Ecuador Finds the Courage to “Just Say No”

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  • Anger grows as Bogotá resumes counter-narcotic aerial spraying programs along its border with Ecuador in spite of protests from Quito
  • Iran’s President Mahoud Ahmadinejad and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela attend Ecuadorian presidential inauguration of left-leaning Rafael Correa, as “Pink Tide” wins one more recruit
  • Allegations made that the methods and chemicals used in the fumigation programs are likely to be dangerous despite U.S. and Colombian assertions to the contrary

Throughout December of 2006, tensions began to flare between Ecuador and Colombia over the latter’s continued policy of sanctioning aerially-dispersed defoliants as a means to destroy narcotic crops along the two countries’ shared border. Ecuador, along with several other nations and non-governmental organizations, has repeatedly asserted that the powerful chemicals and the purported reckless methods of their dispersal pose a serious danger to the environment, essential crops, and human health in areas where they are used.

Tensions over such fumigations are not new. In 2005, Quito requested that Bogotá no longer allow the controversial flights, which come from Colombian bases but are directed to targets selected by the United States. The dispersal techniques currently used allow the fumigants to periodically, depending on weather conditions, drift onto farms and populations on Ecuador’s side of the border. On December 7 of that year, the two countries came to an agreement which created a six mile “buffer zone” between areas scheduled to be fumigated and the Ecuadorian border.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”
However, in spite of what appeared at the time to be an equitable diplomatic solution, Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe Vélez saw fit near the end of 2006 – due either to pressures from the United States or personal stubbornness – to allow aerial defoliations in the border area to resume, resulting in some coming as close as 330 feet from the common border. Not surprisingly, Ecuador’s newly inaugurated President Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado responded by expressing his dissatisfaction and called the renewed flights “a hostile act by Colombia against Ecuador.” Quito’s frustration, over what it sees as a blatant insult, even led Foreign Minister Francisco Carrión to recall Ambassador Alejandro Suárez from Bogotá in “a display of protest.” On January 11, 2007, some progress was made when an agreement was reached in which Colombia settled to notify Ecuador prior to any fumigations being scheduled to take place close to the border. However, the deal fails to match the comprehensiveness of the December 2005 agreement and was criticized by Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Carrión, who referred to it as a “backwards step.”

Ecuador’s protests have been overwhelmingly supported by left-leaning, “Pink Tide” nations like Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, and even centrist Peru. As a result the conflict has been erroneously painted by some as a quarrel between pro and anti-U.S. regimes. This suspicion has been aided by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s ardent condemnation of the fumigation program and the recent attendance by Iran’s president, Mahoud Ahmadinejad, of President Correa’s inauguration. These, coupled with Correa’s nationalistic inaugural address, in which he promised to remove the U.S. military base at Manta and to focus national funds on poverty relief rather than the repaying of foreign debt, have strengthened the belief by some that Quito’s protestations against Bogotá are merely a ruse meant to stir disapproval of U.S. drug policies in the region. But after examining the grievances vented by Ecuador, one can reasonably conclude that the objections raised are both tenable and apolitical.

Chemical Warfare
Ecuador and those outside the country who are sympathetic to its position have commonly voiced the concern that there is a tendency for aerially-dispersed herbicides to be unintentionally carried off course by air currents away from their intended targets and onto areas dedicated to legal crops. Drift, as it is commonly referred to, is especially hazardous in this case because the chemicals used in the fumigations are designed to indiscriminately kill any plant with which they come into contact. This can, of course, be perilous for campesinos living inauspiciously close to targeted areas. These small-scale subsistence farmers, who usually live in near penury, rely completely upon their crops for their survival and cannot be expected to recover easily, or at all, from losing a dramatically large portion of their livelihood as a result of adventitious sprayings. During a visit to Washington in order to plead for an end to the fumigations, the Colombian indigenous leader José Francisco Tenorio cried out to his audience:

Our legal crops—our only sustenance–…have been fumigated. Our sources of water, creeks, rivers, lakes, have been poisoned, killing our fish and other living things. Today, hunger is our daily bread. In the name of the Amazonian Indigenous people I ask that the fumigations be immediately suspended.

The risk of pain and adversity is sadly compounded by the pernicious effects to human health that many specialists attribute to the questionable defoliation programs.

Serious accusations concerning the jeopardy to those living in areas which are being fumigated have become commonplace. These have been underlined by claims made by scientific, humanitarian, and environmental groups that exposure to the defoliants employed in such sprayings may lead to “gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. severe bleeding, nausea, and vomiting), testicular inflammation, high fevers, dizziness, respiratory ailments, skin rashes, …severe eye irritation” and possible birth defects or miscarriages. These dangers have been anecdotally corroborated by copious complaints filed by affected populations.

