Toxic Drift: Monsanto
and the Drug War in Columbia
A prominent U.S. Senator
and other government officials from both Washington and Bogotá
stood on a Colombian mountainside above fields of lime-green coca -- the
plant sacred to Andean Indians, but also the source of the troublesome
drug cocaine. They were awaiting a demonstration of aerial herbicide spraying,
part of the U.S. drug war in Colombia. The spectacle, put on by the U.S.
embassy in Bogotá last December, was supposed to address Senator
Paul Wellstone's doubts about the accuracy and safety of the U.S.-sponsored
drug fumigation program. Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, is a fierce
critic of military aid to Colombia and the demonstration needed to come
off without a hitch, to win him over to the use of aerially sprayed herbicides.
The night before, U.S. officials had responded to the Senator's skeptical
questions by assuring
him that the spraying would target coca fields without harming food crops.
"They had said
that by using satellite images they could hit very precisely targets without
any chance of danger to surrounding crops" said Jim Farrell, Wellstone's
spokesperson, who was also there. However that turned out not to be the
case. "On the very first flyover by the cropduster, the U.S. Senator,
the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, the Lieutenant
Colonel of the Colombian National Police, and other Embassy and congressional staffers were fully doused -- drenched, in fact -- with the sticky, possibly dangerous (herbicide)
"Imagine what is happening when a high-level congressional delegation is not present," Farrell noted, pointing out that careful preparation had gone into the botched flyover. Wellstone left Colombia completely unconvinced by the Embassy.
The United States
has sprayed tons of Roundup and Roundup Ultra, produced by the St.
Louis-based chemical and biotechnology giant, Monsanto, during the 24 year-long drug war in Colombia. The use of these herbicides (both of which we refer to as Roundup in this story) has consistently produced health complaints from campesinos in the Colombian countryside. Those complaints have gone largely ignored by government officials in Washington and corporate honchos within Monsanto. Meanwhile, Monsanto's sordid history as the manufacturer of Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam war, raises serious questions about its role in Colombia's drug war and the need for transparency in its dealings with Washington.
Colombian Farmer Edgar Esteban looks over his dried maize crops fumigated with Roundup. Farmers complain their food crops, livestock and drinking water have been contaminated.
A month before Wellstone
was doused with Roundup, Colombian indigenous leaders visited Congress
to personally speak out against the fumigation: "The twelve indigenous
peoples have been suffering under this plague as if it were a government
decree to exterminate our culture and our very survival," said José
Francisco Tenorio, the only leader who was not afraid to use his real
name. "Our legal crops -- our only
sustenance -- manioc, banana, palms, sugar cane, and corn have been fumigated. Our
sources of water, creeks, rivers, lakes, have been poisoned, killing our fish and other living things. Today, hunger is our daily bread. In the name of the Amazonian Indigenous people I ask that the fumigations be immediately suspended."
So far, Tenorio's pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Last summer, Congress approved $1.3 billion for "Plan Colombia" to carry out the drug war there and more funds are forthcoming in the "Andean Regional Initiative" a bill presently moving through Congress.
RoundUp, which contains
the active ingredient glyphosate, is a known skin and eye irritant, and
causes elevated blood pressure, numbness and heart palpitations. Studies
have shown medium and long term toxicity, genetic damage, reproductive
effects and carcinogenicity. Farmers exposed to the chemical have shown
increased risk of miscarriages, premature birth and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.