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A New Challenge for the Santos Administration: Colombia’s End to the Aerial Coca Eradication Program

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By: German A. Ospina, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

After two decades of coca crop-dusting as part of a counter-narcotics campaign, Colombia has decided to end its aerial coca eradication program. In a contentious decision, the Colombian government, more specifically, the National Narcotics Council, voted 7 to 1 on May 15 to officially suspend the program. The move was urged by President Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s Health Ministry on the heels of a March 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency on Research in Cancer that concluded glyphosate, the chemical used in the eradication program, was believed to be carcinogenic to humans. The decision represents a profound victory for the Left and green opposition in Colombia, which maintains that aerial spraying has produced detrimental environmental effects, damaged legal crops, and devastated the livelihoods of poor farmers. While the decision received approval from research and advocacy organizations throughout Colombia, it has led to harsh criticism by U.S. and Colombian law enforcement officials who claim that terminating the aerial spray program could lead to a boost in the production of cocaine. Facing mounting pressure, President Santos has reassured critics that Colombia will continue to find ways of eliminating illicit coca plantations used for cocaine production.[1]

Historical Background

 For the past 35 years, Colombia has been a key producer for illegal drugs, most notably cocaine, and a notorious hotspot for violence, kidnappings, and an ongoing guerilla war. In the 1980s, Colombia’s drug industry boomed with the rise of drug barons, such as the infamous Pablo Escobar of the Medellín Cartel and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers of the Cali Cartel. The role of guerrilla and paramilitary groups in the industry throughout the 1980s and 1990s deepened the violence, kidnappings, and guerrilla conflict.[2] The violence deepened as internal conflict continued from the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. More than 50,000 perished at the hands of the various guerrilla movements, the right-wing death squads, and governmental security forces in these years.[3] Currently, the annual earnings of the drug trade is estimated at $10 billion USD, and Colombia accounts for 43 percent of the world’s global coca supply.[4]

Let’s rewind the clock 20 years to when Colombia, eager to defeat the illegal drug industry, began to experiment with aerial spraying of coca crops. Under the advocacy of the U.S. DEA, the Colombian government took a militaristic approach, implementing large scale aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca fields throughout much of Colombia. As a pillar of Plan Colombia–the multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package to combat drug trafficking–the aerial eradication program fumigated around 4 million acres of land, at a total cost of $2 billion USD. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, from 2001 to the end of 2013, the coca fields in Colombia decreased in size from 345,000 acres to about 118,000 acres. While the figure seems to validate the effectiveness of the eradication practice, many analysts believe that aerial spraying has actually been inefficient, that the reduction of coca plantings can be attributed to other factors, such as the manual eradication of coca and crackdown of cocaine trafficking rings.

One critic of the aerial eradication program is Daniel Mejia, director of the Center for Security and Drug Studies in Bogotá. The center analyses the drug trade and has advised the Colombian government on drug policy. Mejia has determined that aerial spraying has had a minimal impact and that a single hectare (2.47 acre) must be fumigated multiple times before the coca is actually destroyed. His research has also led him to conclude that people who live in areas where aerial fumigation has been implemented suffer from high rates of miscarriages and other health problems.[5]

Health Concerns 

In the village of Crucito, Colombia, Manuel de Jesús Sanchez, reminisced about an event that occurred four years ago when he was working in a rice paddy. A crop duster flew by and dumped large quantities of what everyone around him referred to as “the poison.” Sanchez claims that from the moment he was exposed to the glyphosate-based herbicide relied upon by the Colombian government to eradicate coca fields, his skin broke out in a yellow rash. Consequently, white blotches have spread throughout his body, while his eyesight deteriorated. He stresses that receiving treatment from a doctor is not an option, due to his inability to pay for the medication that would be prescribed. Sanchez has resorted to selling candy along the dirt streets to make a living, as he is now incapable of tilling his farm.[6]


Accounts of the harmful effects of the herbicide, ranging from skin problems to miscarriages, are prominent in the settlements along the edge of the Paramillo National Park in northern Colombia. However, tracing the health problems related to glyphosate in Crucito is impossible because exposure to other pesticides has gone on for years and the inhabitants, including a majority of coca growers, do not have the economic resources to make the three hour journey to the nearest hospital to receive care.[7]

Other peasants in the fields of southern Colombia blame their illnesses on glyphosate. Nittson Cuacialpud claims that he developed permanent facial acne a few years ago after a crop duster sprayed his one-hectare (2.47 acre) coca field close to the town of La Hormiga.[8] In a similar story, Fraklin Canacuan, a coca grower, recounts how his eight-year-old daughter became ill after being drenched by glyphosate. He is adamant that the spray makes people sick, usually leading to a fever and skin rashes. While their allegations are unverifiable, there are many claims of glyphosate-related illness in the regions of heavy spraying.

Monsanto, the American agribusiness that manufactures glyphosate, has firmly defended its product despite claims by coca farmers against the herbicide. The company argues that scientific research conducted has determined that the herbicide posed no risk to humans and that the World Health Organization (WHO) blatantly ignored this research.[9] A Latin American protest is gathering in Argentina. More than 30,000 doctors, scientists, and environmentalists launched a campaign calling for Monsanto products to be banned after the WHO report came to light. The movement is spearheaded by doctors who form part of the FederacióSindical de Profesionales de la Salud de La República Argentina (Federation of Health Professionals of Argentina; FESPROSA). FESPROSA claims the chemical is heavily linked to birth defects, unprompted abortions, skin diseases, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Research and social organizations across Latin America are now protesting against the U.S. multinational corporation. [10]

However, before the blame is put entirely on glyphosate, it must be understood that coca farmers in Colombia regularly handle toxic chemicals. In the Colombian department of Putumayo, Sandra Tejo, a former coca grower, decided to switch to growing black pepper, admitting that leaving the drug trade was a practical decision due to the danger that comes with mixing powerful solvents, such as acetone and sulfuric acid, to turn coca leaves into cocaine. She explained that most of the coca farmers use strong chemicals without proper protection, like googles and facemasks.[11] This is the reality that must be taken into account regarding the day-to-day lives of coca farmers.

