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Against the Evidence, Colombia Resumes Use of Glyphosate in Coca Eradication

Experiencing a rise in coca cultivation, the Colombian government has resumed the use of a potentially carcinogenic herbicide in its efforts to tackle the source of the cocaine trade, despite serious questions about the method's efficacy.

Use of the herbicide glyphosate in coca eradication efforts was halted last year following publication of an International Agency for Research on Cancer report pointing to its potentially carcinogenic effects. Colombia had been utilizing glyphosate in aggressive aerial fumigation campaigns against coca — the raw ingredient for cocaine — since 1994. 

However, a recent uptick in coca cultivation levels — and consequentially the amount of cocaine produced in the country — have apparently prompted the government to begin using glyphosate once more. The difference this time, though, is that it will be used solely in manual eradication, as confirmed by Defense Minister Luis Villegas who noted that authorities will spray on the ground in such a way so that it does not contaminate surrounding areas. 

Colombia became the main cocaine producing country in the mid-1990s, reaching a point in 2000 where it was responsible for approximately 70 percent of the global coca leaf (and cocaine) supply. Owing to a keen interest and investment from the United States, aerial fumigation became the primary tactic to combat cultivation in the country, and from 1996 to 2012 over 1.6 million hectares of coca were sprayed with glyphosate, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Though the number of hectares under coca cultivation fell from 168,000 in 2007 to 78,000 in 2012, based on US government estimates, it would be incorrect to deem the fumigation campaign a success. Indeed, the Colombian government's advisory commission on drug policy published findings in 2013 revealing that spraying with glyphosate only resulted in a 15-20 percent decrease in coca for every hectare sprayed, and as WOLA note, the level of fumigation was dropping alongside the fall in cultivation levels since 2007, suggesting only a modest contribution to the decline in coca production. 

Worse than its apparent ineffectiveness is the damage linked to reckless aerial fumigation, including destruction of people's licit crops and harm to soil fertility, along with a number health issues such as skin conditions, miscarriages and breathing problems, that glyphosate has potential to cause.

Figures from the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) report more than a doubling of hectares under coca cultivation from 2012 to 2015, which could be prompting officials to look at using glyphosate once more. Yet, it must be noted that this increase occurred during a period where fumigation was still being used, pointing to the short-sightedness of this resumption. Furthermore, manual eradication is an extremely expensive method due to the need for heavily armed patrols to escort eradicators into dangerous territory, as the Associated Press pointed out

Pedro José Arenas Garcia's recent critique of this policy for WOLA sums it up best with the argument that like aerial spraying before it, manual eradication "fails to address the underlying economic situation of farmers, instead eliminating their sustenance without first offering a viable alternative." What's more, resumption of the use of herbicides points to a serious contradiction in Colombia's drug policy — while President Juan Manuel Santos calls for much needed reform on the world stage, policies domestically show that implementation of reform on the ground in Colombia is not going to be straight forward.

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