Last Updated:5/18/00
Ten questions for Colombia policy, Latin America Working Group, May 18, 2001

Ten questions for Colombia policy

The $1.3 billion aid package passed last year, marking a dramatic escalation of US involvement in Colombia, carries with it many risks and involves many unanswered questions.  In the months leading up to its passage, the Clinton Administration and congressional backers painted an optimistic picture of the package’s potential to help Colombia deal with its complex problems, while critics warned of dire consequences. 

Now that the package is a reality, it would be wise to take a more careful look at the risks and uncertainties posed by this policy before appropriating more funding.  Frequently, the questions asked about Colombia counternarcotics policy are limited in scope–is the right equipment being delivered on time?  How many hectares of coca are being eradicated?  Here are ten unanswered questions policymakers should be asking.

  1. Has the policy helped the United States to limit drug abuse and drug violence?

  2. Is increased US aid to the Colombian military leading to improved human rights performance?

  3. Has the policy helped the peace process or harmed it?

  4. What is the regional impact of the policy?

  5. Is the policy headed for quagmire?

  6. What are the impacts of the policy on democratic structures and civil military relations?

  7. Are the alternative development programs being implemented effectively?

  8. Are US-funded programs to strengthen human rights and improve the justice   system effective?

  9. What is the impact on Colombia’s crisis of internal displacement and refugee flows?

  10. What is the impact of this policy on the environment?

1.  Has the policy helped the United States to limit drug abuse and drug violence? 

If the United States’ concern about drugs is really the driving force behind Colombia policy, this ought to be the first question policymakers seek to answer.  Success in combating drug abuse in the United States can not be measured by the number of acres of coca fumigated or acres planted in a given country, measures often used in evaluating the success of international drug control programs.  Because of the infamous adaptability of the drug trade and the ability to shift production from one region to another, the only measure of success in supply reduction is a worldwide decline in production. 

By this measure, international source country eradication programs have not been successful.  The much-heralded reduction of coca planting in Peru and Bolivia, for example, was “offset by Colombia’s increased coca cultivation in calendar year 2000,”  (Statement of General Peter Pace, Commander in Chief, United States Southern Command, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 27, 2001).  As fumigation proceeds in Putumayo, Colombia, cultivation is moving to the neighboring province of Nariño and over the border to Ecuador (Juan Forero, “In the War Against Coca, Colombian Growers Simply Move Along,” New York Times, 3/17/2001).

Such failures are strategic rather than incidental, according to international drug policy critics:

Despite tactical successes..., source country operations have consistently been a strategic failure, never significantly raising the price of cocaine or heroin in the United States for more than a few months.  In fact, while spending on eradication and interdiction programs has grown from a few million dollars in the early 1970s to billions annually today, the street price of a pure gram of cocaine has dropped from $1,400 to under $200 during that time, and the price of heroin has dropped from about $4,000 to a few hundred dollars.  This strategic failure is not due to a lack of will or resources, but rather to the structure of the market for illegal drugs, which invariably thwarts Washington’s best efforts to suppress supply.  Drugs are so cheap to produce, the barriers to entry in the market are so low, and the potential profits are so enormous that market forces invariably attract willing growers, producers, and traffickers.  Official measures of success–tons of cocaine seized, numbers of traffickers arrested, acres of coca leaf eradicated–are as misleading as the body counts during the Vietnam War because high profits generate a limitless supply of new growers and traffickers even as the war on drugs drives some out of business.”  (William LeoGrande and Kenneth Sharpe, “Two Wars or One?  Drugs, Guerrillas, and Colombia’s New Violencia,” World Policy Journal, Fall 2000, p. 2.)

Moreover, emphasis on supply reduction ignores the most important measure of success in US drug policy, which would be a decline in drug abuse and drug-related violence in the United States.  Critics point to the failures of current drug policy to address what should be the most important goals in the United States–saving lives, keeping drugs out of the hands of children and teenagers, reducing the violence associated with drugs, and treating addicts.  According to Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, overdose deaths have climbed steadily since 1979, while illegal drugs are more easily available to high school seniors than at any time in history, according to a 1998 study.  Of the five million Americans who require immediate treatment for drug use each year, only 2 million receive it (Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Drug Control Strategy, 2000 Annual Report). 

