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Colombia’s Agent Orange?


A core element of U.S. anti-drugs policy in Colombia has been the destruction of coca fields by aerial chemical fumigation thus impacting the cocaine trade at its source. The continuation of this policy is based on three core myths: (1) That fumigation can target coca fields with pinpoint accuracy; (2) That the chemical used is harmless to humans and the environment; and (3) that aerial chemical fumigation is an effective method of eradicating coca cultivation.

Does Aerial Fumigation Accurately Target Coca Crops?

It is claimed that aerial fumigation uses satellite and computer technology to target coca cultivation with pinpoint accuracy. This has been disputed by international NGOs, indigenous leaders and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (a Federal Advisory Committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) who have stated that subsistence crops, livestock, villages and sometimes even schools and churches have been sprayed with chemicals during the fumigation process.

One almost unbelievable event occurred in December 2000 when the late Senator Paul Wellstone, a democrat from Minnesota and a fierce opponent of Plan Colombia, was invited by the U.S. embassy in Bogota to witness the accuracy of aerial fumigation in person. When the planes flew overhead Wellstone, the lieutenant colonel of the Colombian National Police, the US ambassador to Colombia, and other embassy and congressional staff were drenched with the chemical spray. After this PR disaster Wellstone’s spokesperson, Jim Farrell, noted; “Imagine what is happening when a high-level congressional delegation is not present.

Is Aerial Fumigation Safe for Humans and the Environment?

The herbicide used for aerial fumigation of coca is called Roundup, originally patented and produced by controversial U.S. agri-corporation; Monsanto. Monsanto has always maintained that Roundup is a mild herbicide that is “biodegradable” and of no risk to human health or the environment. In 2009, however, a French court ruled that Monsanto had been lying when making these claims in its advertisements for the herbicide.

The active ingredient in Roundup is a chemical called glyphosate that is classed as “dangerous to the environment” and “toxic for aquatic organisms” by the European Union. Independent scientific studies have shown that low levels of glyphosate exposure causes human DNA and Cell damagekills human placental, umbilical and embryonic cells in less than 24 hours and causes liver damage and large tumours in rats. In Argentina a study demonstrated that glyphosate based herbicides caused the same specific neural birth defects and craniofacial malformations in chickens and amphibians as those complained about by people most exposed to crop spraying. This prompted the Chaco Government to investigate and in 2010 their report found that since the use of glyphosate based herbicides began in 2002 the communities most exposed had experienced an alarming increase in birth defects, spontaneous abortion and leukaemia, brain tumours and lymphomas in children under the age of 15. Two separate studies in Sweden have linked Hairy Cell Leukaemia and Non Hodgkins Lymphoma to Glyphosate exposure. In the Western world, Non-Hodgkins lymphoma is the most rapidly increasing cancer and in the U.S. it has risen by 73% since 1973, three years after Roundup was first introduced to the market.

In the production of glyphosate herbicides (of which Roundup is by far the most common) other ingredients are added to increase their effectiveness and it is claimed that these additives are harmless and inert. It has been discovered, however, that Roundup is far more toxic to human cells and DNA than its active ingredient alone. In fact, the toxicity of Roundup’s various varieties does not directly correlate to the amount of Glyphosate they contain meaning that the apparently ‘inert’ additives must include toxins. These additives often come under far less scrutiny and testing than glyphosate alone and often they are protected as “trade secrets”.

The adverse health effects uncovered in the studies mentioned above were based on concentrations of glyphosate based herbicides far below the levels used in U.S. agricultural production. In Colombia, however, the strength of the herbicide used for spraying is far beyond normal agriculture use. This is because two specific additives (Cosmo-Flux 411 and Cosmo InD) are added increasing Roundup’s toxicity four-fold. In addition, the concentrations in the mixtures prepared by the Colombian military (under the guidance of their US colleagues) are five times higher than is recognised as safe for aerial application by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that people have started to call Roundup ‘Colombia’s Agent Orange.’ After all it was Monsanto that created and produced the defoliant Agent Orange that was sprayed on civilians, Vietcong and U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange, like Roundup, could strip jungles to the ground but was still marketed as safe to humans by its main distributer; Monsanto. In fact, it later emerged that Monsanto had known of Agent Orange’s toxicity years before but had covered it up.

In Colombia the symptoms complained about by people affected by aerial fumigation are worryingly similar to the initial symptoms of Agent Orange exposure; acute respiratory problems, conjunctivitis and other eye infections, miscarriage, dizziness, headaches, rashes, dermatitis, impetigo, abscesses, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting and the fact that children seem to be particularly effected. The gradual emergence of evidence linking glyphosate based herbicides, particularly Roundup, to various forms of cancer, birth defects and foetal malformations arouses an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu and raises serious concerns regarding the yet unknown human health and environmental implications of aerial chemical fumigation in Colombia.

Is Aerial Fumigation Effective in Eradicating Coca Cultivation?

As well as the clear human health and environmental risks involved in the fumigation campaign, it has also been a massive failure in achieving its stated goal; the eradication of the coca crop. Few government resources are channelled into helping farmers raise legal crops and as their subsistence crops are destroyed by chemical spraying many poor farmers are forced into some element of the drug trade. According to U.S. NGO Witness for Peace, fumigation has even destroyed U.S. Aid and U.N. funded development projects aimed at providing farmers with alternatives to coca cultivation. Coca, unlike most other food crops, is actually quite resistant to aerial spraying of glyphosate and is often seen growing back after chemical spraying where other crops will not. Therefore many farmers who have their food crops destroyed are left with few options when coca is all that will grow on their land. The result of the fumigation campaign therefore has actually been a marked increase in coca cultivation.

Jenny O’Connor holds an honours degree in international relations (First Class) with a specialisation in inter-state economic relations and contemporary Latin American politics. You can follow O’Connor and her travels at

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