Story by Peter Gorman
Photo by AP Worldwide
Two years after the aerial fumigations of Colombia’s coca fields were accelerated under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, thousands of farmers and indigenous people have been displaced, huge areas of rainforest have been destroyed, previous gains against coca planting made in Bolivia and Peru are reversing themselves, and the price of cocaine on the streets of US cities has not increased one iota. On the other hand, Big Oil has finally cracked southern Colombia, and new discoveries in "accidentally" sprayed Ecuador have doubled that country’s known oil reserves.
"On the worst days, there are sometimes more than 30," Sister Carmen Rosa Perez says. "They come in to our church with nothing but their muchilas, backpacks. They’ve left everything to get out of Colombia. Or even worse, they come from our own border here in Ecuador. They are sick. Some have sores and rashes from the fumigation. They can’t breathe, they complain their joints ache or that they can no longer see clearly. No one believes us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true."
Sister Carmen Rosa Perez works at the Iglesia Miguel de Sucumbios in Lago Agrio, a small town in eastern Ecuador’s Sucumbios province, about 10 miles from the border with Colombia. Across Putumayo River is the Colombian department—or state—of Putumayo.
In the past, most of the refugees who came through Lago Agrio were seeking escape from the civil violence in Colombia, perpetrated by paramilitary groups of the right (the AUC), the revolutionary forces of the left (FARC), and the Colombian army. But since October 2000, many of the nearly 4,000 refugees who have come to Sister Carmen’s church have been fleeing a massive coca-eradication program being carried out on behalf of the United States. And in recent months, more and more Ecuadorians as well have sought help, brutalized either by the military conflict spilling across the river or by the loss of their crops to defoliation.
"At first they came to escape the violence, but now they mostly come to try to find work and food to feed their families. The spraying has killed all their crops, all their animals, even the animals of the forest are gone," she said. Sister Carmen speaks plainly. She is not new to this. She came from Colombia, in Putumayo, eight years ago, after graduating from a religious university.
The people she is talking about are campesinos—dirt farmers—and indigenous Indians, people who find themselves and their ancestral lands caught up in a conflict they can hardly comprehend. The health problems that Sister Carmen sees, and the horror stories she hears, are the result of whole valleys in Colombia—and, almost certainly, in Ecuador too—being sprayed with deadly herbicides. One of them is a variant of Roundup, a weed-killer available at your local Home Depot. The other is a Colombian product not even listed or tested by US health authorities.
THE BUSINESS OF PLAN COLOMBIA
When Bill Clinton unveiled Plan Colombia in late 1999, its stated goals included eradicating the coca plants used to make cocaine and the opium poppy used for heroin, while helping the Colombian government end its civil war, reduce human-rights abuses, and re-establish political stability through aid to its military and police forces. There was beauty in the plan’s simplicity: Eliminating the plants which produced the drugs that generated black-market funding for Colombia’s civil war would solve most of the country’s biggest problems simultaneously. President Bush has expanded Plan Colombia’s vision—along with renaming it the Andean Initiative—to include the destruction of all "terrorist groups" operating in Colombia.
Yet Plan Colombia may not have been fueled by a sense of US righteousness nearly as much as it was by the push of big business. The war in Colombia had been raging for more than 30 years, after all, before the US decided to get involved. Cocaine use had already peaked during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and the notorious Medellin and Cali cartels had been busted. But in 1996, the US-Colombia Business Partnership was founded to represent US companies with interests in Colombia, and a well-financed lobbying effort for just such intervention began. The companies represented by the Business Partnership included Occidental Petroleum, Enron, Texaco, and BP Amoco, among others. Each had huge stakes in Colombia.
