Colombia's killing fields - The first bio-war of the 21st century

We were sitting chatting outside our home when two small planes flew over very low. We went down to our fields to see what was happening. My husband said, “Look, they’re dropping poison on our land.”

It went all over the food crops – the cassava, banana, beans, rice – and the pasture. We lost everything. And the poison went on us too. I had no coat on, so it went all over my arms. It was like cooking oil. Sticky, just like oil. I washed it off as soon as I could, but even so it made my skin itch. For several days we all felt ill. We had fevers and eye infections. My youngest child hasn’t been well since.’

This is Graciela, a 36-year-old peasant woman living in the province of Putumayo in the south of Colombia. For five years now US planes have been spraying a powerful chemical defoliant on peasant holdings as part of Plan Colombia, the US-inspired and US-funded plan to eradicate coca, the raw material from which cocaine is extracted. Thousands of peasant families have been going to local hospitals to complain of eye infections, diarrhoea, vomiting and other illnesses. It is tragically reminiscent of the Vietnam War when US pilots doused land controlled by the Vietcong with a powerful defoliant, known as Agent Orange, to destroy ‘cover for enemy forces’.

Many of the families we spoke to are anxious for the government to carry out a proper, on the ground investigation of the impact of the fumigación (fumigation), as they call the aerial spraying. But Colombia is waging a bloody internal conflict, with Putumayo one of the main battlefields of the war between the Colombian armed forces and the left-wing guerrillas, the FARC. Both sides – but particularly the savage rightwing paramilitaries who work closely with the armed forces – routinely violate basic human rights. The families are frightened that if they complain too loudly, the paracos, as they call them, will pick them off. Even doctors are fearful of protesting.

In the neighbouring country of Ecuador, just a few miles from the border post on the San Miguel river, Dr Adolfo Maldonado, a Spanish specialist in tropical diseases, works in a clinic in the small town of General Farfán. Colombians are flooding southwards, he said, to escape the spraying. As a researcher on health and environmental issues with the Ecuadorean environmental group, Acción Ecológica, he decided to examine and interview 47 women living on both sides of the border. He chose women because they, unlike their husbands, do not habitually handle the agricultural chemicals used in the fields so it is easier to rule out other sources of contamination.

Twenty-two of the women (10 in Ecuador and 12 in Colombia) reported spraying on their land. The women living in Colombia had been affected directly. The women in Ecuador – all of whom lived within three kilometres of the border – had noted chemicals drifting over their land. The remaining 25 women, all Ecuadoreans, lived about 80 kilometres from the border and had not suffered from the spraying. They were the control group.

Maldonado took blood samples from all the women and gave them to Dr César Paz y Miño, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE) in Quito, to carry out so-called ‘comet tests’ to see if the women’s chromosomes had been damaged.

In today’s world, it is normal for about four per cent of a person’s cells to register some form of damage and the 25 Ecuadorean women in the control group were found to have cell damage close to this level (6.93 per cent). But the 22 women, both Colombian and Ecuadorean, who had been affected by the sprayings, were found to have suffered much greater genetic damage: over one third (36.45 per cent) of their cells had been harmed. The woman who had been most affected – a 23-year-old Colombian – had 85.3 per cent of her cells damaged, 21 times the normal level.

Dr Maldonado’s findings raise some very disturbing questions. Why are these women suffering such high levels of genetic damage? Could it be the defoliant? What is the exact formula of the chemical being sprayed on their land?

The toxic mix
Monsanto, the US multinational that has received $25 million from Plan Colombia to provide the defoliant, keeps a very low profile in Colombia. So ready in many other countries to publicise its products, it refuses even to disclose the actual chemical formula of the cocktail it is spraying on the land. All the company will say is that its basic ingredient is Roundup, its highly successful herbicide.

Roundup (like all other pesticides and herbicides) has two kinds of ingredients – active and inert. The active ingredients are those designed to kill the targeted pest or plant, and the inert ingredients are added to the product either to make the active ingredients easier to apply or to increase their toxic powers. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, long assumed to be relatively harmless.

When the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved glyphosate for general use, it reproduced Monsanto’s claim that Roundup was ‘less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even Vitamin A’, a statement reproduced in a fact sheet on the aerial eradication programme published on the Colombian Embassy’s website. (It is, however, interesting to note a fact not recorded on the website: in 1996 the New York State Attorney General won an injunction against Monsanto for falsely claiming that Roundup was ‘as safe as table salt’.)

There are several reasons why Roundup, despite being widely regarded as relatively benign, could be having such serious effects in Colombia. First of all, Roundup is not applied in Colombia under ‘present and expected conditions of use’, which are the conditions in which scientific appraisals are carried out. Monsanto’s own label warns against applying the herbicide ‘in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift’.

