Health hazards of using glyphosate to destroy coca crops

In 1998, Yaneth Valderrama was four months pregnant with her third child when she was accidentally sprayed with glyphosate, a powerful herbalist, working his family’s fields on the Chaqueta River in the Colombian city of Solita. A few hours later, she experienced a miscarriage; Six months later, she died of related health complications. She was only 28 years old.

The herbicide was sprayed to destroy one of the many illegal coca plantations in the area, as was then routine – a front in a war cocaine and other drugs, And while Valderrama and his family were not coca farmers, their fields, whole bananas and other vegetables were not spared—and neither were they.

It took 20 years for her husband, Ivan Medina, and daughters to bring their case to court. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) The case was presented by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a global advocacy organization. the commission agreed that the Colombian government may Tookable to Valderrama Death (link in Spanish).

In its ruling, the commission acknowledged evidence of glyphosate’s effects on reproductive health, including abortion, and listed its forced use as a risk factor. violation of reproductive health rights (link in Spanish). The IACHR also recognized a second issue of chemical effects on reproductive health, namely Doris Yaneth Alape (PDF), who lost her pregnancy at 28 weeks after being exposed to glyphosate fumigation.

How Glyphosate Became a Weapon of the War on Drugs

Glyphosate is the most common herbicide in the world. Developed by agricultural giant Monsanto in the 1970s, it has since been used on farms around the world To destroy noxious weeds.

Typically, glyphosate is applied manually to the fields it is used to protect the produce, at a distance wide enough to target unwanted weeds while protecting the main crop. In Colombia, however, it has historically been used for another purpose: the forced destruction of coca fields.

Most of Colombia’s coca is grown illegally in remote areas of the Amazon region, which sell it to cartels for international smuggling. These farmers belong to communities that mostly moved to the areas in the latter part of the last century, eventually finding coca a reliable source of income. The region offers two advantages for the production of illegal drugs: it has perfect climates, and is extremely difficult to access and penetrate.

Enter glyphosate, which can be sprayed in high concentrations from aeroplanes, and destroy illegal farms – even if destroying every other crop in the vicinity And catching humans in the crossfire as well.

मैदान में एक कोका कलेक्टर a coca collector in the field

A coca leaf picker works on a coca farm in Colombia.
photo, Raul Arboleda ,Getty Images,

Glyphosate exposure is especially harmful during pregnancy

The carcinogenic effects of glyphosate have long been known, as have skin and respiratory problems caused by the chemical. But the harms to reproductive health—including fertility and pregnancy, as well as long-term genetic consequences—are not yet fully understood, although a survey of 80 articles on the effects of glyphosate gives a sense of the magnitude . Published in the magazine in September 2022 exposure and health,

The survey, led by Professor Fabian Mendez from the School of Public Health at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia, looked at studies examining the effects of glyphosate on reproductive health.

The results provided strong evidence for the effects of glyphosate on reproductive health, including direct consequences on the well-being of mothers, fetuses and newborns. Human studies reviewed linked glyphosate during pregnancy to miscarriage, preterm birth, low birth weight, and fetal malformations. Animal studies have identified that glyphosate effects extend generations down the line from the original exposure.

Since fumigation is difficult to control, aerial sprayers use concentrations of glyphosate five times higher than those required for manual spraying. Airborne sprays are more likely to travel outside the area they target, destroy or damage legal crops, contaminate water bodies, and harm local populations.

“This is only one dimension, the biomedical impact, but we also have impacts on food security in Colombia: bananas, maize, among others. [crops] are killed in the fields,” Mendez says.

Valderrama was one of the many victims of the drug control policy, which aimed to destroy coca plantations without providing a sustainable alternative to the farmers who cultivated it. Until now, there is no precise estimate of how many pregnancies have been affected by glyphosate, or how many women have developed reproductive health problems, says Catalina Martinez Corral, regional director of the Bogotá-based CRR. But, she says, it is reasonable to estimate that most farming communities were affected, putting the potential victims on the order of the thousands.

A toxic tool of the war on drugs

Colombia is not alone in its use of glyphosate, but the way in which aerial spraying has been employed as a tool in the international war on drugs is unique.

The National Narcotics Commission of the Colombian government authorized the aerial spraying of glyphosate in 1992, with the aim of destroying illegal coca plantations in the country’s Amazonian regions, including Chaqueta.

The massive fumigation of coca crops was also an important part of this plan colombia2000 US-backed initiative to combat drug trafficking and internal conflict in Colombia. have a plan received high praiseincluding Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it “helped transform a nation on the brink of collapse into a strong institutional democracy with historically low levels of violence.”

But the plan’s success is less clear, particularly in reducing coca production and smuggling. According to United Nations data, there were approximately 45,000 hectares under coca cultivation in 1994, when spraying began. By 2021, this number had increased to 204,000 hectares. At the peak of fumigation efforts, in 2006, approximately 172,000 hectares were fumigated with glyphosate.

Aerial view showing coca fields in the mountains of El Patia Municipality, Cauca Department, Colombia.

A view of coca fields in the mountains of El Patia Municipality, Cauca Department, Colombia.
photo, Raul Arboleda ,Getty Images,

In 2003, the use of the herbicide was constrained under regulations due to harmful health and environmental effects, and its aerial use suspended in 2015Following of the World Health Organization Concerns over its toxicity.

A year later, in 2016, Colombia signed an accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a peasant-led, anti-imperialist guerrilla movement involved in a decades-long fight against the government . Many FARC members were coca growers themselves, and revenue from the sale of the profitable crop sustained the movement, which opposed global agricultural multinationals and advocated wealth redistribution.

The agreement included steps towards the eradication of coca plantations with the cooperation of local farmers. “The peace accord states that voluntary replacement should be preferred as the first means of action, if that fails we proceed to forced manual eradication, and only if that fails we proceed with aerial spraying But we can move forward – the peace accord didn’t stop aerial spraying but it left it as a last resort,” said Isabel Pereira, coordinator of drug policy for Degestesia, a legal and human rights research organization based in Bogota.

In return, the government agreed to support local farmers. Search Alternate revenue sources, including creating a market for other crops. Yet of the 90,000 families who signed up to receive government aid to move out of coca production, only 3% received the money and support they needed, Pereira said. For the rest, starting new coca plantations next to those destroyed by glyphosate was the only option to support their families, as was the case during the conflict.

So in 2018, in part due to international pressureSpecifically from the US, the government announced its intention to resume spraying in 2020. Although a court ruled that local community had to attend In the decision, and the pandemic temporarily halting spraying, there is no guarantee that the herbicide will not once again become an anti-coca weapon.

House with a mural in support of the FARC

Agreement with FARC was not enough to eliminate coca production
photo, Daniel Munoz ,Getty Images,

Why the destruction of coca crops is bound to fail

Pereira said that destroying coca farms is only a temporary band-aid when the communities that grow them are not offered a viable alternative. “Coca can be transported very easily, has a fixed buyer, a fixed rate, can be sold at a good price as it goes to the international market, has an added value—and all these elements combined that bring a decent income,” Pereira said. Not many other crops offer the same access to a well-paying international market, and it’s even more difficult to find products that are easy to transport.

Some options may be effective in the short term: for example, payments for ecosystem services – government payments to farmers who use their land to provide some ecological protection – or carbon bonuses. But ultimately, these solutions cannot provide the financial sustainability of coca crops. “We need to open the conversation about legalization,” Pereira said. “As long as this remains an unregulated, illegal and highly profitable market, there will be nothing that can compete in terms of income, in terms of stability, in terms of making a living for these families – and an international market, this is something that almost no other agricultural product has.”


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