The early winners in the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia sweepstakes that Congress approved in 2000 were three military contractors. Sikorsky Helicopters, of Stratford, CT, secured a $360 million contract for 30 Black Hawk helicopters; the Ft. Worth, TX-based Bell got a $66 million contract for 33 of its Huey helicopters, and DynCorp, out of Reston, VA, had an ongoing contract for crop fumigation, aircraft maintenance, pilot training, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue missions, renewed for two years for nearly $600 million. Thus DynCorp, a company which primarily utilizes former military personnel for its government contracts worldwide—and which has been the focus of several scandals, including the selling of women and children into forced prostitution in Bosnia—became the linchpin of Plan Colombia. Monsanto, the St. Louis-based pharmaceutical/agribusiness giant, was also a beneficiary, as one of its products, Roundup—glyphosate—was chosen as the Plan Colombia herbicide.
The biggest potential winners, though, were the oil companies, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, the Houston-based Halliburton, which provides oil-company equipment and support. They will have to wait a while for their payoff, but when it comes, it will be a good one.
In April 2000, just before the passage of Plan Colombia, the US Geological Survey’s Hollin-Napo Unit released a survey of worldwide oil prospects. It indicated that there were between 130 and 300 commercially viable but undiscovered oil fields in the region covering southern Colombia, northeastern Ecuador and northwestern Peru. The heaviest concentrations were in Putumayo and Sucumbios. Estimates of field size begin at 1 million barrels—less is not commercially viable—and top out at 750 million barrels. But those estimates may be low: One of the fields pinpointed in the survey, the ITT oilfield, was discovered in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in 2002 and has 1.41 billion barrels of proven reserves, doubling Ecuador’s known oil reserves.
But standing in the way of most of the oil exploration in Putumayo are civil war and coca. In Sucumbios, much of the land has protected reserve status, diligently defended by local and foreign environmentalists.
Another issue is the difficulty of pinpointing oil reserves because of the thick jungle canopy that covers much of the region. Satellite photography, an invaluable tool in oil exploration, cannot see through forests, especially dense jungle. "The differentiation between oil deposits and subsurface water deposits is considerably easier if there is no ground cover," says Gordon Staples, research and product developer for RADARSAT, a Canadian satellite-imaging company.
COCA IN COLOMBIA
There are more than 200 species in the Erythroxylaceae, or coca, family, but only two have a high enough cocaine-alkaloid content to have any commercial value: erythroxylum coca v coca, or Bolivian coca (grown in Bolivia and Peru) and erythroxylum novogranatense v novogranatense, Colombian coca. Both species have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years and the plant’s leaves have traditionally been utilized for religious, social, and medicinal reasons. But until recently, only Bolivian coca was used in the manufacture of cocaine, because it has a considerably higher alkaloid content than Colombian coca.
Colombian coca was pressed into commercial use during the mid-1990s, when Colombia overtook Peru as the world’s number-one producer of coca, meeting 70-80% of the world’s demand for cocaine. In 1992, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimated Colombia’s coca crop at about 80,000 acres; by 2002, the US State Department claimed it had increased to over 400,000 acres. During that same period, production in Bolivia and Peru was estimated to have dropped by two-thirds. Those decreases were brought about both by forced eradication and alternative-crop programs. (Interestingly, despite their dramatic decreases in production, Bolivia and Peru combined to produce almost enough cocaine to feed the entire US market annually).
The increase in coca production in Colombia, much of which took place in Putumayo, was the perfect accident for generating numbers that justified Plan Colombia’s coca-eradication ambitions.
During 2001, the first year spraying was done under the banner of Plan Colombia, US Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson estimated that 198,000 acres of coca were fumigated, much of that in Putumayo. But with the spraying came problems for the people in the region. Farmers claimed that thousands of people with small family farms were sprayed, got sick, and were ultimately forced to leave their homes, despite assurances from the State Department that spraying would be pinpoint and only utilized on coca crops of more than seven acres. Additionally, there were complaints of animals dying and food crops poisoned.
