Agent Orange, All Over Again

EPA Stalled Resolution on Spraying in Colombia

For critics, the need for some kind of check is clear. "We demonstrated concern over Roundup that was being used without warning or telling people what was in it," Saldamando recalled. "There is a lack of public awareness in the U.S. and especially in Colombia. Children become sick and adults start getting rashes."

Plan Colombia has a short but dubious history. In 1999, the General Accounting Office concluded that "U.S. and Colombian efforts to eradicate enough coca and opium poppy to reduce the net cultivation of these crops have not succeeded to date." Despite fumigating 65,938 hectares of Colombian coca in 1998, the office wrote, the total number of hectares of coca under cultivation in Colombia grew from 101,800 to 122,500.

Defoliation merely sends production elsewhere. Successful eradication programs in Bolivia and Peru in the 1990s led to a sharp rise in production in Colombia. "The pattern has been that fumigation 'chases' coca cultivation from one area to another, while overall cultivation levels rise," noted a report last month from the Washington Office on Latin America. Fumigation does result in a short-term increase in coca prices, but, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, hasn't caused any change in the price of cocaine in the U.S. And while the military aspects of the plan have been in full effect, promised alternative assistance to farmers has not begun, the report said.

Democratic congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who represents the Chicago suburbs, is offering a measure—along with Democrats John Conyers of Detroit and Cynthia McKinney of suburban Atlanta—to stop funding for the fumigation project. In February, Schakowsky took a fact-finding mission to Putumayo Province, where she met with health ministers, governors, mayors, and police, all of whom reported Roundup's devastating effects.

"People told of rashes and intestinal problems," Schakowsky said. "There is an increasing number of internally displaced humans. It has destroyed legal crops and livelihood."

As for the overall effectiveness of the program, said the congresswoman, "We've seen no change in the availability or price of cocaine. Coca production simply moves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if demand is strong you move your operation. Fumigation is never going to get ahead of that."

Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson and Sandra Bisin

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