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Biowar in the Andes

Biowar in the Andes: The CIA's Next Secret Weapon
Genetic Engineering and Chemical Biological Warfare

CounterPunch, volume 7 number 11, June 1-30, 2000
Editors, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
Co-writer, Andrew Cockburn

The Steps of Agent Blue

At the Institute for Genetics in Kazakhstan, former Soviet biowarriors are being financed by the US and Britain to test mycoherbicides

Fusarium oxysporum strains that infect coca plants are closely related to those that attack yams, a staple in the Andean diet.

McCaffery's Plague

Along with the other enormities presently perpetrated in the name of the War on Drugs, the United States is now actively preparing to deploy biological weapons. The weapons consist of plant pathogens designed to attack coca, cannabis and opium poppy crops.
Research into the project has involved the resurrection of biological agents developed long ago at Fort Detrick, Maryland, center for the US biowar program closed down by President Nixon in 1969. Deep-frozen at the time of the program's termination, they are now being thawed out and readied for assault on producer countries in the third world. Also involved are veterans of the Soviet biological warfare effort, now being funded by the US through the connivance of an obscure UN agency, employed for this purpose in order to shield the US from well-deserved charges of violating the internationally negotiated biological weapons convention.

The work is proceeding despite well attested evidence that the weapons, if deployed, will have profound and disastrous impact on the ecologies of the countries in which they are used. Furthermore, the USDA is now researching the use of genetic modification to enhance the potency of these bio-weapons. The principal agents under development are microbial pathogens.

At the Institute for Genetics in Kazakhstan, former Soviet biowarriors are being financed by the US and Britain to test mycoherbicides-fungi, specifically Pleospora - to kill opium poppies and marijuana plants. In the Andes and western Amazon, the US is planning the testing and widespread application of fusarium oxysporum, an anti-coca fungus. The FY 2000 budget contains at least $23 million for these programs, although further appropriations are almost certainly buried in covert military and intelligence budgets.

The prospect of being on the receiving end of a biological attack is not alluring to countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. The Peruvian government has already banned the testing and or deployment of the fungi. The Colombian government is similarly queasy, but has been sharply admonished by the project's supporters in the US Congress that if Colombia wants its $1.8 billion aid package, it had better take the fungi too.

Last March, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., added an amendment to the Colombian aid bill requiring President Clinton to certify that the Colombian government "has agreed to and is implementing a strategy to eliminate Colombia's total coca and opium poppy production" using, among other means, "tested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides." The amendment is still in the bill (which is still stalled in the senate) despite a submission by Colombian scientists to the Colombian Ombudsman for the Environment that the use of mycoherbicide agents in Colombia represents "a great danger both for Colombian humans as well as for the Colombian environment and biodiversity".

It is easy to see why the Colombians are worried. The absolute requirement of this sort of weapon is that it should be "host specific", ie that it should attack only the intended victim and nothing else. According to Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project, which has researched and publicized this enormity, tests conducted by USDA-contracted researchers in 1994 and 1995 using the favored strain of the fungus fusarium oxysporum-EN4-resulted in two non-coca species becoming infected.

Furthermore, fusarium oxysporum strains that infect coca plants are closely related to those that attack yams, a staple in the Andean diet. This is hardly surprising, Hammond points out, in view of the fact that EN4 is designed to attack different strains of coca and therefore cannot be entirely host specific. Thus the rare and beautiful Agrias butterfly may soon fall as one more casualty of the War on Drugs, since its larvae feed and mature on wild relatives of the coca plant. One of the few remaining areas where Agrias can be found is the upper Putamayo river region, a center both of guerilla activity and coca cultivation in Colombia and therefore a prime target for the US fungus spraying campaign.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, USDA researchers have been working to create genetically modified strains of the fungi, including the cloning of fusarium strains that attack potatoes, in order to produce something still more vicious.