2.  Is increased US aid to the Colombian military leading to improved human rights behavior?

It is too early to measure the impact of US training.  However, during the time since US aid began to flow, the human rights situation has deteriorated even further, and any progress related to diplomatic pressure resulting from the conditions attached to the aid package has been minimal at best.  The period from August 2000 to the present, when the US aid package began to flow after President Clinton waived the human rights conditions, was characterized by an escalation of paramilitary massacres.  The number of massacres in the first four months of 2001 is roughly double the number of massacres in the first four months of 2000.  The massacres reached a level of unparalleled brutality (Scott Wilson, “Colombian Massacre Large, Brutal/Chain Saws Used by Paramilitaries in Village Killing,” Washington Post, 4/21/2001). The army rarely acted to protect the civilian population despite numerous cases in which pleas for help were issued prior to paramilitary attacks. (See, for example, Juan Forero, “Dozens of Colombians Are Reported Massacred by Paramilitaries,” New York Times, 4/20/01, or Jared Kotler, “Colombia Massacre Warnings Unheeded,” Associated Press, 4/21/2001.)   Moreover, army-paramilitary complicity went much farther, as suggested by the following description of the Chengue massacre, which was only one of 23 paramilitary massacres in the month of January.

In dozens of interviews, conducted in small groups and individually over three days, survivors said military aircraft undertook surveillance of the village in the days preceding the massacre and in the hour immediately following it. The military, according to these accounts, provided safe passage to the paramilitary column and effectively sealed off the area by conducting what villagers described as a mock daylong battle with leftist guerrillas who dominate the area.

"There were no guerrillas," said one resident, who has also told his story to two investigators from the Colombian prosecutor general's human rights office. "Their motive was to keep us from leaving and anyone else from coming in until it was all clear. We hadn't seen guerrillas for weeks." (Scott Wilson, “Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold,” Washington Post, 1/28/2001).

Despite persistent reports of army support for or tolerance of paramilitary violations, no military officials were dismissed during this period explicitly on human rights grounds.  Three hundred and sixty-nine lower-level officers and soldiers were dismissed without explanation, but were not prosecuted; of these, the Colombian paper El Espectador reports that 11 captains and 5 majors joined the paramilitary forces after their dismissal (“From Bad to Worse,” New York Times, 4/4/2001).  Human rights cases involving military officials remained in military courts, instead of being transferred to civilian courts, as specified by the conditions and in accordance with Colombia’s 1997 Constitutional Court decision.  One of the few trials of high-level military officials to move forward, General Jaime Humberto Uscátegui’s involvement in the 1997 Mapiripán massacre, ended February 2001 with a military court ruling of 40 months in jail–only two months more than was given to the lower-level officer who acted as a whistle blower in the case.

What should policymakers look for in evaluating progress?  Actions, not words, especially on the essential issues of cutting ties between the army and paramilitaries, capturing and prosecuting paramilitary leaders, and protecting the civilian population.  The Pastrana Administration has been skilled at issuing decrees, but often fails to follow through with deeds.  Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America have set forth a list of specific benchmarks that should have been met prior to the Secretary of State certifying compliance with the conditions.  These benchmarks, which are still relevant, include: that the Colombian government should publicly present a fully-funded plan to disband paramilitary groups; that 11 high-ranking officers be investigated and brought to trial in civilian courts; that 8 high-ranking paramilitary leaders be investigated and prosecuted; and that the perpetrators of 30 major human rights cases and massacres be investigated and prosecuted.  (See “Colombia Human Rights Certification,” August 2000, pp.23-34).

Policymakers should also keep a careful watch on whether US equipment, training and intelligence contributes to human rights violations.  In the Santo Domingo case, the Colombian airforce using US-made helicopters bombarded a town and killed 19 people, including 7 children (December 13, 1998), without triggering a cutoff of US aid.  In the case of Mapiripán, the United States trained troops who were linked to a massacre.  The 2nd mobile brigade received US Special Forces training in June 1997 and one month later facilitated the arrival of paramilitary forces into Mapiripán, where 49 civilians were brutally killed and pleas for help were ignored over a period of five days.

A disturbing question for the future is the impact of US efforts to strengthen Colombian military intelligence.  The primary way in which the Colombian armed forces assist the paramilitaries is through the sharing of intelligence.  There are no safeguards to ensure that intelligence supplied by the United States is not passed along to the paramilitaries and that US support to strengthen intelligence gathering does not end up benefiting paramilitaries and contributing to paramilitary attacks against civilians.

