Opinion Colombia’s toxic battle against crops that won’t go away

Government soldiers stand guard as former FARC guerrillas and locals play billiards in Antioquia, Colombia, last July. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP via Getty Images)

María Teresa Ronderos and Andrés Bermúdez Liévano are, respectively, director and editor of the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigations (CLIP).

There’s an old saying: The definition of insanity is trying the same strategy repeatedly, while expecting different results. This is precisely what Colombia has been doing with its illicit coca crops: returning over and over, as we have during the 20-year-long War on Drugs, to the aerial spraying of these crops, fruitlessly hoping they disappear.

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President Iván Duque’s administration wants to resurrect this strategy, arguing that it is the most effective shortcut to achieve significant reductions in coca crops, which grew from 118,000 acres in 2012 to 380,000 by the end of 2019, according to the latest census of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The administration of former president Juan Manuel Santos had suspended the spraying in 2015 after a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified glyphosate as a probable carcinogenic substance.

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By insisting on the same strategy, the government will crash into the same failures of the past. Only this time, it will have an aggravating circumstance: the country’s new social and political reality.

This is not the same Colombia of the end of the last century. Back then, state agents couldn’t enter vast territories to develop a plan for the voluntary substitution of illegal crops with legal ones, because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) targeted the officials that tried it. The idea of air-spraying crops was born out of this difficulty, according to an interview with retired Gen. Óscar Naranjo, former vice president of Colombia. The government also conceived that strategy as an urgent measure to subtract power, wealth and territorial control from the FARC. The goal was taking away its coca as a strategy of war.

But the FARC has been demobilized as a result of the peace agreement signed in 2016. According to the current High Council for Stabilization, 93.5 percent of the 13,998 guerrilla members who laid down their weapons still fulfill their commitment to the agreement. There are still some dissidents of this guerrilla group and fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN) in combat. In most of the territory, however, the government could undertake, without security challenges, a vigorous substitution of crops with the participation of coca growers, with more lasting results.

A decade ago, Miguel García Sánchez, a professor at Colombia’s University of Los Andes, studied the relationship between the local political culture and the drug business. He found that “eradication in any of its forms would have negative consequences in terms of participation and trust in government institutions” and that this effect “would be stronger in the case of aerial spraying.”

The exposure to herbicide can increase the likelihood of skin problems, respiratory distress and even miscarriages.

Another thing that has changed is that, for many years, there was no conclusive scientific knowledge about the potential danger of glyphosate — it was believed to be harmless. The authorities cited studies such as one carried out by toxicologist Camilo Uribe Granja in 2001, which resulted from a consultation with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. That study collected evidence in places that had not been fumigated in five months and was never peer-reviewed.

But since 2013, a study by Adriana Camacho and Daniel Mejía established that exposure to herbicide spraying increased the likelihood of skin problems, respiratory distress and even miscarriages. Then, in 2015, the world learned that glyphosate was likely a carcinogen agent.

Colombia doesn’t have an unobstructed complaint mechanism that can capture the harm that this tactic may be causing. Pedro Pablo Mutumbajoy, a small farmer from Putumayo, one of the main coca-growing areas in southern Colombia, learned that the hard way. As documented by U.S. anthropologist Kristina Lyons, the government sprayed 350 native trees that Mutumbajoy had planted. His complaint roamed through police bureaucracy for months. He never received compensation or an actual assessment. According to Lyons’s evidence, of the 2,265 complaints about spraying-related problems between 2001 and 2015, 93.5 percent were rejected.

To this day, there's still no clarity about what mechanism can ensure that new anti-coca spraying doesn't affect the exact crops farmers are trying to replace them with.

Recycling that worn-out strategy doesn’t make sense when we have already verified its failure as a long-term policy. The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, established by the U.S. Congress, concluded bluntly in December 2020: “Mass eradication remains central to US counternarcotics policy in Colombia, despite enormous costs and deplorable results.” In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, likened forced eradication — including spraying — to lawn mowing, which doesn’t work in the long run.

At a time when the biggest challenge for the security of Colombia’s Andean region is to consolidate peace in the country, neither Colombian nor U.S. officials, nor civil society, should endorse the government’s strategy of, once again, spraying illicit crops with herbicides. It’s a costly and short-term solution that fractures the legitimacy of the authorities in the eyes of the farmers, and it can be harmful to their health. There’s no accountability, nor can it be monitored, and there are no effective channels for those potentially affected to receive a quick response.

Knowing what we already know, trying that approach once again — supposedly to weaken drug trafficking — will only shorten the path to insanity.

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