Congress sets conditions for aerial fumigation in Colombia

OAKLAND, California, December 12, 2003 (ENS): Environmentalists have mixed feelings about the decision by the U.S. Congress to put conditions on funding for aerial fumigation of coca and poppy crops in Colombian national parks and other natural protected areas.

The funds are part of the "Plan Colombia" drug eradication program, which is part of the Andean Counterdrug Initiative - a key element of the U.S. "War on Drugs" in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The provision in the U.S. State Department's fiscal year 2004 budget conditions funding for such spraying on compliance with Colombian law and a determination by the State Department that "there are no effective alternatives to reduce drug cultivation in these areas."

The policy of using aerial spraying to eradicate illicit crops poses significant threats to human health and the environment, says Astrid Puentes, legal director for the non profit environmental law firm AIDA, but the conditions imposed by Congress are a step in the right direction.

Yet Puentes stressed that to truly protect the environment in Colombia "we must ensure that the eradication forces begin complying with Colombian laws and stop trying to weaken them."

As in previous years, the Congress required that in 2004 the State Department certify that: the use of these herbicides in Colombia does not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment; the eradication program complies with the Colombian Environmental Management Plan; and the governments investigate and fairly compensate meritorious complaints about health harms and the destruction of legal crops.

But for the first time, however, the Congress also referred to and conditioned the spraying of national parks and reserves.

In 2001, Colombia's environmental authorities specifically excluded national parks and natural reserves from the regions that are subject to aerial herbicide spraying - opting instead for manual or mechanical means be used to destroy coca and poppy crops in these areas.

The authorities also prohibited the spraying of significant buffer areas surrounding the parks to avoid harms from spray drift or accidental spraying.

These special protections are in line with the Colombian Constitution and environmental laws that establish special protections for these environmentally sensitive areas.

These conditions show that spraying in these areas is clearly illegal, environmentalists say, but it has happened in Colombia's national parks thanks to U.S. funding.

In June 2003, the Colombian National Council on Narcotics attempted to legalize such spraying. This action is being contested in Colombian courts for violating the Constitution and other laws.

"As the U.S. Congress has now recognized for the national parks, spraying should be the last recourse, but unfortunately it is the only one that has been systematically implemented until now," said Anna Cederstav, a scientist with AIDA. "A policy that creates no viable economic alternatives for farmers simply perpetuates the cycle of farmers cutting forests to plant coca and the government spraying herbicides to destroy the fields."

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