The US denied the allegations, insisting that the product being used, a variant of Monsanto’s household herbicide Roundup, was safe. On April 30, 2001, shortly after Plan Colombia’s coca fumigation began, William R. Brownfield, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that glyphosate "is one of the least harmful herbicides to appear on the world market…. Accounts claiming that glyphosate causes damage to humans, animals, and the environment are unfounded."
Brownfield was either misinformed or lying. Four months earlier, Dutch journalist Marjon van Royen had published an admission by the State Department in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handlesblad, that it wasn’t Roundup, but Roundup Ultra that was being utilized in the spraying in Colombia. Additionally, the State Department admitted that a Colombian product called Cosmoflux was added to the spray mixture as a surfactant, to help keep the herbicide on the plant long enough to do its work. But with their admissions, the State Department was quick to add that both Roundup Ultra and Cosmoflux were approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
That was nonsense. The EPA had never heard of Cosmoflux and, according to a spokesperson, has never tested it. "We don't examine products made for use in a foreign country," EPA spokesman Luke Hanson told HT.
The questions of whether it was Roundup or Roundup Ultra that was being used, and of the presence of Cosmoflux, are not minor ones. Roundup Ultra is considerably stronger than the regular Roundup found in garden centers. It was only approved for use in the US in November 2001, and then only for certain commercial, nonagricultural applications. The handling instructions correspond to the highest EPA toxicity rating, Class 1, while common Roundup falls into the lower Class 3 rating. As for Cosmoflux, scientists who have requested its formula to test its toxicity have been told by the State Department that the information is "proprietary" and "classified." Calls by HT to the State Department were met with the same response.
Despite US denial that Roundup Ultra is hazardous to humans and animals in Colombia, the warning label of household Roundup alone suggests otherwise. Regarding humans: "Do not allow workers into treated areas for a period of four hours." Regarding animals: "We recommend that grazing animals… remain out of the treated area for two weeks." Regarding plant life: "Avoid contact of herbicide to foliage, green stems, exposed non-woody roots or fruit of crops, desirable plants, and trees because severe injury or destruction is likely to result."
The Roundup label makes particular note of drift as well, under a section boldly headlined "ATTENTION," in which it is stated in capital letters: "AVOID DRIFT. EXTREME CARE MUST BE USED WHEN APPLYING THIS PRODUCT TO PREVENT INJURY TO DESIRABLE PLANTS AND CROPS."
Those warnings were more accurate than the State Department’s Brownfield’s assessment of the damage the fumigation campaign was doing. A health and environmental study in Putumayo, done by biologist Elsa Nivia between February and April of 2001, indicated that more than 4,000 people were suffering from acute eye irritation, respiratory problems, heart arrhythmia, skin lesions and rashes, temporary paralysis, temporary blindness, and other health problems. Thousands of animals had died, and food crops had been destroyed.
A second study, done that May and June in Sucumbios under the direction of Dr. Adolpho Mondonaldo, was even more revealing, as Ecuador was not supposed to be sprayed or affected by drift. Dr. Mondonaldo, studying villages at distances of two, five, and 10 kilometers from the Putumayo River, found that 100% those living within two and five kilometers of the river suffered the same symptoms as those living on the Colombian side. Among people living 10 kilometers from the river, 89% did. And as in Colombia, damage to food crops was severe, reaching 85-90% reduction in production.
The State Department did not respond to the studies.
The complaints were not coming from those with what the US described as "commercial plantations"—more than seven acres. The vast majority came from farmers who, as a 2002 CIA bulletin titled "Coca Factsheet, A Primer" noted, had less than one hectare of coca under cultivation. And the complaints were not coming only from what the Colombian government repeatedly called "environmental extremists." They came from Colombia’s human-rights ombudsman and the German government, which in the spring of 2001 complained that chemical drift had destroyed several fishponds they’d underwritten. Klaus Nyholm, chief of the United Nations drug-control efforts in Colombia, weighed in as well, claiming last year that the spraying was driving coca farmers to clear new areas of virgin jungle in which to grow.