However, in their search for instruments of what is officially known as "bio-control", the government's researchers have also, it seems, reached back into the past. Sometime before 1969, according to documents supplied to Hammond under the FOIA, a team from APHIS, the USDA's plant and animal inspection service, found a virus on a Datura tree imported from Cauca, Colombia. Someone, it is not clear who, determined that the virus could be useful as an anti-opium poppy agent, and it was dispatched to the US biological warfare center at Fort Detrick, Maryland under the label D-437.

Following Nixon's order to close the place down, D-437 was not destroyed but put in deep frozen storage, forgotten by all but the researchers who had worked so happily at Detrick. On April 12 this year, Hammond caught a brief mention of D-437 on a US Army website, along with the fact that it was being studied by a Dr Vernon Damsteegt, himself a Detrick veteran. Following enquiries by Hammond, all mention of the virus and its custodian was hurriedly removed from the site, which now carried a fraudulent notification that it had last been updated on April 6. 1969 was the year Richard Nixon launched his war on drugs, using it to set up what was intended to be his very own secret police force - the Drug Enforcement Agency, a story chronicled in Edward J. Epstein's great book Agency of Fear.

Biological warfare was integral to the US war against Vietnam. CounterPunchers will recall Agent Orange, the hellish brew deployed to defoliate the jungle. Agent Blue, targeted on rice production, is less well known. The aim was to wipe out the NLF's food supply. Rice plantations deemed to be servicing the enemy were duly sprayed and obliterated. Professor Matthew Meselsen recalls how, early in 1970, he was taken by a US Army Chemical Corps colonel to survey a valley in an upland area that had been sprayed with Agent Blue some weeks before. As they flew over the devastated valley, the colonel proudly explained to Meselsen that this had obviously been an NLF food supply area since there were no houses to be seen.

Later, they landed at a nearby village that turned out to be thronged with refugees from the valley. The refugees explained that they had fled because the Americans had just destroyed their rice crop. Scrutinizing photographs he had taken from the air, Meselsen later detected numerous houses that had been invisible while flying overhead at speed. A simple calculation revealed that the amount of rice under cultivation in the valley had been just sufficient to feed the locals, with none left over to feed hungry Vietnamese guerillas. Meselsen wrote a report that prompted some political qualms in the US command in Vietnam, which recommended to Washington that Agent Blue be terminated. The recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post, whereupon Nixon cancelled the program forthwith.

It is a measure of the obtuse barbarity of our present generation of drug warriors that they make Richard Nixon look sane. Despite abundant evidence of the dangers of deploying bioweapons such as the fungi in the wild, the US appears determined to press ahead. CP

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Plan Colombia

Colombia: Monsanto, US War on Drugs Poison Environment


Brian Hansen
Environment News Service
November 20, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC — The aerial fumigation program that has grown out of the U.S. government's so-called "war on drugs" is endangering the fragile ecosystems and indigenous cultures of Colombia's Amazon Basin, a coalition of groups warned today at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

The fumigation program, which the U.S. finances as part of a $1.3 billion Colombian aid package approved this summer, is designed to eradicate coca and other plants used to manufacture illicit drugs.

But critics say the program indiscriminately wipes out legitimate subsistence crops as well as natural plants, and kills birds, mammals and aquatic life.

The chemicals are applied by aircraft and frequently fall on Columbia's indigenous peoples, subjecting them to a variety of health afflictions, critics add.

"This spraying campaign is equivalent to the Agent Orange devastation of Vietnam - a disturbance the wildlife and natural ecosystems have never recovered from," said Dr. David Olson, director of the World Wildlife Fund's conservation science program. "And it is occurring on the watch of the current Congress and [executive] administration, supported by taxpayer dollars."

Though carried out by Colombian police and military authorities, the aerial fumigation program utilizes U.S. government aircraft, fuel, escort helicopters and private military contractors.

The herbicide approved for the program, glyphosate, is manufactured by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation and is commonly referred to by the trade name Roundup.

Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning that any plant exposed to a sufficient amount of the chemical will be killed. The chemical has been sprayed over tens of thousands of acres in Colombia since the early 1990s, but the eradication program has done little to curtail the supply of cocaine that comes into the U.S. every year.

Still, Colombian officials - at the request of U.S. policymakers - are once again gearing up to dump thousands of liters of glyphosate on Colombia, this time targeting the country's southern state of Putumayo.

Emperatriz Cahuache, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, came to Washington today to voice her opposition to the plan.

"Fumigation violates our rights and our territorial autonomy," the indigenous leader said. "It has intensified the violence of the armed conflict and forced people to leave their homes after their food crops have been destroyed."

As many as 10,000 Colombians could be displaced when the spraying begins next month, noted Hiram Ruiz, a senior policy analyst with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a non-governmental group based in Washington. Ruiz, who toured the Putumayo region in June, said that the fumigation program will make local residents vulnerable to the guerillas and paramilitary groups that were spawned from Colombia's long running civil war.

While the social repercussions of the fumigation program were perhaps the most poignant aspect of Monday's news conference, other issues - such as the program's environmental consequences - also generated a great deal of concern.

The World Wildlife Fund's Olson noted that the defoliating chemicals will be applied by aircraft flying high above the forests, thus increasing the likelihood that unintended areas will be poisoned.

"For every hectare of forest sprayed, another is lost to [pesticide] drift and another to additional clearing of displaced crops," Olson said. The destruction is extensive."

Olson said that wildlife will be directly affected by the application of the chemicals. Frogs and insects will be impacted immediately, and larger animals will suffer weakening and sickness, he said.

"If and when our [human] species matures, we will rightfully view such practices as abominations, crimes against our planet and ourselves, Olson said.

Olson's point was echoed by Dr. Luis Naranjo, director of the American Bird Conservancy's international program. Naranjo noted that Colombia has more species of wild birds than any other country, but he said that scores of them are vulnerable to extinction because of U.S. led efforts to eradicate illegal drugs.

"Bird conservation is at the crossroads of the armed conflict in Colombia," Naranjo said. "Unless the current policies to face the drug problem in the country are revised, we will be facing the extinction of many of the organisms that make the country's biota so distinctive."

Naranjo noted that as a non-selective herbicide, glyphosate will reduce plant cover and food supply for many forest dependent birds. And because of the drift effect that occurs with aerial applications, the destruction of plant cover will extend far beyond targeted areas, he added.

"It has been estimated that for every hectare of coca sprayed, two hectares of forest are affected," Naranjo said.

The fumigation program will also drive rural communities that now grow illegal crops to migrate even deeper into the forest to clear new patches of land in order to reinitiate their activities, further worsening the region's environmental problems, Naranjo warned.

The environmental consequences of the fumigation program were also criticized by Francisco Tenorio Paez, president of the Regional Indigenous Organization of Putumayo. Paez delivered an impassioned condemnation of the program, calling it an "attack against human life, the community and the environment."

Putumayo elected officials earlier this year declared their "overwhelming and unanimous rejection" of the Colombian government's fumigation policy. The local leaders called on the national government to consider "manual and voluntary" methods to eradicate coca grown in the region. The leaders supported their argument by citing Article 79 of the Colombian constitution, which declares that "All people have the right to enjoy a healthy environment."

Appeals to stop the fumigation policy have also been made to President Bill Clinton, who was sent a letter today signed by representatives of nearly three dozen environmental, human rights and public policy groups. The letter urges Clinton to cancel the fumigation program, saying its "long term ecological effects could be severe."

"The herbicide glyphosate has been blamed for destroying acres of trees and contaminating wells, streams and ponds," declared the letter, which was also sent to Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango.

Today's press conference was sponsored by a host of non-governmental groups, including the Amazon Alliance, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Lindesmith Center, the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office and the Washington Office on Latin America.

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