U.S. policy against drugs hits wrong target

P By Claire Kirchhoff

part of the Plan Colombia legislation passed under the Bill Clinton administration includes crop fumigation as a tactic in the U.S. government’s “war on drugs.” Briefly, this aspect of Plan Colombia entails spraying coca fields with pesticides to kill the crop. Coca is the plant from which cocaine can be derived. Several flaws exist in this plan, which adversely affect both the Colombian people and the so-called drug war.

Crop-dusting planes fumigate with a more powerful concentrate of the commercially available Roundup. This highly toxic chemical not only kills coca plants, but also yucca, beans, rice, coffee and other crops that people sell or eat. Killing a farmer’s crops is devastating, and Roundup makes it impossible to continue cultivating the land. It leaves the farmer with two choices: He can clear more forest for new land, which further depletes the rainforest. Or he could move to the already-crowded Colombian cities where unemployment rates are high. This is an important example of the economic and public health consequences borne by the people who are most closely affected by this U.S. policy. Direct exposure to the toxic chemicals used for fumigation as well as contaminated water sources has begun a disturbing trend of health problems in Colombia.

The solution might seem obvious. Colombian farmers should not grow coca to avoid having their crops fumigated. This solution is not realistic for the same reason that Plan Colombia is a wasted effort in the war on drugs. An entire growing season is lost to a farmer when crops are fumigated. It takes more than a year for a crop of bananas or yucca to mature, especially when it is necessary to establish a new field. On the other hand, it takes only four months for a crop of coca to mature and be ready to sell. Besides, it is easier to grow coca than food crops on soil contaminated by the fumigation, and drug cartels are often willing to provide the coca seed and pay in advance for their crops. The immediate economic benefits of growing coca as a cash crop for a small farmer whose livelihood has been destroyed are obvious. The Plan Colombia fumigation policy is one that fosters the establishment of more coca fields, not one that eliminates them.

The United States has spent over $1.9 billion in aid to Colombian security forces, and most of this money has been used for crop fumigation. The war on drugs is already a contested U.S. policy. Plan Colombia begs several questions: Is crop fumigation an effective tactic in the war on drugs? The annual U.S. military budget, at $396 billion, is far larger than the budgets for health and educational services combined. Is this the most effective use of the United States’ extravagant military budget? Should the majority of the monetary aid sent to Colombia be used to degrade the environment and threaten people’s health? Why are our tax dollars being spent on a futile effort that not only kills plants but also people?

Claire Kirchhoff is a University senior majoring in anthropology. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]