US lies like in Vietnam

Chris Brady chris_brady at
Sun May 14 03:14:26 MDT 2000

Please pay particular attention to the US Govt. representative's words
about the harmlessness of a certain herbicide:

To Colombians, Drug War Is a Toxic Foe
New York Times, May 1, 2000

RIOBLANCO DE SOTARÁ, Colombia – The children and their teachers were in
the schoolyard,  they say, playing soccer and basketball and waiting
for  classes to begin when the crop-duster appeared. At first  they
waved, but as the plane drew closer and a gray  mist began to stream
from its wings, alarmed teachers  rushed the pupils to their classrooms.

 Over the next two weeks,  a fleet of counternarcotics  planes taking
part in an  American-sponsored  program to eradicate  heroin poppy
cultivation  returned here repeatedly.  Time and time again,  residents
charge, the  government planes also  sprayed buildings and  fields that
were not  supposed to be targets,  damaging residents' health  and

 "The pilot was flying low, so there is no way he could  not have seen
those children," said Nidia Majín,  principal of the La Floresta rural
elementary school,  whose 70 pupils were sprayed that Monday morning
last June. "We had no way to give them first aid, so I  sent them home.
But they had to cross fields and  streams that had also been
contaminated, so some of  them got sick."

 In fact, say leaders of this remote Yanacona Indian  village high in
the Andes, dozens of other residents also  became ill during the
spraying campaign, complaining  of nausea, dizziness, vomiting, rashes,
blurred vision  and ear and stomach aches. They say the spraying also
damaged legitimate crops, undermining government  efforts to support
residents who have abandoned poppy  growing.

 Such incidents are not limited to this village of 5,000,  say critics
in Colombia and the United States, but have  occurred in numerous parts
of Colombia and are bound  to increase if the fumigation program is
intensified, as  the Clinton administration is proposing as part of a
$1.6  billion emergency aid package to Colombia.

 Critics say they frequently receive reports of mistakes  and abuses by
the planes' Colombian pilots that both the  American and Colombian
governments choose to  ignore.

 State Department officials deny that indiscriminate  spraying takes
place, with an American Embassy  official in Bogotá describing the
residents' claims of illnesses as "scientifically impossible."

 But to local leaders here the situation brought on by the  spraying
remains one of crisis. "The fumigation was  done in an indiscriminate
and irresponsible manner,  and it did not achieve its objective," said
Iván Alberto  Chicangana, who was the mayor when the spraying  occurred.

 "The damage done to the physical and economic  well-being of this
community has been serious," he  said, "and is going to be very
difficult for us to  overcome."

 He and other local leaders say that people were sick  for several weeks
after the spraying, and in interviews  a few residents complained of
lasting symptoms. Three  fish farms with more than 25,000 rainbow
trout were  destroyed, residents said, and numerous farm animals,
mostly chickens and guinea pigs, died, while others,  including some
cows and horses, fell ill.

 In addition, fields of beans, onions, garlic, potatoes,  corn and other
traditional crops were sprayed, leaving  plants to wither and die. As a
result, community leaders  here say, crop-substitution projects
sponsored by the  Colombian government have been irremediably  damaged
and their participants left impoverished.

 The spraying around this particular village has since  stopped,
residents say, though they fear that it could  resume at any time, and
it continues in neighboring  areas, like nearby Guachicono, and
elsewhere in Colombia.

 Peasants in the coca-growing region of Caquetá,  southeast of here,
last year complained to a reporter  that spray planes had devastated the
crops they had  planted after abandoning coca, and similar reports
have  emerged from Guaviare, another province to the east.

 Indeed, American-financed aerial spraying campaigns  like the one here
have been the principal means by  which the Colombian government has
sought to reduce  coca- and opium-poppy cultivation for nearly a
decade.  The Colombian government fleet has grown to include  65
airplanes and helicopters, which fly every day,  weather permitting,
from three bases. Last year, the  spraying effort resulted in the
of 104,000  acres of coca and 20,000 acres of opium poppy.

 Yet despite such efforts, which have been backed by  more than $150
million in American aid, cocaine and  heroin production in Colombia has
more than doubled  since 1995.

 In an effort to reverse that trend and weaken left-wing  guerrilla and
right-wing paramilitary groups that are  profiting from the drug trade
and threatening the  country's stability, the Clinton administration
is now  urging Congress to approve a new aid package, which  calls for
increased spending on drug eradication as  well as a gigantic increase
for crop-substitution  programs, to $127 million from $5 million.

 Critics, like Elsa Nivia, director of the Colombian  affiliate of the
advocacy organization Pesticide Action  Network, see the eradication
effort as dangerous and  misguided. "These pilots don't care if they
are  fumigating over schools, houses, grazing areas, or  sources of
water," she said in an interview at the  group's headquarters in Cali.

 "Furthermore," she added, "spraying only exacerbates  the drug problem
by destabilizing communities that are  trying to get out of illicit
crops and grow legal  alternatives."

 Those who have been directly affected by the spraying  effort here also
argue that fumigation is  counterproductive. In this cloud-shrouded
region of  waterfalls, rushing rivers, dense forests and deep  mountain
gorges, poppy cultivation was voluntarily  reduced by half between 1997
and 1999, to 250 acres,  said Mr. Chicangana, the former mayor.

 He said it was well on its way to being eliminated  altogether when the
spraying began.

 "We were collaborating, and now people feel betrayed  by the state," he

 "The fumigation disturbs us a bit," said Juan Hugo  Torres, an official
of Plante, the Colombian government  agency supervising
crop-substitution efforts, who  works with farmers here. "You are
building trust
with  people, they have hopes, and then the spraying does  away with all
of that."

