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Scientists Challenge Claims of US State Department that Aerial Eradication in Colombia is Safe for Humans and the Environment

Independent reviews of State Department report released
September 30, 2002
Washington, DC —

Today scientists and advocacy groups released six independent reviews that challenge claims made in the U.S. State Department's recent report on the aerial coca eradication program in Colombia. The State Department report was submitted to Congress on September 4th to comply with requirements in the 2002 foreign appropriations act. The scientists' reviews assert that the State Department report in no way demonstrates the health and environmental safety of the coca eradication program, but rather that it underscores the risks and uncertainties associated with the program and fails to adequately assess the potential impacts to humans and the environment.

The findings also detail how the State Department report does not satisfy the conditions it is required to meet under the 2002 foreign appropriations act. These conditions specify that the State Department cannot purchase additional chemicals for the aerial eradication program until it reports to Congress that the program is carried out in accordance with US regulatory controls and Colombian law; that the spraying causes no unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment; that alternative development programs are in place in sprayed areas; and that a system is in place to evaluate citizens' claims of health harms or damage to legal food crops, and provide compensation for meritorious claims. In determining compliance with several of the conditions, the State Department relied on an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, included in the report.

Members of Congress in charge of evaluating compliance with the conditions are now examining the State Department report to determine if the agency complied with the law and can purchase additional chemicals for the spraying program. The scientists' reviews, which were distributed to these lawmakers, provide strong evidence that the report does not meet the conditions of the law. Rather, the findings reveal that the State Department report repeatedly fails to assess the potential risks and effects from the aerial spraying program.

According to Ivette Perfecto, PhD, Professor of Tropical Ecology at the University of Michigan (734-764-1433, perfecto@umich.edu) "Colombia is a global biodiversity hotspot and one-third of its reported plant species are not found anywhere else in the world. Yet, the EPA analysis does not examine potential risks to these species unique to Colombia, nor does it examine the potential impacts on endangered species in the affected regions."

"It is impossible for the State Department to report that there are no unacceptable adverse impacts associated with the eradication program without first conducting a thorough analysis of all potential impacts," said Anna Cederstav, PhD, Staff Scientist with Earthjustice and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (510-550-6700, aceder@earthjustice.org). "Such an analysis would have to consider harms from the continual relocation of coca fields after crops have been destroyed, and the resulting increase in deforestation and opening of new forest regions to settlement. It appears that this impact has been ignored to date. This is a grave and unacceptable omission."

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director at the Science and Environmental Health Network (978-462-4092, tschettler@igc.org) reported, "In each of the categories for risk assessment, EPA's analysis fails to provide essential information. Most notably, the toxicity of the herbicide mixture is never fully assessed, and the analysis of human exposure is based on unwarranted assumptions about compliance with safety protocols. Without a detailed evaluation of exposures as well as the toxicity of the substance being used, an investigation of the spraying program is seriously flawed."

Janet Chernela, PhD, Chair of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association (305-758-3938) further criticized the report for failing to consider the health and cultural impacts to the more than fifty-eight indigenous peoples living in the tropical lowlands affected by the aerial coca eradication. "These nations have lived in their territories for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of years. Displacement caused by herbicidal spraying and violence seriously threatens the rights of aboriginal peoples to inhabit lands belonging to them; it also brings about social and economic disruption affecting every aspect of life."

"Specifically in the case of indigenous peoples, any program funded by Congress that increases these forced migrations and subsequent cultural ruptures should be considered to be producing "adverse effects to humans," stated Jean Jackson, PhD, Professor of Anthropology and Head at M.I.T. (617-253-6953).

The scientists and advocacy groups also found that a number of concerns that EPA raised in their analysis were minimized or ignored in the final State Department report to Congress. "The State Department report glosses over, downplays, or simply ignores many of the concerns and uncertainties emphasized by EPA in its analysis of the aerial coca eradication program," said Jim Oldham, Amazon Project Director at the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (413-559-5692, jbons@helios.hampshire.edu). "The result is a presentation that seems designed to mislead readers and -- through exaggerations and incomplete summaries -- to obscure the manifold problems associated with the eradication program."

Anna Cederstav illustrated this point by noting "EPA concludes that there is a risk of spray drift affecting and killing 50% of young plants up to 600 feet downwind of the sprayed area. While the State Department argues that actual drift affects much smaller areas than estimated by EPA modeling, it provides no data to support its assertion. Per the EPA model, the area impacted by drift in a worse-case scenario would be approximately equal to the area being sprayed. If the US government meets its goal of killing 300,000 acres of coca this year, that means that up to 300,000 acres of tropical forest habitat and/or food crops could be damaged or destroyed purely as a result of drift. This is clearly an unacceptable adverse environmental impact."

Rachel Massey, a research fellow with the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (617-627-6793, rachel.massey@tufts.edu), expressed similar concerns. "The EPA openly states that it has little experience with tropical flora and fauna and that its ecological tests are based solely on North American species and ecosystems. The EPA further stresses that none of the ecological studies it reviewed were based on the actual herbicide formulation they are using in Colombia. EPA says it cannot evaluate ecological hazards of the spraying due to lack of data. Given EPA's concerns, on what basis can the State Department claim it has demonstrated ecological safety?"

According to Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group (202-546-7010, lisah@lawg.org), the State Department report also fails to prove compliance with congressional conditions on compensation and alternative development. "Aerial spraying, whether through drift, accident or intention, is destroying the food crops of farmers who have agreed to eradicate drug crops and, even worse, of farmers and indigenous communities who are innocent of drug production. The compensation system required by Congress exists on paper, but not in practice. Of 1,000 claims filed by Colombian farmers for damages, 800 were dismissed sight unseen, and the only claim determined to be valid has not yet been paid."

"Plan Colombia was sold to the US Congress as a balanced package, with alternative development aid to help farmers transition to legal crops. Yet those programs lag shamefully behind, while spraying expands exponentially. The State Department's report cynically interprets the Congress's attempt to strike a balance between alternative development and aerial spraying so that a development project of any size in a given province gives the green light to spray the entire province."

For the independent reviews by scientists and advocacy organizations, see http://www.amazonalliance.org/scientific/scientific1.htm

For the Department of State "Report on Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia, see http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/rpt/aeicc/

Contacts

Anna Cederstav, Earthjustice, 510-550-6725, aceder@earthjustice.org

Betsy Marsh, Amazon Alliance, 202-785-3334, betsy@amazonalliance.org

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