25 March 2003
State Department Outlines Aerial Eradication Program in Colombia
(Program designed to kill illegal coca and opium poppy) (2710)
The U.S. State Department has issued a fact sheet detailing frequently
asked questions about the U.S.-supported aerial eradication program in
The March 24 fact sheet explains that the program uses aircraft to
spray a glyphosate-based herbicide mixture on illegal fields of coca
and opium poppy, the source crops for cocaine and heroin.
The following is the text of the fact sheet:
(begin fact sheet)
Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
March 24, 2003
Aerial Eradication of Illicit Crops: Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is the aerial eradication program?
Answer: The aerial eradication program in Colombia is a program of the
Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police
(DIRAN-CNP), supported by the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of the
U.S. Embassy in Bogota. This program uses aircraft to spray a
glyphosate-based herbicide mixture on fields of coca and opium poppy,
which are illegal in Colombia and are the vital ingredients of the
cocaine and heroin trades.
Question: How are spray targets selected?
Answer: The Government of Colombia (GOC) chooses the areas to be
sprayed through an interagency process. The DIRAN reviews information
from a variety of sources and flies over growing regions on a regular
basis to search for new coca and opium poppy growth and to generate
estimates of the illicit crops. These flights target the areas
identified by the Colombian National Police in their estimates of
illicit crops. An aircraft-mounted global positioning computer system
identifies the precise geographical coordinates where those crops are
being grown. A computer program then sets up precise flight lines (the
width of a spray swath) within that area.
The DIRAN decides which areas of the country may not be sprayed and
notifies the NAS Aviation Office. Spraying is conducted only in those
areas that the Government of Colombia has approved. If the DIRAN has
approved spraying in a given area, spray pilots then fly down the
prescribed flight lines set up by the computer program and spray the
crops located there. A light bar mounted on the spray aircraft tells
the pilot if he is more than three feet off the flight line. Although
the pilots fly along a predetermined flight line, they release the
spray only when they have visually identified coca in the flight line.
Question: What is the role of the U.S. Government in the aerial
Answer: The Embassy's NAS Aviation Office supports the Government of
Colombia's aerial eradication program with technical and scientific
advice, herbicide, fuel, spray aircraft, and a limited number of
escort helicopters. The NAS Aviation Office coordinates regular
reconnaissance flights piloted by a Department of State contractor
that also provides maintenance, technical support, and some pilots.
Spray missions are flown by Department of State contractor pilots,
both U.S. citizens and third-country nationals, and Colombians.
Question: What type of environmental monitoring and oversight is
Answer: Environmental monitoring and oversight is conducted by the
Government of Colombia, which contracts an independent Environmental
Auditor to the spray program. This individual reviews spray areas with
the DIRAN and regularly monitors the results of spraying through field
checks and analysis of data from the aircraft-mounted computer system
that records the quantity and location of herbicide released from the
spray nozzles. The Environmental Auditor conducts field checks and
reviews photographs, imagery, and data from the aircraft-mounted
computer system to verify the accuracy of the spray missions and to
check for possible spray drift or overspray. The Environmental Auditor
often accompanies the spray pilots on eradication missions, as does a
representative of the Attorney General's office. In addition, an
August 2000 revision to the Colombian law governing aerial eradication
of illicit crops provided for the creation of an Interinstitutional
Technical Committee of Colombian Government officials, which has an
oversight/advisory function with respect to aerial eradication. This
committee, which is headed by the National Directorate of Dangerous
Drugs (DNE) and includes representatives from the DIRAN, Colombia's
Alternative Development Agency (PNDA), and local and national
environmental agencies, is charged with reviewing and analyzing
information on the effects of aerial eradication on human health and
the environment, and making recommendations on areas to be sprayed.
Question: What chemicals are being used in Colombia for the
eradication of illicit crops?
Answer: The only herbicide used for aerial eradication is a
formulation of glyphosate, the most widely used agricultural chemical
in the world. It is commercially available under many different brands
in Colombia and worldwide. The aerial eradication program uses less
than 13% of the total amount of glyphosate used in Colombia each year.
The majority of the glyphosate used in Colombia is used by local
farmers weed control in crop fields before seeding rice, cotton, corn,
sorghum, barley, and soybeans; for weed control in plantations of
coffee, fruit trees, plantains, bananas, and African palm; as a
maturing agent in the production of sugar cane; and even by growers of
coca and opium poppy to control weeds.
