Biden Criticized for Supporting a ‘Misguided’ Plan to Poison Colombia’s Coca Fields

Colombia insists the aerial spraying of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine, is the best option in the war on drugs. More than 150 experts say it can cause serious health problems and environmental destruction.
March 19, 2021, 3:55pm
U.S. President Joe Biden supports Colombia's decision to restart the aerial spraying of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, in an effort to fight the war on drugs.
U.S. President Joe Biden supports Colombia's decision to restart the aerial spraying of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, in an effort to fight the war on drugs. Photos by Getty Images

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia wants to restart the toxic aerial spraying of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine, as early as next month—drawing support from U.S. President Joe Biden and sharp criticism from experts. 

Earlier this month, Biden’s administration celebrated Colombia’s decision to restart aerial eradication of coca in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report

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Colombian President Ivan Duque insists it’s the best option in the country’s war on drugs. 

More than 150 experts on drugs, security, and environmental policy in the region have written an open letter to Biden, saying Duque’s spraying campaign is “misguided” and Biden’s decision “could not have come at a worse time.” 

“The recently announced decision sends an unfortunate message to the Colombian people that your administration is not committed to abandoning the ineffective and damaging war on drugs internationally, even as your administration takes bold steps to mitigate its multiple impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States,” says the letter, spearheaded by the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs at the Bogotá-based Los Andes University. 

The experts point to how aerial spraying with glyphosate can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, miscarriages, and respiratory illness, and environmental destruction—biodiversity loss, soil damage, and contamination of water sources.

They also highlight that aerial spraying is ineffective at eliminating coca crops. “Studies have shown that crops exposed to glyphosate are subsequently replanted with a probability of 36 percent,” the letter says. 

For decades, the U.S. has funded eradication efforts, in a bid to lower the cultivation of coca plants and curb the amounts of cocaine arriving on U.S. soil. Glyphosate, better known in the U.S. as the main ingredient in Roundup, was sprayed on coca plants in Colombia throughout the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

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But less was known then about the serious health and environmental implications. Today, glyphosate is banned or restricted in around 20 countries, including Vietnam, France, and Italy, and the World Health Organization (WHO) currently lists it “as a probable human carcinogen.”

Furore from rural farmers who claim glyphosate destroys their fertile lands and a warning from the WHO on its potential health implications ground spraying to a halt in 2015—a Colombian court asked then-President Juan Manuel Santos to take precautionary measures to protect remote farming communities that grow coca.

But when Duque was elected in 2018, he vowed to eliminate 50 percent of the country’s illegal crops by 2023, with Trump’s full support.

“By backing fumigation, your administration is implicitly endorsing former President Trump’s damaging legacy in Colombia,” the letter says. “It was your predecessor who, shortly after taking office, intensified demands on our country to resume spraying with glyphosate, which has been shown to pose significant health and environmental risks to affected populations.”

Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, said spraying could resume as early as April, but there will be a court process to ensure it is carried out by the military safely. 

Biden’s decision could jeopardize the implementation of the peace accords, Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Rosario University who signed the letter, told VICE World News. 

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Signed in 2016 between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and the government, the polarizing peace deal brought an end to 50 years of armed conflict. But since the signing, new illegal groups have emerged and vie for control for areas the FARC once governed, some forcing rural communities to cultivate coca. 

Aerial fumigation “affects vulnerable communities in marginalized rural areas, and has the potential for worsening social conflict and violence,” Tickner said. 

Political analyst Ariel Avila said Biden’s support is not a surprise given that the U.S. drug policy in Colombia has not changed for decades. 

“What surprises me is that there are people who think the change in president means there was going to be a change in policy,” he said. 

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group said spraying coca plants could exacerbate violence in rural areas by further coercing farmers into the clutches of armed actors, without much of an impact on the cease of coca planting. 

The report says boosting rural economies, forging ahead with crop substitution programmes, and avoiding clashes with cultivators are some alternatives. 

Already, in light of the peace agreement, the government has made voluntary pacts with coca growers to transition towards other sources of livelihood. 

“Studies indicate that in cases in which eradication takes place voluntarily, the rates of replanting are extremely low, whereas in contexts of forced eradication they tend to skyrocket,” Tickner said.

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There have also been suggestions to develop legal products from coca, like what is happening globally with cannabis, to create more opportunities for impoverished rural farmers. 

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE World News restarting spraying is “a bad idea” from a human rights, public health, and drug policy perspective. 

“Many peasants grow coca because it is their only profitable crop, given weak local food markets, inadequate roads, and lack of formal land titles,” he said. 

“Sustainable progress in reducing coca production can only be achieved by ensuring that farmers have a profitable alternative. And there’s no amount of glyphosate that can achieve that.” 

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