A particular concern for US policy is the persistence of army-paramilitary ties, and expanding paramilitary action, in southern Colombia where US training and fumigation efforts are focused.  Paramilitaries extended their control over southern Colombia through a series of brutal actions in the months preceding the fumigation campaign.  The Colombian Army’s 24th brigade based in Puerto Asís, Putumayo reportedly permits paramilitaries to patrol the town and fails to take action against paramilitaries within the town or in nearby bases and farms (interview with local official, Puerto Asís , September 2000; "Sin mayor control los 'paras' en Putumayo," El Tiempo, Bogotá, October 5, 2000).  A paramilitary roadblock 15 minutes from a battalion of the 24th brigade continued to operate eight months after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Colombia reported its existence to the Colombian government (the military authorities denied in writing its existence, despite the UN’s statement and numerous stories in major media) (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Colombia, March 20, 2001).  The 24th brigade is currently suspended per the Leahy Law from receiving US training, but the US embassy has stated that this suspension is based on an older case which will shortly be resolved.   US-funded counternarcotics units coordinate actively with the 24th brigade; the fumigation efforts starting in December operated out of 24th brigade facilities.

3.  Has the policy helped the peace process or harmed it?

The immediate impact of the aid package was to harden positions within the guerrilla forces–at least the FARC–the paramilitaries, and the army.  FARC leaders have made repeated statements that they view the US military aid package as a provocation, and have proclaimed that US military personnel in areas of conflict are military targets.  Paramilitary leadership welcomed the aid package as support for their cause.  In southern Colombia, both FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries intensified their brutal pressure on the local population to join one armed band or the other in preparation for the impact of the US-funded and trained “push into southern Colombia.”  (“Guerrilla arma a campesinos para responder a plan Colombia,” El Colombiano, Medellin, 8/13/00.) Fierce clashes between paramilitaries and guerrillas in southern Colombia in September-October cut off commerce and produced a new wave of 1,000 displaced people (Juan Forero, “Southern Colombia brought to a Standstill by Fighting,” New York Times, 10/19/2000).   Colombian army leaders have asserted their impatience with the peace process, sometimes in direct contradiction to President Pastrana.  Proponents of the aid package argued that strengthening the military would force the guerrillas to more serious negotiations; opponents argued that US military assistance could weaken chances for peace by strengthening the Colombian armed forces’ view that the war is winnable.  It is difficult to gauge at this point what the long-term impact will be.

Despite the immediate negative impact of the escalation of US aid to the Colombian military, however, some international diplomats stress that the US government still can, if it wishes to, take positive steps to promote peace initiatives.  Public pronouncements and quiet diplomacy in support of continued peace negotiations can be helpful, particularly to bolster faltering Colombian domestic support of the peace process.  Pressure on the Colombian government to improve the armed forces’ human rights record–especially in cutting army-paramilitary ties and stepping up actions against paramilitaries–can contribute to a climate that favors peace.  While at this point the United States can hardly play the role of a neutral arbiter, the United States can still provide diplomatic support for peace, including for UN and European initiatives.

4.  What is the regional impact of the policy?  Has it improved or weakened the stability of Colombia’s neighbors, and how has it affected them in terms of human rights, democratic structures and civil-military relations? 

With or without Plan Colombia and US assistance, Colombia’s crisis will negatively affect its neighbors.  The United States’ emphAsís , however, upon a stepped up fumigation and military campaign in southern Colombia is likely to have a sharp impact upon Ecuador, Brazil and Peru.

Ecuadorean officials report that guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers have already set up operations in Ecuador.  An estimated 7000 refugees from Colombia had crossed into Ecuador by February (Samantha Newport and David Adams, “Ecuador reluctantly joins U.S. war on cocaine,” St. Petersburg Times, 2/21/2001).