Reaction in Bogotá and Washington

Previously Santos–as defense minister under the Álvaro Uribe Administration–was a strong proponent of crop spraying as the principal weapon in the drug trade war. However, after the revelations of the negative health impacts of glyphosate from the WHO report, he urged the banning of the glyphosate spraying.[12] Santos’ decision was perhaps influenced by a 2014 Constitutional Court of Colombia ruling, which stated that serious precaution must be taken in the use of glyphosate, if there are risks to human life. [13]While Santos’ decision is being celebrated by critics of fumigation, it has created a domestic and international dilemma. Domestically, many officials are worried about the lack of initiative by the Santos Administration to come up with a comprehensive alternative to the aerial eradication program. Former Defense Minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, defended the country’s use of aerial fumigation and claimed that it was an indispensable tool in combating narco-trafficking. In a recent statement he asserted, “We cannot permit losing the benefits [of spraying] to delinquency, crime, and terrorism.” Pinzón added, “We will continue using all our tools that help maintain security for Colombians.”[14]

Internationally, Washington had pushed Bogotá to continue the practice of aerial spraying. In a latest effort to influence the Santos Administration, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said that the amount of land used to grow coca increased by 39 percent and that aerial spraying declined sharply last year. In addition, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated that there is a lack of evidence that shows glyphosate poses a cancer risk to humans.[15] In an interview with Time, William R. Brownfield, head of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, stated, “Glyphosate is today perhaps the world’s most commonly used herbicide.” He also claimed that there has not been one case of cancer caused by glyphosate.[16]

Kevin Whitaker, the American Ambassador to Colombia, recently published an op-ed article in El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s main newspapers, advocating for the continuance of the aerial spray program. Along with the piece, Ambassador Whitaker also stated that a decision to ban aerial spraying would not affect diplomatic relations, as Bogotá has been Washington’s main ally in Latin America during its War on Drugs campaign. In an interview the day before the decision was made, he commented that the ban would be Colombia’s sovereign decision and that Washington would continue to assist Bogotá with the tools necessary in combating drug trafficking.[17]

Peace Process Politics

In addition to the Constitutional Court ruling, the ongoing peace talks in Cuba likely played a pivotal role in Bogotá’s decision to ban aerial spraying. The Colombian government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC) have been engaged in a two-year peace effort to end the five decade long civil conflict that has caused much disorder in the Andean country. The reason for the importance of the dialogue in Cuba is that the aerial spraying has mainly been concentrated in rural areas controlled by the FARC in the southern part of Colombia, whom Bogotá has accused of financing with drug money. Last May, Santos and FARC leaders reached a provisional plan to combat the drug trade, but the FARC demanded in exchange a halt in aerial spraying.[18]  The tentative peace plan calls for coca-growing communities to manually and voluntarily eradicate crops in exchange for governmental food and agricultural aid. Under the plan, with the condition that a peace pact is signed, the demobilized FARC would serve as regulators and enforcers of the coca removal plans in the impacted communities.[19]

Hungry Caterpillars as an Alternative?

Now that Bogotá is looking for new alternatives to combat the drug trade without harming coca farmers in the process, a small moth could be the answer to Colombia’s war on drugs. The caterpillars of Eloria noyesi, the Tussock moth, also known as el gringo by the locals, are known for their attraction to the leaves of the coca plant.[20] Alberto Gómez, head of Bogotá’s Quindío Botanical Garden, has orchestrated a plan that he believes could eradicate coca leaves without the use of chemicals. The plan? To flood the country with these little insects as an alternative to spraying the herbicide.[21] It is more complex than it appears, but it could potentially wipe out the drug trade’s main source of income. First, the plan would be to raise thousands of beige moths in a lab, pack them into boxes, and ultimately release them in areas of cocaine production. Gómez is convinced that the moths will immediately find their way to the coca leaves, lay their eggs, and eliminate the coca once the caterpillars hatch.

However, this would not be the first time that such a plan has been suggested. A similar plan was proposed in 2005, and it drew considerable interest from the Colombian government as an alternative to spraying herbicides. But, the general public, specifically environmental groups, were not interested in the proposal. In a 2005 interview with the Associated Press, Ricardo Vargas, director of the environmental group Andean Action, claimed that releasing a large quantity of moths into a particular area could potentially muddle the dynamics of the local ecosystem. He added, “With a plan like this, the chance for ecological mischief is very high and very dangerous.”[22] While experts on biological control agree that the moths will not solve Colombia’s drug trade problem, most believe that it could be a better option than carcinogenic chemicals.[23]


Colombia’s unilateral decision to scrap the aerial coca eradication program is a significant stride on the road to peace. Bogotá’s commitment to steer away from its militaristic approach is admirable considering the country’s history; however, this poses a new challenge for the Santos Administration. Illicit coca production and narco-trafficking continue to be major societal issues and the government must implement measures to combat the drug trade in ways that do not cause harm to its citizens. Ultimately, history will decide whether the decision to ban aerial spraying by Santos–a man who has banked his presidential legacy on the outcome of a peace accord–will be successful.

By: German A. Ospina, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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Featured Photos: Aerial Fumigation in Colombia; // Parque Nacional Paramillo;