Fears for health and environment over plans to reintroduce aerial fumigation

The Colombian government of Iván Duque has brought the reintroduction of aerial fumigation a step closer with a new decree to permit the practice, despite widespread opposition among social organisations, opposition parties and rural communities.

Spraying of chemicals from aeroplanes was previously used in Colombia to target plantations of illegal crops used in drugs production such as coca and marijuana. However, the Constitutional Court indefinitely suspended aerial spraying in 2015 over the harm it causes to public health and the environment. Prior to the ruling, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate – the chemical used in aerial spraying which is produced by the US company Monsant – as ‘probably carcinogenic in humans’.

Since its election in 2018, the Duque administration has favoured a return to the practice. According to a new government decree signed on 12 April, new measures will ‘regulate the control of risks to health and the environment in the context of eradication of illicit crops through the method of aerial spraying.’ Defence Minister Diego Molano said the measures are necessary to ‘combat narcotrafficking’.

The government’s plans have moved ahead despite the 2016 peace agreement’s focus on voluntary manual removal of illegal crops and their replacement with traditional alternatives. The agreement’s clause on drugs recognises the harm done to rural communities through repressive anti-drugs policies and the role this played in exacerbating conflict, stipulating that communities must themselves coordinate the removal of crops.

Almost 100,000 families have enrolled on the agreement’s voluntary substitution programmes, under which they should receive state support to conduct removal and develop alternative livelihoods. The vast majority of families enrolled on programmes have met their obligations, with only a 0.8 per cent replanting rate in areas of voluntary substitution.

However, security forces have continued to forcibly eradicate illegal crops in many regions, leading to tensions with rural communities. Soldiers have killed a number of unarmed peasant farmers while conducting forced eradication. This is despite studies having shown the replanting rate to be significantly higher where crops have been forcibly removed by security forces. In regions where aerial spraying has been carried out, the replanting rate is as high as 36 per cent.

The government claims the reintroduction of aerial spraying will not have a detrimental impact on health or environment, thereby complying with Constitutional Court stipulations to resume the practice. According to the Court, there must be ‘objective and conclusive evidence’ that aerial spraying does not cause ‘deforestation, degradation of natural environments, loss of biodiversity or other environmental damage’. Indigenous and African-Colombian communities have suffered a disproportionate negative impact from past aerial spraying.  

Among those to oppose the government’s plans are 150 Colombian academics and researchers who wrote to the Biden administration to express concerns over its support for the reintroduction of aerial spraying. Biden has continued the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who pressured the Colombian government to resume use of glyphosate.

In the letter, the academics said: ‘The environmental toll of the practice has been devastating, resulting in soil damage, destruction of licit agricultural crops upon which farmers depend for their livelihood, as well as contamination of precious water sources. Irreversible impacts on wildlife also cannot be ignored.’

There are concerns that the return of aerial spraying could exacerbate tensions in regions which have seen high levels of human rights violations due to increased militarisation and the presence of paramilitary and other armed groups vying for territorial and population control. The majority of murders of social activists and FARC former guerrillas have been committed in zones where cultivation of illicit crops takes place. Additionally, at least 75 people working on the peace agreement’s voluntary substitution programmes were murdered between November 2016 and June 2020.