Drug Warrior No More? US Stance on Colombia Glyphosate Spraying Indefensible

Colombia aerial fumigation of coca

The United States' continued defence of using glyphosate to spray Colombia's coca crops -- the raw material used to make cocaine -- despite the government's decision to halt the practice is a troubling sign that health and human rights are still a way off from factoring prominently in US anti-narcotics strategy. 

On May 14, Colombia’s National Drugs Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes) voted 7-1 to suspend the fumigation of coca crops using glyphosate (known by its trade name as Roundup), reported El Tiempo.

The decision came after divides were exposed in the Colombian government over utilising this strategy, with the Ministry of Health and President Juan Manuel Santos both recently coming out in opposition of the practice while the Ministry of Defence continued to defend its use.

The crux of the debate lies with the potential harms glyphosate can do to people’s health following an announcement in March by an agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO) that glyphosate is probably a carcinogen.

Colombia, with heavy backing from the United States, has been aerially spraying coca crops with herbicides since 1994. In certain cases, glyphosate has been sprayed well above the recommended height of 3-10 metres and at a higher-than-recommended concentration level -- 23.7 litres per hectare, rather than 2.5 litres per hectare. This at times reckless approach has not only destroyed people’s licit crops and been detrimental to soil fertility, it has been linked to a host of maladies, including skin conditions, breathing problems, miscarriages and malformations.

What’s more, the Colombian government’s own advisory commission on drug policy found in 2013 that spraying with glyphosate only results in a 15-20 percent decrease in coca for every hectare sprayed.

Between 1996 and 2012, 1.6 million hectares were fumigated, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

In light of the WHO agency’s findings this year, along with other evidence pointing to glyphosate’s harms and the ineffectiveness of aerial spraying, it would be expected that the US -- supposedly newly embarked on a more progressive drug policy path -- would have been supportive of its withdrawal. Not so.

As The New York Times reported in the wake of the May 14 decision, US officials worked hard to convince the Santos government to continue aerial fumigation. US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker had an op-ed published in El Tiempo days before the Council’s vote, declaring, “The majority of reduction in coca cultivation is due to aerial spraying,” before blindly noting the importance of eradicating coca this way due to the harms of cocaine for users’ health. Seemingly the health of Colombia’s rural poor here is a secondary concern at best.

William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, meanwhile defended glyphosate through citing that it is the most commonly used herbicide in the world and told TIME magazine that there had not been one single verified case of glyphosate-caused cancer.

Brownfield also stated to Caracol Radio last month that if Colombia bans aerial eradication with glyphosate, it would be sending mixed messages to the domestic farmers who use it for commercial agriculture.

There are two primary issues with Brownfield’s comments. Firstly, while he is correct that glyphosate is deployed around the world, this is not grounds for its continued use in eradication measures. In most agriculture, its use is far more targeted and adheres to concentration and application guidelines (where aerial fumigation has not always).

Secondly, the topic of glyphosate as a carcinogen could well be controversial at the moment, but this uncertainty doesn’t discount the number of other detrimental effects it has had on Colombia’s rural poor, as highlighted above.

Colombia’s break with the US on its anti-narcotics strategy here is a momentous occasion. As Adam Isacson of WOLA told the New York Times, “Colombia and the United States have been in lock step on a hard-line approach. It’s the first time there’s been light between the two countries on what the strategy should be, in recent memory.”

While this shows that US influence may be waning, the events around this debate are all the more illuminating because they reveal that the US is still going to fight to have its questionable anti-narcotics agenda implemented.

People may hail the fact that the US is seeing a wave of reforms domestically -- albeit largely confined to marijuana policy -- and has changed its line on the global drug control system by stressing that there is “flexibility” when it comes to interpreting United Nations drug conventions. Don’t believe for a second, though, that it still won’t fight hard to ensure narcotics are not entering their country, regardless of the health and human rights implications that tackling this might have for producer countries.