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Plan Colombia and the United States

Part 1: An Unbalanced Package

Internal War

Over five decades of violence have devastated both the people and the environment of Colombia. Despite its abundance of natural resources, the nation's wealth is unevenly distributed in the hands of the elite, with approximately fifty-five percent of the population are living below the poverty level.[1] The internal conflict has created 1.5 million internally displaced people within Colombia's borders, and has led to over 4000 politically motivated murders each year.[2] Perpetuating the violence are the security forces, paramilitary death squads, and the leftist guerillas.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

In September of 1999, Colombian President Andres Pastrana met with President Clinton to seek U.S.


support for a $ 7.5-billion project known as "Plan Colombia." Pastrana viewed his plan as a way to end the bloodshed, combat drug trafficking, reform government institutions, and revive the nation's economy. Of the $7.5 billion needed, the Colombian government intended to supply $4 billion, and sought $3.5 billion in international aid.

In July 2000, President Clinton approved a two-year US $1.3 billion aid package to fight the "war on drugs" in Colombia. The plan was intended to aid the Colombian government in wiping out half of the 300, 000 acres of coca fields by 2005. Billed as a "balanced package," the plan promised measures such as:

A military component: including weapons, helicopters, and training for Colombian counter-narcotic units and police.

Illicit crop eradication programs: the principal method of crop eradication is via aerial fumigation with the chemical herbicide Glyphosate-the formula of choice in Colombia is commonly known as Roundup Ultra.

Social development programs: the plan promised to invest in projects such as schools, road building, health clinics, and help for local farmers to aid with the transition to legal crops such as rice, corn, yucca, heart of palm, and plantain.

Human Rights Programs: protecting nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights.

Aid to the Displaced

Judicial Reform: training judges and prosecutors, providing funding to train and support Colombian law enforcement personnel in anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, and anti-kidnapping measures.

Support for Ongoing Peace Process

On paper, the plan seemed to provide all of the necessary elements needed to solve Colombia's economic crisis and to end the violence. When looking at the actual aid package offered by the US; however, it became evident that it was severely unbalanced, with the majority of the funding-80% of the total aid package- granted to the Colombian military and police. The remainder of the aid package would be distributed as follows: 8% for social development programs, 6% for human rights programs, 4% for aid to the displaced, 2% for judicial reform, and 0.5% for supporting the ongoing peace process. Critics of the US aid package claimed that a militarized program would only exacerbate an already violent situation.

After George W. Bush took office, Plan Columbia was expanded to include the entire Andean region, and renamed the Andean Regional Initiative. The Bush administration describes the initiative as a "three legged stool" of eradication, military assistance, and alternative development.[3]

Not Enough Help

The original plan offered contracts promising up to $2000 in subsidies to farmers willing to voluntarily destroy illicit crops. In actuality, the 702 farmers that complied with the July deadline for the contracts received subsidies worth about $800-850. A Colombian peasant can earn $1000 for one kg of unrefined coca paste.[4] In a nation already torn by poverty, growing coca is often a means of survival for many families.

Aerial Eradication: Has the War on Drugs Gone too Far?

Colombia supplies approximately 90% of the coca used in the production of cocaine and roughly 60% of the opium poppy used to produce the heroin that flows into the United States. In an attempt to curb illicit drug use and production, Colombia has employed a "supply reduction strategy," based on the theory that reducing the supply will increase their prices on international markets.

Colombia has employed aerial fumigation as the preferred method of eradication of illicit crops since the seventies.


Fumigation efforts were initiated against marijuana in 1978, followed by poppy beginning in 1992, and then against coca in 1994.[1]

The United States has sponsored the herbicide-spraying programs in Colombia for a number of years.

Damage on Three Levels

Opponents of the fumigations claim that the aerial eradication program causes damage on three levels.

Economic: the herbicides cause tremendous damage, frequently to legal crops, including alternative development projects. Ironically, it seems as if coca is often the only crop that survives the spraying.

Heart of palm: in the mid-1990's, alternative development programs assisted farmers in developing these crops. Last year, construction began on a cannery to process the palm hearts with the help of $500, 000 US aid; however, fumigation has ruined 125 acres of palm since July, leaving only 461 acres of palm in Putamayo and the cannery to stand idle most of the day.[2]

Glyphosate is meant to be sprayed at a distance of 10 feet in the air, but due to regional conditions, the herbicide mixture is often sprayed from a distance of up to 100 feet, leading to an increased amount of spray drift.

Human and Animal Health: the herbicide mixture has been suspected of causing many illnesses, from minor skin rashes and eye irritations, to severe gastrointestinal disorders and possibly death in humans. Glyphosate is especially toxic to many aquatic species, and is not recommended for spraying near bodies of water.

According to instructions on the label, Roundup Ultra should not be applied near bodies of water, animals should not come in contact with a treated area for two weeks, and fruits or nuts from trees that have been treated should not be eaten for twenty-one days.[3]

The glyphosate formulation used in Colombia is combined with Cosmoflux 411 F, a surfactant (a chemical used to penetrate the waxy surface coatings of the leaves.) The Roundup/Cosmoflux mixture has never been scientifically evaluated.[4]

In absence of acute toxicological data for the glyphosate/Cosmoflux 411 F mixture, the EPA has recommended an alternative glyphosate product with lower potential for acute toxicity.[5]

Ecological: Colombia is home to 10% of the world's biodiversity.

The US State Department maintains that glyphosate poses no unnecessary health or safety risk to humans or the environment, yet the commercial herbicide mixture (glyphosate/Cosmoflux 411 F) has never been tested for applications on Colombia's native species.

One-third of its reported plant species are not found anywhere else in the world.[6]

The concentration recommended by the EPA for use in the United States is a 1% glyphosate mixture, yet the concentration used in Colombia is 26 %.[7]

Other Environmental Factors

For every acre of coca crop eradicated in southern Columbia, three acres of Amazon rainforest are cut down to replace them.[8]

Herbicide drift has caused damage to border regions in Ecuador.

The US has considered using stronger herbicides, and has tried to push the Colombian government to approve a controversial biological agent, dubbed "agent green" to fight coca crops. Agent green is actually a toxic fungus, called Fusarium oxysporum (Fusarium EN-4).

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