The label also calls on farmers to remove livestock prior to spraying, to wait for two to eight weeks before harvesting crops, and to avoid herbicide contact with foliage, green stems, desirable trees and plants ‘because severe injury or destruction may result’. As a report published by the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (ISIS) points out, ‘These conditions are not met in Colombia, where airplanes apply herbicides over acres at a time with no prior warning to landowners. In the US, such failure to follow the label instructions would be a violation of federal law.’

Secondly, Roundup is used in much greater concentration and more frequently in Colombia than elsewhere in the world. Dr Elsa Nivia, the director of the Colombian branch of the Pesticide Action Network, believes that this greatly increases the harm caused.

Using information she obtained from officials participating in the eradication programme, she calculates that spray planes deposit what amounts to a 26 per cent concentration of glyphosate, compared to the one per cent that is recommended in the US for weed control in crops. And thirdly, special ingredients are added to Roundup to make it more effective as a defoliant. Although the label for Roundup warns that ‘this is an end-use product. Monsanto does not intend and has not registered it for reformulation’, at least one other additive – known by the brand name Cosmo-Flux 411F – is routinely mixed into the spraying solution. Some observers believe that this additive alone makes the herbicide four times more toxic than it is on its own.

Working in difficult conditions in her laboratory in the town of Mocoa in Putumayo, Dr Nivia has carried out some of the most important research into the impact of the spraying. Gathering data from many different sources, she believes that the overall impact of the chemical cocktail being applied could be up to 104 times greater than that of Roundup in normal agricultural practice.

Fighting back

Colombia is a violent, corrupt and lawless country, yet it also has an extremely vibrant civic society. Many courageous individuals, working inside the government and outside it, have risked their lives to attack the government for its refusal to assess the impact of the aerial spraying. One of the country’s leading human rights organisations, La Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR) has published numerous protests, including a booklet entitled ‘Plan Colombia – No’, in which it commented: ‘There is plenty of money to purchase glyphosate, to maintain the planes used in the spraying, to pay the pilots, to build bases where they can live, and to carry out operations to detect the coca crops, but there are never any resources for evaluating the damage caused by glyphosate to the health of Colombians who have been sprayed.’

CCAJAR then observed with considerable bitterness that it was perhaps not surprising that the Colombian authorities were so ineffective in protecting the local population, for the spraying was carried out by US companies, the substance they were using was manufactured by a US company, and many of the pilots were US citizens who reported to the US embassy.

Some local judges have tried to curb the abuses. In a remarkable judgement on 13 June 2003, the supreme court of Cundinamarca, a province in the centre of Colombia, ordered the spraying of chemicals to be halted. In the summary of reasons for its decision, the court referred to the study being carried out by Dr Maldonado. But the federal government, headed by President Alvaro Uribe, appealed to the Council of State, a federal court with greater powers than the local Cundinamarca court, and won the right to ignore the ruling.

So who’s winning the war on drugs?
In the first few years Plan Colombia appeared to be working, at least on its own terms. Statistics for coca cultivation are notoriously unreliable but, according to the CIA, the area under coca cultivation in Colombia fell from a high point of 169,800 hectares in 2001 to 113,850 hectares in 2003.

However, in a determined effort to protect their livelihoods the peasant coca farmers have developed new strategies. They have moved deeper into the tropical forest to avoid detection, they have started cultivating coca in nature reserves, as they know the authorities will face a barrage of criticism from environmentalists if they start spraying there (see box), and they have planted larger areas with coca to compensate for the part of their crop they expect to lose from the spraying.

In this way peasant families are surviving the onslaught: even though in 2004 more land was sprayed than ever before (136,555 hectares), the area under coca cultivation that survived the fumigation actually increased by a small amount, to 114,000 hectares. What this means, of course, is that Plan Colombia is a spectacular failure: not only is it decimating the environment and poisoning the local population, it is also leading to an increase in coca cultivation.

What’s more, the only groups really to benefit (apart from Monsanto and the foreign contractors carrying out the spraying) from Plan Colombia, are multinational companies that are free to exploit Colombia’s natural resources, particularly its oil, now that so many peasant families have been driven off the land.

And with so much attention focused on Colombia, peasant families in Bolivia and Peru have been quietly increasing their coca harvests. It’s the so-called ‘balloon effect’: you squeeze cultivation in one area and it pops up in another. It all goes to show that, while demand for cocaine remains high on the streets of New York and London, peasant families will find a way, somehow or another, to supply the coca. The war on drugs will be won (or lost), not in South America or Afghanistan, but on the streets of New York and London.

After the chemicals, the fungus
As if the glyphosate mix were not doing enough damage, there are now indications that Colombia is rethinking its earlier decision not to use biological weapons to eradicate coca and opium poppy crops (which are also cultivated in Colombia).

