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REGISTER CITIZEN: Hey, Congress, want to save a few million?

June 30th, 2009

By Jess Hunter-Bowman

Let me go over my “this one has got to go” checklist one more time. Costly? Some in Washington will disagree, but $150 million is still a lot of money to me. Ineffective? The goal was a 50 percent reduction in drug crop production and seven years later we have a 23 percent increase, so I’d say” ineffective” is on taget. Unethical? Even the most stone-faced on Capitol Hill would have to admit that spraying an untested chemical mixture over innocent civilians despite the U.N.’s claim that there is “credible and trustworthy evidence” suggesting human health impacts would qualify as unethical.

In 2000, President Clinton and Congress decided to try something new in the Drug War. Colombia produced 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. and, despite years of anti-drug efforts, there was no reduction in the flow of drugs north. Thus a $1.3 billion dollar emergency supplemental appropriation to fight drug production in Colombia was born. The primary tool contemplated was a controversial chemical spray program using crop dusters to target coca—the raw material for cocaine.

Nearly $500 million was spent on an exponential growth in the spray program, from 43,246 hectares sprayed in 2000 to 133,496 hectares in 2008.

Yet despite spraying 2.6 million acres in Colombia from 2000 through 2007, coca production actually increased by 23 percent and today Colombia still produces 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. Maybe there is a reason no other country in the world employs an aerial spray program for counter-narcotics purposes.

But to suggest that this policy has simply been ineffective would ignore the devastating impact it has had on Colombian’s. An untold number of family farmers have been wrongly targeted. According to the State Department, 7,750 of them have filed official complaints for wrongful fumigation since 2001. Thousands who turned to coca production to make a modest living—experts estimate an average coca farmer has a gross annual income of $7,000—responded to calls to leave behind coca production and join alternative development programs, only to see those new crops destroyed when the fumigation planes mistakenly targeted them.

Colombians were told that spraying an untested chemical mixture over farms (and homes) from planes in the second-most bio-diverse country in the world would not cause human health or environmental problems. Today early evidence suggests that both human health and the environment were indeed put at risk by this program.

Thousands of health complaints reported in recently sprayed communities were corroborated when the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Health conducted a field visit and determined that there is “credible and trustworthy evidence” that fumigations are harmful to human health.

New reports suggest disturbing environmental impacts of the spray program in the Amazon basin region as well. A recent scientific study revealed that 50 percent of amphibians were killed in less than 96 hours by exposure to the spray program’s chemical mixture. And the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime further indicated that fumigation leads to deforestation as coca farmers move deeper into virgin forest to avoid being sprayed. The U.N. estimates nearly 400,000 acres of virgin forests were razed by such farmers between 2001 and 2007.

Given the horrendous decade-long track record of this counter-narcotics spray program in Colombia—no reduction in drug production, wrongfully sprayed farmers combined with human health and environmental impacts—Congress needs to send it to the trash bin. Cutting the bankrupt aerial spray program could save taxpayers $150 million dollars next year, still a lot of money where I’m from.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is Bogotá-based Andean Region Director for Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization that monitors U.S. policy in Latin America.

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