Daniel Samper Pizano has turned his column in the Bogota daily El Tiempo into a megaphone in recent weeks, rallying the public against U.S.-backed herbicide spraying in Colombia’s 49 national parks. His writing led to a two-day deluge of more than 1,100 angry messages on El Tiempo’s Web site. It sparked a March 18 protest in Bogota outside the agency that oversees the parks. And it threatens to turn an upcoming Colombian Senate debate on the spraying into another protest scene.
The parks fumigation, part of a futile nationwide program to eradicate coca and opium poppy crops, was approved by Colombia’s National Council on Narcotics last June and by the U.S. Congress in December. The spraying endangers wildlife in the parks, which span 25 million pristine acres of a country that leads the world in bird diversity, that’s second in plant and amphibian diversity, and that’s third in reptile diversity. The spraying also threatens cities that depend on the protected areas for their water supplies. And it endangers the health and the food crops of the 800,000 people who live in the parks.
Samper, whose brother Ernesto served as the nation’s president from 1994 to 1998, first tackled the issue in a February 25 column that criticized President Alvaro Uribe Velez for folding the Environment Ministry into a new Ministry of Environment, Housing and Land Development and for appointing Sandra Suarez Perez to lead this “bureaucratic stew.” Until November, Samper noted, Suarez directed Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded antidrug program that sprays hundreds of thousands of Colombian acres a year.
In a second column, published March 3 under the headline “How to Stop the Park-icide,” Samper turned up the volume. “It’s not enough to get indignant about the fumigations,” he wrote. “Something must be done.” He asked readers to attend the Colombian Senate’s planned March 30 debate on the spraying. And he urged them to flood Uribe, Suarez and human rights ombudsperson Volmar Perez Ortiz with protest letters and to send copies to an organization opposing the sprayings internationally, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense.
Samper’s decision to offer how-to suggestions for political activism appears to have come in response to reader outcry after the February 25 column was published. In the March 3 piece, he quotes a message he received from one reader, Emilio Edilberto Guerrero: “We need someone to lead a national and international crusade, to mobilize the country. I’ll offer some hours of work… For anything I can do, I’m there.”
Samper’s third column on the topic, published March 9, attacked the three public officials for ignoring public outcry.
The columns apparently emboldened El Tiempo itself to take a stand. A March 13 house editorial departed from the paper’s longtime advocacy for U.S. military aid and collaboration between Washington and Bogota: “To not fumigate the national parks would be, for one honorable time, to put the national interest of a country with the second greatest environmental wealth on the planet before the interest of the United States.”
And, two days later, the newspaper requested the Web site comments. By March 17, at least 1,167 had arrived, nearly all criticizing the spraying. “We can’t confront the barbarous deforestation involved in drug trafficking with barbarous fumigation by the government,” Luis Felipe Ibarra Tamayo of Medellin wrote. “No arguments are needed beyond those of reality: You just have to see the effects. We’ve got to wake up!”
Juan Jose Lopez, a Colombian living abroad, took the sentiment further: “Why don’t we fumigate the brains, if they have them, of people who would even consider destroying the biodiversity in our parks?”
Many described the sprayings as an imposition of U.S. interests over Colombia’s integrity and the world’s ecological health. “Please, no more sacrifices and self-inflicted wounds for a [drug war] that has only brought us death, poverty and divisions,” Maria Elena Ramos of Cali wrote. “Our government’s mission_let no one forget it_is to defend NATIONAL interests!”
The comments also raised points omitted from Samper’s columns. The parks fumigation order, for example, came from former Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega, head of the narcotics council. Plazas helped plan and carry out the 1985 bombing of Colombia’s Palace of Justice, occupied by members of a guerrilla group called M-19. The bombing killed at least 76 civilians, including the country’s 11 Supreme Court justices. Plazas also helped form Death to Kidnappers (MAS), a forebear of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s main paramilitary federation today. Human rights organizations blocked attempts by the Colombian government to appoint Plazas Consul to Hamburg, Germany and later San Francisco, California during the 1990s.
El Tiempo’s March 13 editorial described fumigation as “the worst possible way to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of a people.” Indeed: after heavy sprayings over the last two years destroyed their food crops and income, many young men in the southern province of Putumayo enlisted with the country’s guerrilla and paramilitary groups. In terms of maximal alienation of the civilian population, it’s hard to rival the fumigations program – but the Palace of Justice massacre just might qualify. Having Plazas announce the extension of sprayings to national parks added many-layered insult to the colossal, obvious injury.
And Samper isn’t the only public figure speaking against the parks fumigation. Alfredo Molano Bravo, a columnist of the Bogota weekly El Espectador, asked in a December column what would happen if George W. Bush ordered herbicides dumped on the “pine forests and 2,000 year old Sequoias” of Yosemite National Park, where marijuana crops are grown. “The protests against such measures would be gigantic,” he wrote.
Other foes of the spraying of parks include former health minister Camilo Gonzalez Posso and former environmental ministers Juan Mayr Maldonado and Ernesto Guhl Nanneti. Former human rights ombudsperson Eduardo Cifuentes Munoz repeatedly urged suspension of fumigation anywhere in the country.
But Samper deserves credit for the current groundswell. If journalists rallied the public against war and impoverishment with the same conviction Samper has confronted environmental destruction, things might start looking up in Colombia.
PHILLIP CRYAN is a writer and activist who returned to the United States in November after 18 months of human rights work in Colombia. A shorter version of this piece appeared in his biweekly Colombia Week column on media coverage of the country’s conflict. He lives in Ames, Iowa. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org