Fusarium oxysporum is a plant pathogen that causes withering, rot and death to a variety of plants. As the active ingredient is a fungus, the plant is technically known as a mycoherbicide (from myco, the Greek for mushroom). David C Sands, a plant pathologist at the University of Montana in the US, who has carried out research into fusarium oxysporum, calls it ‘an Attila the Hun disease’, pointing out that there are strains of fusarium for virtually every cultivated plant and many wild ones.

The tale of US involvement in this story is bizarre. In the early 1980s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took over a legal coca plantation in Peru, previously owned by Coca Cola, and started to use it to test herbicides. In 1987 a mysterious pathogen infected the control plot, killing most of the coca plants, and the USDA phoned Sands to ask for his help. Sands discovered that the plants had been attacked by a naturally occurring pathogen of the fusarium oxysporum family. To the US authorities it must have seemed like manna from heaven: a native biological weapon with which to devastate the coca fields. In 1998, the US Congress approved $23 million in funding for the development of this fungus to an operational stage. Sands carried out the research in his university.

This was not the first time a fusarium had been developed to combat drugs. In 1999 the US federal government wanted to use another strain of fusarium to eradicate marihuana plantations in Florida, but the state department of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) refused to give its authorisation. ‘It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the dispersal of the fusarium species,’ said the EPA director, explaining his decision. ‘The fungus can mutate and damage a wide variety of crops. Fusarium species are more active in warm soils and can remain active in the soil for years.’ But this did not mean that fusarium was automatically ruled out for Colombia. In a letter to President Clinton on 3 August 1999, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, both Republicans, called for ‘the early deployment of mycoherbicides in guerrilla-controlled zones’ in Colombia.

At the time there were several unconfirmed reports that experiments with fusarium had already been carried out. According to an article in the New Herald (a Miami newspaper) in July 2000, the US army had experimented with the fungus in an area five kilometres north of Lago Agrio in Ecuador, a claim backed by the mayor of Puerto Guzmán. According to Jeffrey St Clair, a prominent US journalist, the US ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, had also testified some time earlier that she believed biological weapons had already been deployed in Colombia. She later retracted her statement, which she said had been made ‘under duress’ (though she did not specify what kind of duress).

Not surprisingly, the spectre of biological warfare set alarm bells ringing. Several commentators in Colombia and abroad pointed out that the use of fusarium spores would almost certainly be a contravention of the UN Biological Weapons Convention. Ecuador and Peru immediately banned the use of mycoherbicides in their territory and Brazil lodged a complaint with the United Nations. After a high-profile public campaign, coordinated by Colombian non-governmental organisations, the United Nations advised against the use of the fungus. In August 2000, President Clinton specifically ruled out that US aid to Colombia should be made conditional on the use of the fungus. It appeared that good sense had won out and the controversy died down.

However, the lobby in favour of biological weapons did not accept defeat and it appears that behind-the-scenes investigations into biological weapons continued. In June 2005 Dan Burton, a Republican member of Congress, issued a statement in which he said: ‘We spend millions of dollars every day on counternarcotics efforts, including crop eradication and interdiction, especially in our joint efforts in Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, yet the flow of illegal and lethal narcotics continues to be a major problem in our country. The advent of mycoherbicides and other counter-narcotic alternatives offers us the possibility to cut off the source of these drugs literally at their roots.’ The congressman meant business: he and other like-minded colleagues managed to introduce into new drug legislation going through Congress a provision that required the drawing up of a ‘plan of action to conduct controlled scientific testing of naturally existing mycoherbcide in a major drug producing nation’ within 90 days of the enactment of the new law. Although it was not spelt out, it seems very likely that the nation to carry out the tests will be Colombia.

Nature fights back
While the controversy over fumigation continues to rage, rumours circulate about the emergence of a new wonder kind of coca, known variously as supercoca, la millonaria and boliviana negra. This strain, it is said, grows much taller than conventional coca, produces leaves with a higher cocaine content, and, most important of all, is resistant to Roundup. Speculation is rife that a scientist from one of the biotechnology companies has developed a genetically modified strain of coca. If this is the case, then GM coca would be exactly like Monsanto’s GM soya, known as Roundup Ready, in that it would have had a special gene introduced into it to make it resistant to glyphosate. The spraying of Roundup would kill all normal crops, but not this coca.

