March 25, 2004

Colombia drops plan to fumigate drug crops

Herbicides will be last resort inside nature reserves

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Faced with an outcry from environmentalists, the Colombian government suspended plans to use spray planes to fumigate drug crops in the country's spectacular nature reserves.

Environment Minister Sandra Suarez said Wednesday that authorities will instead try to destroy coca and opium fields in national parks by hand, and only if the effort fails will they consider resorting to herbicides.

The decision comes after environmental groups warned that aerial fumigation could cause irreparable damage to Colombia's scenic treasures.

Suarez, however, denounced illegal armed groups and drug traffickers for sowing drug crops inside the parks, saying valuable fauna and flora are destroyed in the process.

In December 2002, authorities estimated there was a total of 4,517 hectares (11,157 acres) of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, inside Colombia's 49 national parks, which cover 9.25 million hectares (22.8 million acres) of mainly jungle-covered mountains and tropical forests.

The United States this week released a report showing a dramatic 21 percent decline in coca cultivation across Colombia for 2003 thanks to an aggressive, U.S.-backed fumigation campaign.

Plane crashes after chase
Separately, a small plane crashed in northern Colombia Wednesday after a fierce chase by the Colombian air force, killing one of the two occupants, authorities said.

The air force's press office said the plane, believed to be carrying drugs, flew into Colombian airspace near the northern Caribbean coast without permission.

The air force chased the plane, trying to force it to land, before it crashed in a rural area outside San Bernardo del Viento, a town in Cordoba state 530 kilometers (330 miles) north of Bogota, the capital.

Authorities were searching for the pilot, who escaped and was believed to be injured.

The air force has vowed to stop suspected smugglers now that U.S. President George W. Bush has authorized the resumption of U.S. drug surveillance flights over Colombia.

The surveillance flights were suspended more than 2 1/2 years ago after a U.S. missionary plane was mistakenly shot down over Peru. Colombia was unable to continue effective interdiction of drug flights without the U.S. intelligence.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine and a major supplier of heroine to the United States. The drug trade is mainly controlled by leftist rebels and their right-wing paramilitary foes who use the profits to fund their operations in the nation's 40-year civil war.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.