from U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson to Witness for Peace inquiry,
February 22, 2002
Mr. Steven J. Bennett
Executive Director, Witness for Peace
1229 15th Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20005
Dear Mr. Bennett,
I am pleased to
respond to the concerns raised in your letter to Secretary of State Powell
dated December 7, 2001 (which was signed by you and members of several
other organizations), regarding our aerial eradication program in Colombia.
I apologize for the delay in responding.
We discussed some
of the concerns raised in your letter and report in our meetings with
Witness for Peace delegations on January 22 and 25. I welcome this opportunity,
however, to provide more detailed responses to your questions as well
as to provide you with more recent information regarding our ongoing efforts
to monitor and investigate reports of safety concerns.
Recent Aerial Eradication
in Putumayo Department:
You expressed concern
that areas subject to social pacts, crops of less than two hectares, and
food crops were improperly sprayed by the Antinarcotics Directorate of
the Colombian National Police (DIRAN) in the spray operations that commenced
in Putumayo on November 13, 2001.
Prior to December
2000, the Government of Colombia permitted only very limited spraying
in Putumayo. As a result, coca cultivation there skyrocketed, increasing
almost twelve-fold over the eight-year period 1993-2000 (from 4,000 to
47,200 hectares). Accordingly, Putumayo was an important focus of initial
Plan Colombia efforts. The first significant aerial eradication operations
there took place between December, 2000 and February 2001. During the
months that followed, many families signed on to the social pacts to which
you referred in your letter and report. Delivery of government resources
under the final pacts to be signed began on July 26, 2001. The signers
have twelve months from the date that resources were first delivered to
manually eradicate their coca. Any new coca planted after that date is
not covered by the pacts and is subject to spraying.
Beginning on November
13, 2001, aerial eradication recommenced in Putumayo. The Government of
Colombia allowed the DIRAN to spray (1) new coca in areas under social
pacts that was planted after July 26, 2001 in violation of the pacts;
and (2) all coca in regions not covered by social pacts. Your report states
that you found no evidence that the DIRAN gathered information on locations
of the pacts prior to the spraying. In fact, however, Colombian and U.S.
officials conducted a comprehensive investigation, taking the greatest
care to identify areas where only new coca, not subject to the social
pacts, was concentrated. In October and November, 2001, the Colombian
consultant to the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) on the aerial eradication
program -- an agricultural/environmental engineer with over 12 years of
experience with coca cultivation and eradication, and the former Government
of Colombia Environmental Auditor -- participated in two very detailed
reconnaissance missions over southwestern Putumayo with officials from
DIRAN and the National Plan for Alternative Development (PNDA). These
flights included low-level overflights in a spray plane and helicopter.
The team observed at least 13,000 hectares of coca that, by virtue of
plant size, had to have been planted after the final social pact went
into effect in July.
taken during these low-level overflights are dramatic. The difference
between the extensive fields of recently planted coca and the older plants
is marked. Moreover, there is little evidence that anything other than
coca is being planted, although a significant amount of inter-cropping
of coca with corn and yucca was observed. A great many seedbeds, containing
coca seedlings ready to be planted, were also noted. Enclosed are some
representative photographs of very young coca. If your in-country colleagues
wish to review the detailed reports of the two reconnaissance flights,
including many more photographs, we invite them to come to the Embassy
to do so. I think you will find the report and photographs illuminating.
We do not target
coca crops of less than two hectares in size for spraying. To the contrary,
the pilots ignore small isolated fields that take longer to spray. If
several small plots are adjacent to one another, however, they are impossible
to identify as individual plots but will appear from the air as one large
extension, and (if in a zone in which we have received permission to spray)
may be sprayed.
Your letter and
report state that you observed cases in which legitimate food crops were
sprayed. Although the spray pilots are very well-trained, and we believe
mistakes are rare, human error will inevitably result in some mistakes.
In such cases, the farmers should be compensated fairly and rapidly.
As we told your
colleagues in our meetings with Witness for Peace on January 22 and 25,
2002, the Government of Colombia has always had a process by which such
claims are investigated. With Embassy support, this process has recently
been improved to provide for faster investigation and resolution of complaints.