Besides water, the only other product added to the commercial
formulation of glyphosate is Cosmo-Flux 411f, a Colombian-manufactured
surfactant. A surfactant facilitates the dilution of oily substances
in water and therefore helps the glyphosate mixture to penetrate the
waxy outer layer of the coca leaf. Many common household products,
such as shampoo and dishwashing detergents, contain surfactants. A
detergent is by definition a surfactant. In mixing these products
together, the spray program follows the same practices as many legal
agricultural users in Colombia and elsewhere. Cosmo-flux is registered
and sold commercially in Colombia. In addition, the EPA has reviewed
its ingredients and determined that they are the same as those in one
or more pesticide products or formulations registered by the EPA for
use in the U.S. These individual chemical compounds are also exempted
from tolerances of residues on or in human food and livestock feed
crops (40 CFR 180.1001) and cleared by the FDA for use in foods (21
Question: Has glyphosate been tested for environmental safety?
Answer: Yes. Glyphosate has been extensively tested and evaluated in
Colombia, in the United States, and in other countries around the
globe. Worldwide, it is among the most widely used herbicides by
volume and is currently employed in over 100 countries for a variety
of agricultural purposes. Since 1974, after repeated, thorough reviews
of numerous required scientific studies on human health and the
environment, EPA has licensed glyphosate and many of its commercial
formulations for a broad range of agricultural, industrial/forestry,
and residential uses in the U.S. EPA estimates current annual use in
the United States to be 74 million pounds of glyphosate for
agricultural purposes and another 16-22 million pounds for
Question: Does glyphosate harm cattle, chickens, or other farm
Answer: At the concentration used in the spray mixture and the methods
used to apply it, glyphosate is highly unlikely to harm farm animals,
even if an animal were directly exposed to the spray. Glyphosate is
poorly absorbed from the digestive tract and is largely excreted
unchanged by mammals. When received orally or through the skin, it has
a very low acute toxicity. In long-term feeding studies of cows,
chickens, and pigs, levels of glyphosate were undetectable in muscle
tissue, fat, milk, and eggs. See Malik, J., G. Barry and G. Kishore,
"Minireview: The Herbicide Glyphosate," Bio Factors 2(1): 17-25
(1989), and the Extension Toxicology Network website.
Question: Is glyphosate harmful to human beings?
Answer: There are no risks of concern for glyphosate by itself, from
dermal or inhalation routes of exposure, since toxicity is very low.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that glyphosate is
non-carcinogenic and has no effects on reproductive ability or
developmental capacity (see Williams, G.M., Kroes, Rl, and Munro,
I.C., "Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup
and Its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans." Regulatory
Toxicology and Pharmacology 31, No. 2/1 (2000)).
However, due to the presence and quantity of an inert (pesticide
inactive) ingredient in the formulated glyphosate product concentrate,
which was used through most of 2002, there is concern for acute eye
irritation. Program workers who handled (mix and load) this product
concentrate before it was diluted to make the spray solution would
have had the greatest potential for exposure and risk of eye
irritation. At the end of 2002, use of this product was discontinued
and the program began using a different glyphosate product
formulation. Toxicity studies of this product's formula (concentrate)
and the diluted tank mixtures (spray solution) gave results of
significantly lower eye irritation.
Question: Does glyphosate destroy the soil and prevent plant growth?
Answer: Glyphosate enters a plant through contact with its leaves and
only kills plants that are above ground at the time of spraying. In
the soil, glyphosate is quickly broken down by microorganisms into
naturally occurring compounds such as carbon dioxide. Thus the
rejuvenation of plant growth (naturally or through replanting) can
begin immediately after spraying. Glyphosate is commonly used by
farmers worldwide to prepare fields prior to planting and is used by
farmers in Colombia because its application obviates the use of
weeding tools that disturb the soil and cause erosion.
Question: Don't legal crops and other plant life get sprayed, too?
Answer: Legal crops are not deliberately sprayed unless they are
interspersed with illegal crops. Pilots release the spray only after
they have visually identified coca in the flight line. Pilots don't
open the valve to release the glyphosate mixture unless they have
visual confirmation of coca. Food crops do not get sprayed unless they
are intermingled with coca.
Although the Government of Colombia does rely on technology when
coordinating which areas to spray, pilots do not spray fields unless
they see coca growing there.
The GOC uses an aircraft-mounted global positioning computer system to
identify the precise geographical coordinates where illicit crops are
being grown. A computer program then sets up precise flight lines (the
width of a spray swath) within that area.
Because glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide, it would be expected
to be toxic to plants outside the application zone through spray
drift. Several measures are taken to control drift. For instance,
spray missions are cancelled if wind speed at the airport is greater
than 10 M.P.H., if relative humidity is below 75 percent, or if
temperature is over 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) -- to
avoid drift that might come from a temperature inversion.
Question: Does glyphosate contaminate the water where it is sprayed?
Answer: No. Glyphosate bonds tightly to the soil particles and thus is
unlikely to leach into groundwater or contaminate drinking water.