 In an interview in Washington, R. Rand Beers, the  American assistant
secretary of state for international  narcotics and law enforcement
affairs, said aerial  spraying flights are strictly monitored and
targets  chosen carefully.

 The fumigation program is designed so that pilots  "shouldn't be
anywhere close to alternative  development projects," he said, since
"officials in the  air and on the ground should be equipped with
positioning devices that pinpoint where  those activities are taking

 "If that happened, the pilot who flew that mission  should be
disciplined," Mr. Beers said in reference to  the specific accusations
made by residents here. "That  shouldn't be happening."

 But the area fumigated here is wind-swept mountain  terrain where
illicit crops and their legal alternatives  grow side by side, making
accurate spraying difficult.  And in some other places, pilots may be
forced to fly  higher than might be advisable, for fear of being shot
at  by the guerrillas, whose war is fueled by the profits of  the drug

 As for the complaints of illness, the American Embassy  official who
supervises the spraying program said in an  interview in Bogotá that
glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide used here, is "less
toxic than  table salt or aspirin." Calling it "the most studied
herbicide in the world," he said it was proven to be  harmless to human
and animal life and called the  villagers' account "scientifically

 "Being sprayed on certainly does not make people  sick," said the
official, "because it is not toxic to human  beings."

 Glyphosate "does not translocate to water" and "leaves  no soil
residue," he added, so "if they are saying  otherwise, to be very honest
with you, they are lying,  and we can prove that scientifically."

 But in an out-of-court settlement in New York state in  1996, Monsanto,
a leading manufacturer of  glyphosate-based herbicides, though not
necessarily  identical to those used here, agreed to withdraw claims
that the product is "safe, nontoxic, harmless or free  from risk." The
company signed a statement agreeing  that its "absolute claims that
Roundup 'will not wash or  leach in the soil' is not accurate" because
glyphosate  "may move through some types of soil under some  conditions
after application."

 In the United States, the Environmental Protection  Agency has approved
glyphosate for most commercial  uses. But the E.P.A.'s own
recertification study  published in 1993 noted that "in California,
physicians are required to report pesticide poisonings,  glyphosate was
ranked third out of the 25 leading  causes of illness or injury due to
pesticides" over a  five-year period in the 1980's, primarily causing
eye and skin irritation.

 In addition, labels on glyphosate products like Roundup  sold in the
United States advise users to "avoid direct  application to any body of
water." Directions also warn  users that they should "not apply this
product in a way  that will contact workers or other persons, either
directly or through drift" and caution that "only  protected handlers
may be in the area during  application."

 The doctor in charge of the local clinic here, Iván  Hernández,
recently was transferred and could not be  reached for comment about the
impact of the spraying  on the health of residents. Gisela Moreno, a
nurse's  aide, refused to speak to a visiting reporter, saying,  "We
have been instructed not to talk to anyone about  what happened here."
When asked the origin of the  order, she replied: "From above, from
higher  authorities."

 Here in Rioblanco de Sotará, half a dozen local people  say they felt
so sick after the spraying that they  undertook a 55-mile bus trip to
San José Hospital in  Popayán, the capital of Cauca Province, for
medical  care. There, they were attended by Dr. Nelson Palechor  Obando,
who said he treated them for the same battery  of symptoms that more
than two dozen residents  described to a reporter independently in
recent  interviews.

 "They complained to me of dizziness, nausea and pain  in the muscles
and joints of their limbs, and some also  had skin rashes," he said. "We
do not have the  scientific means here to prove they suffered
pesticide  poisoning, but the symptoms they displayed were  certainly
consistent with that condition."

 Because this is an area of desperate poverty where  most people eke out
a living from subsistence  agriculture, there is no stigma attached to
growing  heroin poppies, and those who have planted the crop  freely
admit it. Yet even those who claim never to have  cultivated poppies say
that their fields were also  sprayed and their crops destroyed.

 "They fumigated everywhere, with no effort made to  distinguish between
potatoes and poppies," complained  Oscár Cerón, a 32-year-old farmer.
"We could even  hear their radio transmissions on the FM band, with
the  ground command referring to us in a vulgar fashion."

 Other farmers said that the air currents constantly  swirling down from
the 14,885-foot Sotará volcano, on  whose flank this town sits, blew the
herbicide over  fields planted with legal crops.

 "A gust of wind can carry the poison off to adjacent  fields, so that
they end up more badly damaged than the  field that was the original
target, which sometimes is  left completely intact," explained Fernando

 In the United States, glyphosate users are specifically  warned not to
spray by air "when winds are gusty or  under any other condition that
favors drift." Usage  instructions also say that "appropriate buffer
zones must  be maintained" to avoid contaminating surrounding  areas.

 Once word got out about the illnesses that followed the  spraying here,
prices for milk, cheese and other  products that are a mainstay of the
local economy  dropped by more than half. "The rumors are that the
land is contaminated, so we no longer get orders from  outside, and the
middlemen can now name their own  price," said Fabián Omén, a farmer and
town  councilman.

 Worse still, government and private creditors are  nonetheless
demanding that the loans made for  crop-substitution projects like the
fish farms must still  be repaid, even though the enterprises themselves
have  been destroyed.

 Asked about the lack of an integrated policy that  implies, Alba Lucía
Otero, the Plante director for  Cauca Province, expressed frustration.

 "The state is a single entity, but we work on one side  while those
doing the fumigation work on another," she  said. "There should be
coordination, but they take their  decision at the central level, and we
not consulted."

       Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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