If sufficient evidence is presented to identify the site and details in
question, farmers who have suffered damage to legal crops will be compensated
for the market value of the lost crops. Although the initial burden is
on the claimant to come forward with enough information to verify the
complaint, the level of proof required is not unduly strict, and in close
cases the investigators will err in favor of awarding compensation. If
you or your colleagues are aware of such cases, you should provide the
information to the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (National
Office on Dangerous Drugs, or DNE), the Government of Colombia entity
responsible for managing the compensation process. During our meeting
with Witness for Peace on January 25, 2002, one of your colleagues gave
us one such report from a farmer in Los Angeles vereda in Putumayo, which
we have passed to the DNE with a request that it be investigated as soon
as possible and that we be kept informed of its status.
Human Health Concerns:
There is overwhelming
scientific evidence that the spray mixture is safe. The glyphosate we
use is one of the most common weed killers in the world. It is widely
used in the United States in commercial agriculture. The glyphosate applied
in the coca and opium eradication program is only about 13 percent of
the glyphosate applied in Colombia. About nine times as much glyphosate
is used annually in just one U.S. state as we use in our spray program
(and that state is one-third the size of Colombia). Glyphosate has been
registered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency since
the 1970's. USEPA says it is of low toxicity, non-carcinogenic, and does
not cause mutations or birth defects. The World Health Organization and
the International Programme on Chemical Safety report similar findings.
The glyphosate formulation
we use consists of glyphosate, water, and a surfactant blend. This formulation
is further mixed with water and a Colombian-manufactured and approved
surfactant called Cosmo-Flux 411F. The surfactants help the herbicide
penetrate the waxy surface of the leaves of the coca or opium plants.
Although Cosmo-Flux 411F is not registered in the United States, the USEPA
says its ingredients are within accepted tolerances for use on food products.
The application rate we use for our spray mixture is within the limits
prescribed by the manufacturers.
Despite the large
body of scientific evidence that supports our position that spraying risks
to humans and animals is minimal, there have been health complaints about
the aerial eradication program. Because of our commitment to safety, we
have tried to investigate them. As we told your colleagues in the two
recent meetings, we investigated the death of the 11-month-old child mentioned
in your report, together with that of a 4-year-old child, very shortly
after the reports of these deaths were made. The children's parents attributed
the deaths to spraying when reporting them to the local "personero."
Both occurred in the township of Argelia, in La Hormiga municipality in
We first reviewed
the records of the spray flights that took place in the Argelia region
on the dates of the claimed exposures. On November 15, the date the 11-month-old
was reportedly exposed, spraying did occur in La Hormiga municipality,
but not in Argelia - the closest spraying was three miles away. On November
21, the date the four-year-old was reportedly exposed, the closest spraying
was more than twenty miles away. Thus, the children were too far away
to have been exposed to spraying.
Even if they had
been exposed to spray drift, however, such drastic effects have never
been described in the scientific literature on glyphosate, even in cases
of much more significant and direct exposures. To the contrary, that literature
indicates that, although glyphosate and surfactants can cause some acute
effects (mainly eye and skin irritation), those effects are short term
and reversible even in those who directly apply the product. One of the
best examples of this is data from one of the large agricultural states
in the U.S. with a very strict environmental and health surveillance regimen.
In over 6,100 cases of bystander exposure to all pesticides over a twelve-year
period, only 12 (0.2 percent) were the result of glyphosate exposure.
(Bystanders are persons exposed indirectly, for example through spray
drift, as opposed to workers who directly apply the glyphosate formulations.)
Ten of the 12 cases consisted of temporary skin or eye irritation and
two were cases of general headache and nausea. Of all exposure cases involving
glyphosate (including direct applicator exposure), none required an overnight
hospital stay. This is in a state where 3.5 million pounds were applied
in 1999 in contrast to the approximately 500 thousand pounds applied in
the eradication program in Colombia last year.
