The Miami Herald
November 29, 2001

Cease aerial spraying, U.S. told

Effort targets cocoa crops in Colombia


WASHINGTON -- One of the world's largest environmental groups is calling on the U.S. government to cease aerial spraying of herbicide on coca crops in Colombia until it can be determined that eradication effort won't devastate the nation's fragile tropics.

 The U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund made the plea in letters sent to Capitol Hill and the State Department.

 It was the latest sign of unease among environmental groups over the U.S. policy of spraying herbicide on coca plants in a South American nation that harbors some of the world's most diverse plant and animal life.

 Washington has made aerial eradication a key part of a massive aid program to Colombia designed to cripple the illicit drug trade and undercut the finances of several guerrilla groups seriously destabilizing the nation.

 ``We remain alarmed about the potential, long-term, devastating consequences on the Colombian environment, one of [the] most biologically rich places on the planet,'' World Wildlife Fund Vice President William Eichbaum said in a letter dated Nov. 21 to Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. The letter was made public Wednesday.

 The World Wildlife Fund has 5.5 million members worldwide and offices in more than 100 countries, making it arguably the largest environmental group anywhere.

 ``We're reviewing the letter from the World Wildlife Fund, and we take their concerns very seriously,'' said a State Department official who asked not to be identified. ``We haven't seen any evidence up to now that demonstrates definitively that the mixture we spray, under the conditions that we spray it, causes significant damage to human health or the environment.''

 Through Nov. 22, pilots had dropped herbicide on 190,504 acres of coca bushes in Colombia's lowland regions this year, she said.

 In his letter, Eichbaum voiced concern that winds would cause the herbicide, glyphosate, to drift away from coca fields, or wash into nearby streams and rivers.

 ``Defoliated areas will be subject to increased erosion under the heavy rainfall conditions common to the sprayed areas, and river systems may carry glyphosate to
 non-target regions, even neighboring countries,'' Eichbaum wrote.

 U.S. officials frequently argue that damage caused by the herbicide is far less than devastation provoked by drug traffickers and coca growers themselves.

 ``Over the past 20 years, coca cultivation in the Andean region has resulted in the destruction of at least 5.9 million acres of rainforest -- an area larger than the states of Maryland and Massachusetts combined,'' a State Department fact sheet states. It adds that traffickers have dumped ``more than one million tons'' of chemicals into Colombia's ecosystems since the mid-1980s. The chemicals are used to process coca leaves into cocaine.

                                    © 2001