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June 20, 1998

Colombia to Test Herbicide Against Coca Crops


BOGOTA, Colombia -- Bowing to demands from Washington, the Colombian government has agreed to test a granular herbicide to kill coca crops, despite public warnings from the chemical's American manufacturer against its use in Colombia.

In the United States, the herbicide, tebuthiuron, is used mostly to control weeds on railroad beds and under high-voltage lines far away from food crops and people.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires a warning label on the chemical that says it could contaminate ground water, a side effect Colombian environmental officials fear could prevent peasants from growing food where coca once grew.

U.S. officials have decided to concentrate more heavily on treating illegal drug crops with chemicals, particularly in parts of southern Colombia under the control of leftist guerrillas. Those guerrillas have fired on aircraft attempting to spray herbicides on coca crops. But tebuthiuron can be dropped instead of sprayed, making the task easier under such conditions.

The increase in fumigation comes at the expense of other measures to control drug smuggling, a recent U.S. government investigation concluded.

American and Colombian police officials say that a granular herbicide will be more effective in the battle to control drugs. For four years, they have used a liquid toxin, glifosate, that has destroyed only 30 percent of the plants sprayed. Despite the effort, the amount of coca in Colombia has yet to decline, because eradication has prompted farmers to move and plant coca elsewhere. Last year, Colombia became the world's leading coca grower.

American and Colombian authorities also contend that tebuthiuron offers greater protection from gunfire for pilots, who must now fly low to fumigate in the early morning hours, when winds are calm and temperatures are lower. Tebuthiuron pellets can be dropped from higher altitudes in virtually any weather, making pilots less vulnerable to gunfire, police officials here said. Washington has lobbied Andean governments to accept tebuthiuron for more than a decade, even though the chemical's manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co., strongly opposes its use in Colombia. "Tebuthiuron is not labeled for use on any crops in Colombia, and it is our desire that the product not be used for coca eradication as well," the company said in a statement.

Tebuthiuron granules, sold commercially as Spike 20P, should be used "carefully and in controlled situations," Dow cautioned, because "it can be very risky in situations where terrain has slopes, rainfall is significant, desirable plants are nearby and application is made under less than ideal circumstances."

The warning is a rough description of conditions in Colombia's coca growing regions. Dow, which faced years of lawsuits and public protest over the use of its Agent Orange defoliant during the Vietnam war, said that if approached, it would refuse to sell tebuthiuron for use in Colombia. However, American officials note Dow's patent on the chemical has expired, allowing others to make it legally.

Critics in Colombia, including Eduardo Verano, the nation's environmental minister, say the health effects of tebuthiuron on farming areas are unknown, and its use will only increase deforestation by pushing coca growers deeper into forest.

"We need to reconsider the benefits of the chemical war," said Verano. "The more you fumigate, the more the farmers plant. If you fumigate one hectare, they'll grow coca on two more. How else do you explain the figures?"

American officials, backed by Colombian police, maintain the benefits outweigh the environmental risks. The liquid herbicide used now, at a cost of millions of dollars to the United States, has mostly been washed away in the heavy rainfall of the Amazon, said Luiz Eduardo Parra, environmental auditor of Colombia's anti-narcotics squad.

The American ambassador to Colombia, Curtis Kamman, said, "For a net environmental positive effect, getting rid of coca is the best course for Colombia." Research in Hawaii, Panama and Peru by the U.S. Agriculture Department concluded that tebuthiuron would persist in Colombian soil for less than a year.

Where once the United States concentrated on arresting drug barons, smashing their organizations and seizing their wealth, the new strategy involves greater fumigation and the interception of boats that may be carrying drugs or chemicals needed to make cocaine from the coca.

In March, the State Department's acting assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, Rand Beers, outlined a plan to increase fumigation in the southern provinces of Caqueta and Putumayo, and asked Congress to pump $21 million more into the $30 million counter-narcotics budget for Colombia this year.

He said that drug traffickers made a strategic decision to grow coca in Southern Colombia because of American success in blocking Peruvian drug planes that fly raw paste to Colombia where it it is made into cocaine. The United States must seize the opportunity to prevent Colombian-grown coca from taking its place, he told Congress.

But U.S. intelligence analysts say these statements exaggerate the victory at intercepting drug planes, and that coca base is still reaching Colombia from Bolivia and Peru. According to U.S. government figures, 78 percent of the cocaine leaving Colombia is made from coca grown elsewhere.

The General Accounting Office, in a February 1998 report, concluded that a dramatic increase in coca fumigation and drug interception in Colombia was ill-planned, and shortchanged other anti-narcotics programs.

While coca fumigation of rebel-held areas is a subject of heated debate here, one point is not in dispute.

The new strategy draws the Colombian military into the war on drugs in an unprecedented way, while sharpening American attention on the main concern of the Colombian military: its longstanding war with leftist rebels, particularly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's oldest and strongest insurgency.

The growing strength of the FARC rebels, who advocate nationalization of Colombia's oil and other natural resources, has become a serious concern in Washington.

Colombian officials say a turning point in their estimation of the rebels' strength occurred two years ago, when coca farmers in Southern Colombia battled security forces over government efforts to ration cement and gasoline which are used to make coca paste. The demonstrations were taken as a barometer of the growers' potential support for the rebels.

"The FARC is their party, their benefactor," said one American intelligence analyst. "The kind of thing you want to do is go after the rebels' base of support."

But Col. Leonardo Gallego, counter-narcotics chief of the Colombian National Police, denied that increased fumigation was part of any plan to strike at the guerrillas. The "primary objective" was destroying coca and recovering the environment destroyed through coca farming, he said. "Whatever other goals are achieved through these operations is completely secondary, and would be solely the result of any ties between guerrillas and growers," said Gallego.

Leonardo Garcia, nom de guerre of a member of the FARC's international commission, vowed that intensive eradication in the group's strongholds would lead to open warfare. U.S. intelligence analysts estimate the FARC collects upwards of $100 million a year in commissions from the drug business, but Garcia contended that the rebels supported the growers out of political necessity alone. He acknowledged that the guerrillas collect commissions from the drug trade but said they also do so from other sectors of the economy, including banana and coffee growers.

"The campesino has the right to defend himself and to defend the only thing he has to survive on -- his plot of land," Garcia said. "People themselves go in search of weapons. So what can we do? We're going to fight."

Parra, of the Colombian police, argues that the damage that occurs when peasants clear rain forest and mountain areas to grow coca and opium poppies far outweigh whatever harm tebuthiuron may represent.

But Verano, the environmental minister, argues that the solution may be worse than the problem, and suggests the U.S. government should control the export of excessive amounts of chemicals like ether, acetone, cement and gasoline. It takes some 155,000 tons of these materials to process coca in Colombia, less than 6 percent of which were seized by Colombian police last year, Verano said.

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