of exposure at low concentrations, large proportions of human placenta began to die. Seralini suggests that this may explain the high levels of premature births and miscarriages observed among female farmers using Glyphosate.... They found that the toxic effect increases in the presence of Roundup 'adjuvants' or additives. These additives thus have a facilitating role, rendering Roundup twice as toxic as its isolated active ingredient, Glyphosate.

"Another study, released in April 2005 by the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that Roundup is a danger to other life forms and non-target organisms. Biologist Rick Relyea found that Roundup is extremely lethal to amphibians. In what is considered one of the most extensive studies on the effects of pesticides on non-target organisms in a natural setting, Relyea found that Roundup caused a 70 percent decline in amphibian biodiversity and an 86 percent decline in the total mass of tadpoles. Leopard frog tadpoles and gray tree frog tadpoles were nearly eliminated.

"In 2002, a scientific team led by Robert Belle of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) biological station in Roscoff, France showed that Roundup activates one of the key stages of cellular division that can potentially lead to cancer. Belle and his team have been studying the impact of Glyphosate formulations on sea urchin cells for several years."

Notwithstanding the billions of US and Colombian dollars spent on hazardous aerial spraying of crops that some scientific studies insist adversely impact humans, animals and fish, United Nations estimates say Colombian illicit drug production in metric tons has actually doubled in the decade ending in 2006. As well, says the UN, Colombia still remains the world's biggest coca grower, producing 62 percent of the world's supply of cocaine.

Sometimes, when Colombia's illegal drug totals dropped, those in Bolivia and Peru, where aerial spraying is illegal, went up, UN reports say. Even when narcotics-enforcing officials are successful one year, the demand for illicit drugs is so strong in the United States and elsewhere, the poppy crops pop up again and again from year to year.

In the meantime, these annual United Nations inquiries show the Far East, once a booming drug black market for the world, has dramatically cleaned up its act without major environmental harm.

"Thailand has been opium-free for a long time. Vietnam is also opium-free. Laos has cut opium production by 94 percent in less than a decade (down to 1,500 hectares, or about 5.79 square miles). Burma's share of the world opium market has collapsed from 30 percent in 1998 to under six percent in 2007. A decades-long process of drug control is clearly paying off. Thailand, in particular, stands out as an inspiration to its neighbors and a role model for other countries trying to overcome their drug problems," says the UN report.

Thailand worked over three decades to eventually replace poppies with other valuable agricultural production, says the UN. The government concentrated on battling the drug trade with a more comprehensive two-pronged approach: a crop replacement program and stronger police control over drug dealing. "In 1969, the Thai efforts were pioneered by King Bhumibol Adulyadej who introduced a crop replacement project after the establishment of his new Phubing Palace in Chiang Mai adjacent to an opium poppy-growing village on the mountain Doi Pui. He promoted a long-term and cooperative approach to opium control that encouraged finding income-generation alternatives rather than law enforcement," the report says.

Contrasting with Colombia, the US government, which assisted Thailand in its efforts, "removed Thailand from the US list of major drug-producing countries in the late 1990s because of the country's success in limiting opium cultivation to its current low levels, and from the list of major drug transit countries in 2004 when it was apparent that local trafficking in and through Thailand had no significant impact on the United States. There is, effectively, no cultivation or production of heroin, methamphetamine or other drugs in Thailand today," said the US State Department's own report.

Herbicide manufacturers and officials from the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Drug Enforcement Administration, plus Colombian officials, have been claiming for about seven years that the chemical cocktail including Roundup Ultra, in fact sometimes deadly to plants and often fish, is harmless to humans. Safe, they say, provided it is sprayed properly with just the right mixture; assuming humans are not covered with the mist more than several times; and supposing the chemicals don't repeatedly make their way into drinking water supplies. Apparently, however, there are few, if any, independent overseers to make sure the spray is consistently totally non-toxic or is targeted just to the coca and poppy crops.

Despite the benign chemical claims, Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics & law enforcement affairs, testified in 2002 in the federal court case against DynCorp ongoing today, that there had been no scientific tests of the environmental impacts of the combinations of chemicals used for the extensive Colombian sprayings, then two years old.

Most tellingly, the US State Department has been unable to convince other nations to follow Colombia's lead. After once again considering the repetitious US proposal to spray the lucrative drug-producing Afghan harvests, President Hamid Karzai's administration cast aside the offer in October. "We have rejected the spraying of poppy in Afghanistan for good reasons: the effect on the environment, other smaller crops and on human genetics," the acting minister for counter-narcotics, General Khodaidad, told Britain's The Guardian.

However, says the article, Karzai promised to continue the difficult manual plant eradication, ongoing with help from US forces for six years, not long after US and Afghan troops began their continuing war with terrorists. Scores of US contract employees, soldiers and Afghan security men have used sticks, tractors and all-terrain vehicles with harrows to destroy poppies. But, this plan proves to be as dangerous as spraying; contractors have been regularly fired upon by terrorists or those allied with farmers, or otherwise blocked in their poppy-bashing efforts by corrupt officials bent on favoring farmers with powerful political connections, a plethora of news reports say.

The incredible difficulties with manual eradication apparently left Karzai with some doubts, so he has not yet completely eliminated the possibility of reconsidering a US-sponsored effort to spray the poppy crops from the air with weed and plant killer Roundup and the typical additives accompanying it.

In February 2006, William B. Wood moved from his post as US ambassador to Colombia to become the ambassador to Afghanistan. At that point in time, Sam Logan of ISN Security Watch editorialized: "it is worrying that (Wood) might promote the same failed drug policies used in Colombia.... Fumigation alone - the leading method for reducing the supply of coca plants - has eradicated other, legitimate crops and caused international disputes between Colombia and Ecuador. Environmental concerns linked to the use of herbicide to kill coca bushes inside Colombia's national parks underline the lengths the US government will go to target small, clandestine coca plantations in Colombia. Aircraft spraying chemicals in Colombia must fly at high altitudes to avoid damage due to small arms fire from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)."

It appears, however, that back-to-back wars in Afghanistan have created intense public animosity to airborne chemicals. Many Afghans are fed up with the decades of hazardous pollutants welling up from US aerial bombardments and bunker-busters, home-made terrorist bombs, radioactive depleted uranium dust from fired US munitions, smoke from oil and other chemical fires and a host of other sorts of dangerous chemical contaminations.

"The US government was pushing for this to happen," said Said Mohammed Azam, a former Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics official. "But the Brits were reluctant, particularly when it (developed) that the spray (could) have happened in Helmand province. Nearly half of the opium that was produced last year came from Helmand alone ... most (Afghan officials) were afraid of nodding yes to (the spray) because they were not very much aware of the (contents).... This concern among Afghan officials underpinned when the two sectarian ministries, public health and agriculture opposed the idea because they reasoned the chemicals could harm the environment in areas where the spray took place. I heard the eradication of poppy started yesterday (January 30) in Helmand province and the Interior Ministry has deployed 500 extra troops from center for this purpose. Apparently the eradication will happen through traditional means: hand, tractor or using oxen or other animals."

Thomas "Dennie" Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations, for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970's, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court, Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct, and failures of the Pentagon and the VA to assist sick veterans returning from war. (He can be reached at denniew@optonline).

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