In November 2004 Joshua Davis, a US investigative journalist, travelled to La Hormiga, a town in Putumayo, to track down the supercoca. With little difficulty, he found farmers who were cultivating the strain, known in the region as boliviana negra. ‘Now that we have boliviana negra, the herbicide is only affecting legal crops,’ a farmer confirmed. ‘So the fumigation is encouraging us to plant not our old crops such as yucca, bananas and maize, but the only thing that will survive – boliviana negra.’ Fabio Paz, the mayor of La Hormiga, told Davis that farmers were switching in droves to boliviana negra. ‘You can give away other types of coca now,’ he said, because the farmers don’t want them. Davis took a sample of boliviana negra back to his hotel and carried out a simple laboratory test in his room to see if the coca contained the Roundup Ready gene. Rather to his disappointment, it did not.

However, this by no means suggests that the coca farmers are lying – or are misguided – in their insistence that boliviana negra is resistant to Roundup. The repeated application of Roundup herbicide to Roundup Ready soya in Argentina has encouraged the emergence of mutated ‘superweeds’, which are resistant to the glyphosate. Such a chance mutation could have occurred in Bolivia or Colombia. Coca growers could have produced seeds from this mutant strain and then distributed them among themselves.

If this is the case, as seems likely, the spraying of glyphosate will no longer poison coca and the US government will almost certainly put extra pressure on the Colombian authorities to spray fusarium as the only effective way of eradicating it. Fusarium would do more damage even than glyphosate and, worse still, it could become uncontrollable. Because it is a fungus, it could spread rapidly to other crops and to other regions. The idea of fusarium spreading widely in the Amazon basin is a truly frightening prospect. The bio-war may be only just beginning.

The controversy over the parks
One of the fiercest debates concerns national parks: should they be excluded from the spraying? These parks, which cover 10 million hectares, provide permanent protection to Colombia’s biodiversity and are considered to be among the richest in the world. On 27 June 2003 in Bogotá, the Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes (the National Narcotics Council) decided that spraying would be permitted. Just a few days later Marta Lucía Hernández, director of the Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean coast, was murdered by paramilitaries. It seemed that the whole park system was under siege.

The protests that followed were deafening. A former environment minister, Juan Mayr, said that spraying parks amounted to ‘an assassination attempt on Colombia’s collective heritage’. Carlos Castaño Uribe, who had headed the Unidad Nacional de Parques Naturales (the National Department for Nature Reserves) for 15 years, commented: ‘The country has made an enormous effort to safeguard these protected areas because they are the gene bank of the nation. The planet’s greatest store of bio-diversity cannot be treated in this way.’ Daniel Samper Pizano, a noted Colombian writer, pointed out that Colombia boasted 1,754 species of bird, more than any other country, and it had the world’s second largest stock of plants and amphibians and the third largest stock of reptiles. The government had to protect this extraordinary biodiversity, he argued.

This outcry had an impact: in March 2004 the Colombian environment minister said that the government would only resort to fumigation in national parks if manual eradication failed. The statement fell far short of the watertight ban that the environmentalists wanted, but it represented a real advance – but not for long. In June 2004 a plane belonging to the US contractors, DynCorp, began spraying an area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta belonging to the Kogui indigenous people. With the help of a French non-governmental organisation, the Kogui had bought 2,000 hectares of land in 1997 and had then worked to recover the land’s biodiversity. In May 2004 – just a fortnight before the spraying – they had finally had their land recognised as a nature reserve. The final irony is that this land contained no coca whatsoever. There were more protests, but this time the government ignored them. In May 2005 the Colombian government announced publicly that it planned to fumigate the nature reserves of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (the northern park declared a biosphere in 1986 by UNESCO), La Macarena in the centre-east and Catatumbo in the north west.

Few environmentalists would deny that there is a problem. Figures from the CIA showed that the area planted with coca in just six of the country’s nature reserves increased by 6,550 hectares in 2004. To some extent this is the result of Plan Colombia itself, which is leading peasant families to flee the spraying and plant coca in more remote areas. But most environmentalists propose another solution: manual eradication. They say that this has already proved effective in some parks, and point out that spraying would represent a violation of both the international treaties on biodiversity that Colombia has signed and on the Colombian Constitution, which requires the authorities to reach prior agreement with the communities involved.

What you can do

Please send a copy of this article, with a personal covering letter to:
President Alvaro Uribe Velez:
Vice President Francisco Santos:
Colombian Embassy in the UK: Ambassador William B. Wood, US embassy in Colombia:

And for more information, there are several organisations in Colombia and Ecuador that are campaigning against the aerial spraying. They include:
1) La Corporacion Coletivo de Abogados
2) Rapalmira (Pesticides Action Network Colombia)
3) Accion Ecologica Ecuador 

For those who don’t read Spanish, you can keep in touch with what is happening through Colombia Journal Online

This is an edited extract from
Sue Branford and Hugh O’Shaughnessy's book, Chemical Warfare in Colombia – the Costs of Fumigation, published by Latin America Bureau. To order this book telephone 0207 278 2829 or email

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2006

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