"We hold the Colombian government responsible for the misery, hunger, destruction, and violence that fumigation causes in our territories," representatives of 13 indigenous peoples of Putumayo wrote in an open letter titled "SOS From the Indigenous Peoples of Putumayo" in July 2002. "Glyphosate kills. It destroys food crops and pastureland and contaminates the water…. The indigenous people of Putumayo reject the cultivation of illicit crops. But we equally reject the violent methods with which it is combated."
The closest the US has come to accepting that there might be problems came on September 5, 2002, when the Bush Administration presented a report on the health and environmental risks of glyphosate to Congress. In it, it was noted that aerial spraying of herbicide "may cause eye irritation to farmers on the ground" but poses no "unreasonable risks or adverse effects" to humans or the environment. Environmentalists railed against the report, noting that the Administration was investigating its own program with no outside oversight.
Another problem is that when Roundup is burned, according to the product’s safety sheet, "4% of the volume released into the air is acetonitrile." Acetonitrile is methyl cyanide (CH3CN), which is metabolized into hydrogen cyanide (HCN) by the human body—the same toxic gas used in the Nazi death camps. It is so dangerous that the safety instructions include a caution that "When burned, stay out of smoke," and goes on to note that "firefighters or others who may be exposed to vapors or products of combustion should wear full protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus."
DEA documents unearthed and published by HT in connection with early glyphosate spraying of Colombian marijuana fields list some of the hazards of inhaling burning glyphosate as "chest pains, cough, abdominal cramps, dyspnea [difficulty breathing], nausea, headache, chills, lassitude and fatigue." Other DEA documents conceded additional health problems include "pale to ashen-grey skin, shallow pulse, hypotension, transient paralysis and tachynea."
The issue is important because the coca-growers in Colombia, like the farmers throughout Amazonia, utilize the slash-and-burn method of agriculture: They cut a section of forest and burn the vegetation on it to produce potash, which enhances soil nutrients. "There are no tractors here," says Sister Carmen, who was raised in Colombia. "The people also cut and burn their fields after spraying, and we think they are suffering for breathing those burning chemicals. But there are large interests here at work, political and economic interests."
Rebecca Brown-Thompson, spokesperson for the State Department’s narcotics and law enforcement bureau, was unaware that burnt glyphosate would metabolize into hydrogen cyanide. "But then why is that a problem?" Told that the farmers in the region were slash-and-burn agriculturalists, she pleaded ignorance. "I didn’t know that. They really do that there?"
"The truth is that life on the river has changed since Plan Colombia started," says Cesar Cerda, a Qichua Indian whose village in Sucumbios is near the border. "The planes come to the river, sometimes they come to our side and spray. Even when they don’t, the spray comes across the river and kills our food. Our platanos, our yucca, our coffee is all gone. Even our animals are dead, and there are no animals to hunt in the forest because they have gone somewhere else."
Sister Carmen says that both the church where she works and the indigenous groups have sent repeated requests to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, asking for an investigation of the drift that has come into Ecuador. "They always promise they will send someone but they never have. Our government backs Plan Colombia, so why should they come? In whose interest would it be to investigate the complaints of the victims?"
"They say there is no problem here," says Cerda. "Why? Because they have made pacts with the United States."
Despite official denials, the drift of glyphosate affected so many people that the International Labor Rights Fund filed a class-action lawsuit against DynCorp on behalf of the people of Sucumbios in September 2001. The suit, still making its way through the court system as we go to press, alleges that the drift in Ecuador is purposeful, rather than the result of pilot error or an accident of wind. "The spraying of plaintiffs’ persons, lands, and livestock with toxic fumigants is nothing less than an act of mercenary war carried out surreptitiously by the DynCorp defendants," it charges.
The lawsuit also notes that the members of US-Colombia Business Partnership, which has lobbied for "for continuous funding and expansion of Plan Colombia," include Texaco, Inc., Occidental Petroleum and BP Amoco, "which have or expect to have oil interests in the region of Ecuador where plaintiffs reside."