In addition, the
course of the children's illnesses and their medical histories strongly
suggest other causes of death. We hired Dr. Jorge Botero, a physician
who formerly served as chief of toxicology with the Colombian Ministry
of Health, to investigate the deaths. He spoke to the physician who treated
the children and reviewed the medical records. The 11-month-old child
suffered symptoms of acute diarrhea, dehydration, and fever for about
24 hours before his death on November 16. His parents reported that he
was outside on their patio on November 15 when the spray planes went by,
but there were no details as to whether he was actually exposed to spray.
Dr. Botero concluded that the cause of death was most likely the severe
dehydration caused by the diarrhea, common in the rural regions. Even
if the child had been exposed, the very diluted glyphosate-based spray
mix would not have such an effect. Dr. Botero said that certain neurological
symptoms described in the child's records (bodily instability and vision
problems) suggested that the child may have had a hydroelectrolytic imbalance
or incipient meningitis. Finally, the child's brother and grandfather
had suffered the same symptoms and, since there was nothing to indicate
they may have been exposed to spraying, Dr. Botero stated that the child's
illness may have been a contagious infection.
The second death
was a 4-year old boy who had symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever
for about 12 hours before his death on November 22. There was no information
about the nature of his exposure to spraying, if any. On autopsy, a massive
quantity of parasites (worms) was observed. Dr. Botero said that, although
the cause of death could not be conclusively determined from the information
available at the time of study, he suspects the parasites led to a serious
infection that caused death. He said that this manifestation of symptoms
is not consistent with glyphosate exposure, especially the minimal exposure
that a bystander would get from spraying. A copy of Dr. Botero's report
These results are
similar to previous cases that we have investigated. Many are ruled out
just by comparison of the spray locations and dates to those of the reported
exposures. For example, in December 2000 a Dutch journalist wrote of an
"epidemic" of spray-related skin ailments in Aponte in southern
Colombia. The Embassy hired medical experts to review the relevant health
records. They found that most of the complaints were made before spraying
began or long after it ended. In all but four cases, the diseases were
parasitic or bacterial in origin. In the other four cases the symptoms
were not serious, and the treatments prescribed suggested the illnesses
were not spray-related. None of the medical records mentioned exposure
to spraying as a possible cause of the patient's condition. A copy of
the Aponte report is enclosed.
In another case,
a Nariño mayor attributed the case of a child born without limbs
in the municipality of San Bernardo to illicit crop spraying. We contracted
Dr. Adriana Zamora of Clinica Uribe Cualla, Colombia's national poison
control center, to investigate this case. Dr. Zamora met with the mayor
and the child's parents, reviewed relevant medical records, and examined
the child. She also consulted with Dr. Camilo Uribe Granja, director of
Clinica Uribe Cualla, and Dr. Carlos Martín Restrepo, Chief of
the Genetics Unit at the University of Rosario Medical School.
Dr. Zamora verified
that the child was born on May 15, 1999 -- three full months before aerial
eradication first took place in Nariño, on August 14, 1999. Therefore,
any connection with aerial eradication was ruled out based on these dates
alone. Even if that were not so, however, more than twenty-five years
of scientific research on glyphosate and its commercial formulations demonstrates
that these products do not cause birth defects. Despite the lack of any
link with our spray program, we asked Dr. Zamora to consider other possible
causal agents that might enable the child's physicians to better treat
him. Unfortunately, she concluded that the causes of his condition were
unknown. The mayor and the child's parents readily accepted that there
was no possible connection between his medical condition and aerial eradication
upon learning that no spraying took place until after he was born. A copy
of Dr. Zamora's report is enclosed.
The sad fact is that
children become ill and die every day in rural Colombia from a multitude
of causes. Living conditions in these remote regions are harsh and unsanitary.
Access to health care is poor or nonexistent. Moreover, many families,
especially in Putumayo, use a wide variety of deadly chemicals such as
paraquat in the cultivation of illegal crops (often storing them in their
homes) without taking any safety precautions. Colombia's rural families
deserve medical attention for the many real problems they face, and they
are not well served when unfounded claims of illness or erroneous information
obscure a search for the true causes of their health problems.
We understand that
mayors and other local officials in southern Colombia have raised similar
health concerns with you. Please keep in mind that these officials come
from desperately poor areas where many people depend heavily on the coca
trade and where economic options are limited. Clearly, the people who
make a living growing and processing coca and opium poppy oppose aerial
eradication and will go to great lengths to generate opposition to it.