Colombia's aerial eradication operations avoid spraying bodies of
water directly. However, should glyphosate enter water through runoff
or erosion, scientific studies indicate that the half-life would be
about 7 days in flowing water (rivers) and about 12-60 days in ponds
(see Giesy, J.P., Dobson, S., and Solomon, K.R., "Ecotoxicological
Risk Assessment for Roundup Herbicide," Reviews of Environmental
Contamination and Toxicology 167: 35-120 (2000)).
Question: Is glyphosate dangerous for the environment?
Answer: Glyphosate itself is only slightly toxic to wild birds,
practically non-toxic to fish and rapidly decomposes in soil and
Question: If glyphosate is so benign, why are there complaints of
damage from its use in Colombia?
Answer: Many of these reports are based on unverified accounts by
growers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. Because their illegal
livelihoods have been affected by the spraying, these persons do not
offer objective information about the program. Illegal armed groups
are the source of other complaints, since they derive much of their
incomes from illicit crops and have a significant interest in
fomenting opposition to the spray program. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota
investigates all cases of health damage allegedly connected to the
spray program, provided that enough detail is provided to permit an
investigation. Despite numerous investigations, not a single claim of
harm to human health as a result of the spray program has ever been
substantiated. These health problems are more likely to be caused by
bacteria, parasites, and infections endemic in the remote rural areas
where illicit cultivation takes place. Many are also likely caused by
exposure to the other pesticides and processing chemicals used by
growers of illicit crops or by diseases endemic to the regions.
Question: How are complaints about glyphosate investigated?
Answer: The Government of Colombia has implemented procedures for a
more rapid, efficient process for investigating citizens' complaints
that legal crops were sprayed in error. Under the new process,
complaints will first be examined to determine whether computer flight
records indicate that spraying indeed took place in the vicinity on
the specified date. This initial check eliminates many of the claims
and the rest are investigated in the field. Most cases of spraying of
legal crops occur when farmers have planted legal crops within or
adjacent to coca or opium poppy. This practice is illegal and
compensation is not paid for damage to such crops. Although the spray
pilots are experienced and well trained, occasional technical and
human errors are unavoidable, so this compensation process is needed
to provide a fair, rapid means by which Colombian citizens can seek
compensation in these instances.
Question: Is spraying contributing to the deforestation of Colombia?
Answer: Damage from deforestation is wrought by drug cultivators who
must cut down up to four hectares of forest for each hectare of coca
planted, two-and-a-half hectares of forest for each hectare of opium
poppy. Coca and poppy growers then poison the surrounding streams and
soil with the chemicals used in coca cultivation and narcotics
processing. Deforestation is increasing at an alarming rate. It
threatens Colombia's rich biodiversity and sustainable agriculture and
is increasing the potential for natural disasters such as landslides
As indicated above, the spraying of coca and opium poppy fields with
glyphosate does not harm the soil and allows for the rapid
regeneration of native plant species. The aerial eradication program
in Colombia, applies glyphosate to fields of coca and opium poppy that
have been carved out of the jungle. Spraying a single-crop field in a
way that does not harm the soil in fact encourages the natural
reintroduction of native species and increases diversity. Aerial
eradication, combined with alternative development, discourages the
cultivation of illicit crops and thereby slows the rate of
Question: Why doesn't the United States Government fund alternative
development programs in Colombia instead of spraying illegal crops?
Answer: The U.S. Government is the largest donor to alternative
development programs in Colombia, including crop substitution where
appropriate, infrastructure construction, environmentally responsible
agro-forestry initiatives. Alternative development is an essential
part of the solution to the world's illegal drug problem and the U.S.
is working closely with Colombia's national plan for alternative
development (PNDA). Because democracy and human rights protection are
necessary for peace and economic development in Colombia, USAID
assistance also includes, among other things, funding for houses of
justice (casas de justicia) and assistance to Internally Displaced
Persons (IDPs), people forced to leave their homes for other areas of
Colombia because of armed conflict. In all, USAID assistance to
Colombia in FY02 came to $105 million.
Question: Doesn't the spray program hurt the small farmer who has no
other way of earning a living?
Answer: Most coca cultivation in Colombia takes place on a large-scale
basis, but smaller fields are often financed by narcotraffickers and
are equally illegal. Many Colombians presently suffer from severe
economic hardship. This unfortunate fact should not be used by anybody
as an excuse to pursue a livelihood that is unlawful, environmentally
destructive, and causes further harm to the nation of Colombia.
Colombian coca growers are not simply innocent farmers who produce an
agricultural product that somebody far away turns into a deadly drug;
they are in fact actively engaged in drug production at field-side
Furthermore, the illegal drug trade contributes to economic
destabilization in Colombia by supporting the terrorist groups that
cause great harm to the country and development in rural zones in
(end fact sheet)
(end fact sheet)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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