Colombia rolled back two decades of drug-war policy this week when it formally suspended aerial spraying of coca crops — the precursor to cocaine — amid concerns that the glyphosate weed killer used in the eradication effort might be carcinogenic.
The government said it will form a commission to realign its anti-narcotics efforts, but there’s already a clear winner: the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Government and guerrilla representatives have been meeting for more than two years in Cuba to find a negotiated end to the half-century conflict. Among the issues they’ve already tackled is how the guerrillas, who make much of their income off the drug trade, can be part of the solution.
The tentative plan formulated in Havana, and which won’t go into effect unless a global peace pact is signed, would require coca-growing communities to voluntarily eradicate crops in exchange for food and agricultural aid. Under the scheme, the demobilized FARC would act as enforcers.
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The entire plan is predicated on ending aerial spraying — one of the FARC’s longtime demands.
In many ways, that approach — pairing the drug fight with concrete development aid —reflects some of the “best thinking” in drug policy, said Adam Isacson with the Washington Office on Latin America.
In order for it to be successful, however, the government will have to truly be present in remote drug-growing regions that it has long neglected.
“We think President [Juan Manuel] Santos is making the right moves,” Isacson said. “But if Colombia does not seize this opportunity to get a state presence into those areas, we will see more coca in the next years. … And I fear that will get blamed on the fumigation [suspension].”
Aerial spraying was an imperfect solution to an intractable problem. As the FARC, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal gangs made large swaths of the country no-go zones for the military, fumigation flyovers were one of the few options to combat the booming drug trade. (Peru and Bolivia, the other two coca producers, never allowed aerial fumigation.)
Colombia’s National Drug Council — it includes representatives from the health, justice, defense and foreign ministries — voted seven to one Thursday night to suspend the flights.
The vote was no surprise. Santos had asked for the suspension after the cancer arm of the World Health Organization found that the chemical glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
The eradication flights are expected to be phased out slowly through October, but Thursday’s vote means that the longstanding policy — which has sprayed more than 6, 700 square miles and cost more than $1 billion by some accounts — is coming to an end.
Farmers and civil society groups have long complained that the spraying was killing legitimate crops and causing everything from skin rashes to respiratory problems to miscarriages and livestock deaths.
The U.S. government maintains that the widely used herbicide, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is perfectly safe. A full 90 percent of glyphosate sales in Colombia are for traditional agriculture, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker wrote in an editorial.
Even so, the U.S said it will stand by Colombia’s decision.
The question remains, however, how effective was the spraying to begin with?
Earlier this month, seemingly in response to that debate, the U.S. Office on National Drug Control Policy reported that Colombian coca production had spiked 39 percent from 2013 to 2014.
“Several factors likely influenced this,” the report said, “including increased cultivation in areas off limits to aerial eradication.”
And Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez — the only vote in favor of continuing the program — said he was worried that “society would be swimming in coca in coming years” if the aerial eradication was stopped.
He also accused the commission and Santos of caving in to FARC demands.
“More coca means more money for the FARC, the ELN and criminal gangs,” he said in a statement Friday. “And more money means more capacity to kill soldiers and police, and attack the civilian population and commit acts of terrorism.”
The data shows mixed results at best. From 2004-2007 when aerial eradication was at its most intense, coca crops in Colombia were expanding. And they only began to retreat once the government boosted its manual eradication efforts and pushed development aid into long-neglected communities, WOLA said in a recent report.
On Wednesday, six members of the U.S. Congress underscored that assessment. Along with the known health and environmental risks, “aerial fumigation has not been correlated with a decline in overall coca production in Colombia,” the legislators wrote.
“It is worth noting that fumigation is disproportionately affecting already-marginalized communities, especially Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities,” the lawmakers added.
In a sense, the Colombian government is taking a short-term gamble for long-term stability, wrote the U.S.-based Stratfor analysis firm.
“If the Havana talks yield a successful FARC peace agreement, the government would be able to devote additional forces to counter-narcotics,” The group wrote. “A nationwide drop-off in politically motivated attacks would free up troops to conduct any manual eradication or other interdiction efforts.”
Vicente Revelo, the director of the Association for the Development of Farmers, welcomed the decision, as he described the drug problem as a matter of economics.
In the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia, along the border of Venezuela, where officials have seen a spike in coca crops, traditional farmers can’t make a living, he said.
Getting a cacao or coffee harvest to market along rutted dirt roads is expensive at best and impossible in the rainy season when they’re often washed out, he said. And there’s little state aid to farmers.
Trafficking rings, however, will go directly to the farmers to buy coca paste, he explained.
“They don’t become millionaires,” he said of the growers. “But at least they can make a living.”
A previous version of this article referred to aerial eradication, or spraying, of coca crops as “fumigation.”