How Colombia’s return to glyphosate fumigation could trigger unrest, clashes

It seems Colombia’s drug policy is trapped in a maze. President Juan Manuel Santos’ government stirred up controversy earlier this month when it announced that it would return to fumigation of coca crops using glyphosate after abandoning the policy last year. Even though the government is planning on a more targeted, manual approach, using glyphosate is already unpopular among farmers and could incite community unrest, possibly even clashes, with security forces.

As part of a new tack in addressing the problem of illicit crops in Colombia, the Santos administration dropped aerial spraying with the US Monsanto-patented glyphosate chemical in October, 2015. But an increase in land area under coca cultivation pushed the Santos government to restart the program. The idea is for special forces accompanied by the military to de-mine the area and eradicate coca crops manually using on-the-ground sprayers as opposed to dumping the white powdery chemical out of planes.

Opposition leaders are criticizing the restart. Conservative and Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez called Santos’ policy “contradictory” after last year’s suspension and said negotiators in Havana, Cuba have already agreed on a voluntary strategy. Many farmers are convinced glyphosate is the reason for their once-fertile land turning fallow. Farmers and residents of communities that have experienced aerial spraying told The Viscerealist that the government’s method had ruined land and that cancer incidence was up. The World Health Organization last year told the world that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Just this month, a separate panel said it was not. Santos’ move to suspend spraying was supposed to go hand-in-hand with jump-starting a crop substitution plan that would give Colombian farmers an income alternative to the lucrative coca. That program is delayed in large part because the funds aren’t there to support it yet, a source close to the program said.

One worry with a return to manual glyphosate fumigation, write former director of Drug Policy for Colombia’s Ministry of Justice Julian Wilches and former advisor for the Ministry of Defense’s Anti-narcotics Policy Daniel M. Rico, is that implementing manual eradication would be costly, dangerous and would only beat back illicit crops in the short term. If uncoupled with a deeper, long-term solution for crop substitution, there’s a risk Santos’ spending on manual spraying will get squandered on a no-results outcome. Impoverished farmers, who often turn to coca out of desperation, want economic alternatives to the crop. Politically, any program using glyphosate to eradicate coca is already widely unpopular in farming communities in regions like Catatumbo and Putumayo, where much of the country’s coca is harvested. Farmers in Catatumbo and Putumayo warn there would be protests, maybe even clashes with police and military forces, if the government returns to fumigating their crops.

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