The CEO of DynCorp, in a letter to the labor fund leaders, called the suit baseless and irresponsible. "In fact, considering the worldwide support for the elimination of harmful drugs from our cities and schools, it has been suggested… that the most logical supporters of such an action would be the drug cartels themselves," he wrote.
The State Department’s Brown-Thompson says the suit is unfounded. "We use satellite imagery to pinpoint areas to be sprayed, then send in planes to verify the presence of large areas of illegal crops," she says. "After that, the crops are sprayed, and subsequently those sprayed areas are checked to see that no additional crops were affected."
Reports from Colombia and comments from the State Department indicate that the spraying in Colombia is generally being done at heights of 50-100 feet. But calls to several crop-dusting companies in the US Southwest found that to limit drift, planes spray at extremely low altitudes, usually at the height of the plant being sprayed. Crop-dusters, as a point of pride, like to touch the plants they are spraying. "The planes are never more than one to three feet from the ground when we’re spraying cotton, maybe five feet when it’s corn," said one pilot at Ballards Crop Dusting in Winter, Texas.
Asked how much drift would occur with a plane flying at 10 feet, the pilot said, "At least 50 feet on either side of the plane."
Corky Wilson, owner of Wilson Aerial Spray in Lockney, Texas, agreed. "Hell, if you’re flying at 10 feet you’re not crop-dusting. You’re burning. The only time we do that in Texas is to kill mesquite trees."
Told that the US admits its planes frequently spray at altitudes of 50-100 feet, Wilson laughed. "You’re burning the whole forest now. Hell, at 20 feet on a windless day, you’ve got a 150-foot drift on either wing. At 100 feet, you got a cloud that might travel miles."
NEW OIL LEASES IN PUTUMAYO
Whether it will ever be proven that the bottom line of Plan Colombia is the displacement of people and rainforest standing in the way of oil exploration, the presence of oil, and plenty of it, in both Putumayo and Sucumbios is a reality. Aside from the ITT field and its 1.41-billion-barrel reserve of oil in Ecuador, the Hollin-Napo survey suggests a great deal more. In 2002, Colombia’s state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, signed contracts with two firms to explore for oil in Putumayo. Canada’s Petrobank Energy and Resources, through its Colombian subsidiary Petrominerales, contracted to explore 75,000 acres in the Moqueta region, while the US Argosy Energy International, long a player in Colombia, has signed a contract to explore the 50,000-acre Gayuyaco area. Ecopetrol has estimated that Putumayo has a minimum of 2.4 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves.
PLAN COLOMBIA SPILLOVER: CIVIL STRIFE IN BOLIVIA & PERU
While by far the most serious damage caused by Plan Colombia has occurred in Colombia and Ecuador, the traditional Andean coca-producing nations of Bolivia and Peru are beginning to feel the heat as well.
In Bolivia, civil strife over a governmental attempt to force coca eradication has led to numerous confrontations between cocaleros—coca-growers—and the Bolivian military, including several incidents in which cocaleros were killed. Moreover, in early 2002, the cocaleros’ political leader, Evo Morales, was booted from Congress, stripping them of their most powerful national voice. Morales, however, had such support among Bolivians that he ran for president and in late 2002 forced a runoff—which he lost while winning back a congressional seat.
Confrontations have become the norm in the traditional Chapare and Yungas coca-growing regions. "The conflicts will continue with this government as long as it accepts the pressure of the World Bank and the hand behind it, the hand of the United States," Morales told HT in April 2003. "It doesn’t matter that there is less commercial coca-growing now than there was. There is pressure to make it appear as if there is none. It is a political show."
Recently released UN figures suggest that coca planting has increased, at least marginally, in Bolivia in the last year, as pressure intensifies in Colombia. The UN report, released in March, suggested there were slight increases in coca production in Peru as well. Peru, which for nearly 20 years has alternated between forced eradication of coca and encouraging crop substitution, has recently "taken a turn toward Bolivian politics," according to one source there, with the blocking of highways and an April march on Lima, the capital, by more than 10,000 coca-growers.