In addition to the risks of direct exposure, recent studies have posited that the consumption of food exposed to or grown in fields that had earlier been sprayed with the chemicals under discussion may also be leading to considerable health problems. This comes as a result of a propensity of the fumigants to linger in agricultural soil and leave measurable residues on crops . These leftover deposits and the herbicide’s indiscriminate destruction of plant life can also have a widespread effect on the local environment. In addition to the plausible fears that drift or accidental sprayings may adulterate fresh water sources, there are good grounds to be apprehensive over the grievous impacts on animal species relying upon certain plants or levels of biodiversity .

In addition to concerns over the defoliant’s active ingredient, glyphosate, repeated accusations have been made regarding the additives with which it is mixed. Though there have been credible concerns voiced that the concentrations of glyphosate used in Colombia are dangerously potent, glyphosate has been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency as well as by its manufacturer and has been shown to cause little harm to people when properly applied. However, the surfactant Cosmo-Flux 411f, which in Colombia is routinely added to the glyphosate-based herbicide, has only had its ingredients speculatively examined and remains unregistered with the EPA. In fact, the EPA was not even provided with and did not study concentrations in the spray mixture as a whole. As Dr. Milton Guzman, the Public Health Director in the provincial capital of Popayán, describes, the danger is that Cosmo-Flux 411f is used for its highly corrosive properties that help the glyphosate penetrate the waxy protective coating on plant leaves. But, as Guzman asserts, this property potentially gives the defoliant the same ability to adversely affect human skin . Concern over the possible dangers of Cosmo-Flux 411f prompted the British multinational Imperial Chemical Industries, a supplier of one of Cosmo-Flux 411f’s ingredients, to announce in 2001 that it would terminate its involvement in the chemical’s manufacture as a precaution against being associated with U.S./Colombian fumigation campaigns.

Real Men Don’t Use Directions
Pushing to the side any suspicions that the chemicals being used are dangerous, the U.S. Department of State and Colombian officials continue to insist that the herbicidal mixtures they employ are safe. But this belief is based on rather optimistic assumptions that the chemicals are being used properly. Proponents of the ingredients often cite a State Department report on the safety of the fumigation program which argues that the chemicals that are used “are acceptable provided that the labeled instructions…are followed” . Unfortunately, the care taken to follow these regulatory controls is not always a reliable axiom.

The ineptitude or the ignorance of those who conduct and run these fumigation programs has led to the systematic violation of proper procedures mandated by the EPA. For example, in spite of the directive that aerial fumigations should occur no higher than three meters above the highest ground-level plant, fumigants have been regularly observed being laid down by planes flying as high as fifteen meters above the crops. Though this excessive altitude could have been the result of a pilot responding to hostile gun fire from the ground , the decision to continue the fumigations under all of the circumstances shows a blatant, if not criminal, disregard for the rules to which the State Department and the Colombian Government have proudly pointed to.

No End, Save Embarrassment
Most appallingly, these potent herbicides may accidentally be applied directly, or drift onto individuals unfortunate enough to live near, or be working in, fields that are being fumigated. The State Department rationalizes this as unfortunate “collateral damage” by suggesting that in order to prevent the illicit crops from being covered over or removed before the sprayings can take place, the herbicides must be dispersed without any prior warning. This cynical line of reasoning focuses primarily on narrow U.S. interests and ignores the EPA’s clear instructions not to “apply [these herbicides] in a way that will contact workers or other persons.” With gross violations of regulations regularly occurring, arguments which rely upon the correct use of the herbicides are no longer sufficient.

After comprehending the potentially dangerous nature of the defoliant’s chemical mixture as well as the alarming infractions regarding safety regulations, Ecuador’s, and for that matter the world’s, apprehension over the use of these fumigations becomes entirely reasonable. Dismissing Ecuador’s protests as a knee-jerk reaction by the political left aimed at subverting U.S. influence ignores essential facts. Even if Washington’s shortsighted counter-narcotic policies are called into question, blame will only rest with the U.S. and its perfunctory anti-drug strategies. In fact, a reconsideration of the United States’ ineffective and expensive supply-side drug reduction strategy would be of tremendous benefit to citizens of the entire hemisphere. However, even in the face of damning evidence, the likelihood of any change in Washington’s methods is unlikely. The unfortunate truth is that, no matter how many people are hurt or tax dollars wasted, “staying the course” will likely continue to define the current White House’s approach to the fictional as well as real wars it appears to be losing.