These efforts include attempts to pressure, and even inflict violence,
on elected officials. In the last 13 years, two hundred Colombian mayors
have been killed and almost 1,000 kidnapped, making this position one
of the most dangerous in the world. Of course, there are also a number
of people and groups, like yours, who have entirely legitimate questions
about the spray program. I am more than happy to answer them, and confident
that as you study the facts, you will understand that what we are doing
I would like to address
one additional matter that you did not directly mention in your letter
or report, but that has been cited as a cause for concern in a number
of media and NGO reports. This is the concern that the concentration of
glyphosate in the spray mix may be higher than recommended for agricultural
use. This is not the case. The misconception has arisen from confusion
between the concentration of the main glyphosate-based formulation and
glyphosate itself. As noted above, the main glyphosate-based commercial
formulation in the spray mix contains glyphosate, water, and a surfactant.
The amount of that formulation that ends up on a sprayed field is 10.4
liters (2.75 gallons) per hectare. The active ingredient (glyphosate),
however, is less than half of that formulated product. Only 3.74 kilograms
of glyphosate itself ends up on the sprayed field. These concentrations
are well within recommended limits for woody plants.
Finally, one has
to ask why so few complaints have come from the regions of Colombia or
the United States where glyphosate-based herbicides are used in commercial
agriculture. If serious health effects were as common as alleged in some
of the press and other reports we have seen, surely they would also be
coming from the regions where vastly greater amounts of glyphosate-based
products are used. Just as unfounded health complaints should not result
in real medical needs going unmet, we also need to ensure that the debate
over the spray program does not obscure the real threat from narcotics
use, narcotics-related corruption, and the environmental catastrophe that
occurs as millions of gallons of narcotics processing chemicals are dumped
into Colombian rivers each year and vast areas of fragile forest are slashed
and burned to make way for coca cultivation.
Delivery of Alternative Development Resources:
One thing should
be very clear at the outset. The whole system of social pacts for voluntary
eradication in Putumayo is a Government of Colombia concept that has been
developed and implemented by Government of Colombia institutions (e.g.,
PNDA, municipal mayors) and local communities in Putumayo. Financial resources
from Colombian peace bonds through the "Fondos de Inversion Para
la Paz," totaling some $30 million, have been made available through
five government-contracted NGO's to pact-signing communities for immediate
food security (seeds, tools, small animals). With the exception of a USAID-funded
layer hen program for $1 million implemented with 1,800 pact signers during
the period May - September 2001, we have not provided any complementary
funding to the Colombian food security program, nor were we expected to.
The delivery of immediate food security to the 35,000 pact signing families
has always been the responsibility of the Government of Colombia and will
continue to be into the future.
In light of slower-than-expected
delivery of immediate food security assistance to pact signers in Putumayo
by the Government of Colombia, USAID initiated an early eradication program
in concert with the governor of Putumayo, mayors of nine municipalities,
PNDA, and local communities. Agreements for $17.3 million with civilian
communities and $16.6 million with indigenous communities were signed
in December. They call for immediate voluntary eradication and immediate
provision of funding for productive activities and community-based rural
infrastructure. It is expected that these two new early eradication programs
will considerably expand and accelerate assistance to pact signers and
voluntary coca eradication over the ensuing six months.
I hope this information
is helpful, and I trust that you will make it available to the many other
signatories to your letter. I would be happy to answer any further questions
you may have about our counternarcotics policy in Colombia.
Anne W. Patterson
General Gustavo Socha Salamanca, Director, Antinarcotics Directorate of
the Colombian National Police
Dr. Gabriel Merchan, Director, National Directorate of Dangerous Drugs
Dra. Maria Ines Restrepo, Director, National Plan for Alternative Development
Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Russ Feingold
Senator Paul Wellstone
Representative Cass Ballenger
Representative Jim Kolbe
Representative Nita Lowey
Representative John Conyers
Representative James McGovern
Representative Jan Schakowsky
Representative Christopher Shays
Representative William Delahunt