Those events have come about because President Alejandro Toledo’s government, which had suspended all forced eradication of coca in early 2002 and had come to an agreement with the growers that June, subsequently threw out the signed agreements. The discarded pacts had promised the recognition of coca-growers’ spokesmen, compensation for eradicated coca crops, credit for alternative crops, and the purchase of those crops by the National Food Assistance Program. According to coca-growers, the agreements were tossed at the behest of the US, though the State Department declined to discuss the issue with HT.
In addition, Nelson Palomino, leader of the Peruvian coca-growers, was arrested on February 20, under a new law known as "apology for terrorism"—even though Hugo Cabieses, a consultant to the national antidrug agency, described him as "a fighter against the Shining Path" Maoist guerrillas in an open letter to President Toledo. Palomino was also charged with the kidnapping of three journalists (held in their own homes for a few hours each) and other crimes. It is difficult to see the use of the "apology for terrorism" law against him as anything but a concession to Bush, whose administration has tried to tie every aspect of illegal drugs to "terrorism."
Whether Peru’s coca-growers will become the political force the growers in Bolivia have become remains to be seen, but it is apparent that they have grown tired of simply watching their government move to the tune the US plays.
In 2002, under the aegis of Plan Colombia, more than 250,000 acres of coca were destroyed in Colombia. In 2003, that number is being increased to nearly 400,000, or, supposedly, almost every acre of coca under cultivation in Colombia.
Coca takes a long time to grow from new plant to harvest—three years from seed, six to eight months from cuttings. If American assessments of Plan Colombia’s effectiveness are correct, Colombian coca production should have been decimated over the last couple of years. And, it should drop to almost nothing in the next year to three years, unless farmers are able to replant with cuttings. To do that at a volume that would keep up current cocaine supplies, they’d need more than 3 billion plants. How would billions of cuttings be distributed around the country without being noticed?
The State Department has no real answer. "I’ve never thought of that before," said Rebecca Brown-Thompson. "Why don’t you ask the Drug Enforcement Administration?"
A DEA spokesman who asked not to be named was equally helpful. "I get what you’re getting at, the numbers don’t add up. But Plan Colombia has nothing to do with the DEA. That’s State Department all the way."
The reason there is no answer is that there are no cuttings. There might be some, of course, but not three billion, not three million. Colombian coca-growing is being done from seed. Which means it takes three years to grow. If Plan Colombia has truly been wiping out larger and larger chunks of the crop annually, there would be fewer and fewer mature plants to harvest—and by next year, no Colombian coca harvest at all.
Those kinds of numbers should by now have created a major supply problem for cocaine dealers around the world. But in New York and across the country, law-enforcement officials say, cocaine prices and availability have remained roughly constant for the last several years. That suggests that the supposed elimination of coca from southern Colombia has had no effect on world supply. Which means that the coca that produces the world supply is grown elsewhere, maybe in unsprayed, protected valleys, or that Peru and Bolivia are still producing sufficient supplies.
Those conclusions, of course, would suggest that Plan Colombia is a sham—and reinforce the belief of the Sucumbios plaintiffs that the spraying program that is displacing thousands of people, ruining farmland, killing animals, and defoliating the rainforest is being done for other ends.
The pursuit of FARC rebels by the Colombian military in the south, along with the spraying of coca fields there, is forcing both the rebels and the campesinos to cross into Ecuador and the eastern jungles for safety. Pressure on both groups is about to increase, as the US steps up its fumigation plans. With the drift into Ecuador already eliminating a large segment of the population on the border, and the added pressure of thousands of refugees cutting new fields from the jungle there, it shouldn’t take long to clear the entire region of both people and rainforest.
And then the oil fest can begin in earnest.