Last fall, the Brazilian, Argentinian and Venezuelan governments expressed support for peace negotiations, “but pointedly refused to back the military aspect of the plan,” concerned in part with spillover of violence and drug trafficking into the rest of the region. (“Ambitious Antidrug Plan for Colombia Is Faltering,” Christopher Marquis, New York Times, 10/15/2000; “US, Brazil See Common Ground on Peru, at Odds over Colombia,” Reuters, 8/16/2000; “Latin Leaders Rebuff Call by Clinton on Colombia,” Larry Rohter, New York Times, 9/2/2000). The Panamanian government and local government officials in Ecuador have also voiced grave concerns about its impact. “A Brazilian Border Backwater Readies for Drug War Spillover,” Wall Street Journal, 12/18/2000).  It remains to be seen if the substantial increases in military and economic aid included in President Bush’s Andean Initiative will convince regional governments to embrace Plan Colombia or at least mute their criticisms.

The US government response to spillover includes providing further aid to militarize borders with Colombia–the proposed FY2002 $730 million package includes, for example, $14.2 million to train and equip counternarcotics forces to “reinforce Brazil’s border with Colombia and support SIVAM directed CN operations” and $7.9 million in “assistance to the Ecuadoran military to strengthen its capacity to secure Ecuador’s border with Colombia...”  The long-term implications of such increased militarization have not been carefully contemplated.

Another regional concern is that success in eradicating coca in Colombia will cause a resurgence of production in other countries.  Rising prices for coca is already putting pressure on Peruvian alternative development programs, making a return to coca production more tempting, while spillover of drug production from Colombia appears to be introducing new production in Ecuador.

According to a report being prepared by the United Nations Drug Control Project (UNDCP), the implementation of the $1.3bn Plan Colombia is already increasing the price of the raw material used to make cocaine. And that is encouraging Peruvian farmers to return to the industry. There are around 77,000 hectares of abandoned coca fields in Peru, which need only three to six months to become active again. New fields have already been sighted in the south-east of the country (Claire Marshall, "Peru set to be drug leader,"  BBC, 2/17/2001).

5.  Is the policy headed for quagmire?

With the ink barely dry on last year’s Colombia legislation, administration officials and members of Congress began talking about future requests, while the Colombian ambassador publicly called for $600 million each year for four years.  The GAO cautions that the Colombia supplemental only funded two years of a six-year plan and did not include funds necessary to support and maintain the equipment provided; it also cautions that the plan’s implementation will be difficult due to the Colombian government’s lack of management capacity (“U.S. Assistance to Colombia Will Take Years to Produce Results,” GAO, October 2000).  The Bush Administration has proposed an additional $730 million in largely counternarcotics funding for Colombia and the Andean region for FY2002, with more security assistance included in defense appropriations.  The dramatic increase in counternarcotics funding represented by the 2-year 1.3 billion package already runs the risk of becoming a routine annual appropriation with the $730 million 1-year package.  Unfortunately, without careful analysis, the very failure of the program results in efforts to escalate the policy and devote even more resources to an ever-increasing geographic area.

A related question is whether the United States will be inexorably pulled into counterinsurgency efforts, or if it is possible to draw the line at counternarcotics.  The line is already crossed; US counternarcotics training is standard military training, and there are no clear guidelines regarding the limitations of the counternarcotics battalions’ operations.  Intelligence on guerrilla-related activities may already be shared with the Colombian military even if unrelated to drug efforts in drug-producing areas.

The lucrative profits to be gained from contracts for an aid package this size is already a force driving expansion of the program, which can undercut careful consideration of policy choices.  An unwinnable war that moves from one country to another is an ideal source of revenue for helicopter manufacturers–but it may not be effective national drug policy or strategic foreign policy.  Companies will focus solutions on military hardware rather than the diplomatic, political, social and economic prerequisites to a lasting solution. 

6.  What are the impacts of the policy on democratic structures and civil military relations?

It is too early to judge this impact in Colombia, and the impact of any one factor will be difficult to measure.  It may be instructive, however, to observe the impact of similar policies in Bolivia.  The harsh coca eradication strategy has paid off in terms of declining coca production in Bolivia (while at the same time  increasing in Colombia), but the efforts have taken a toll on democracy.  Tensions between peasants and the government have repeatedly come to the boiling point, with more than 100 civilians killed by October 2000 in clashes with the police and military.  The draconian law 1008 has swept up the innocent along with the guilty.  The Chapare region, where counternarcotics efforts are concentrated, is increasingly militarized, while poorly-designed alternative development programs have failed to deliver a decent life for farmers (see for example “In Bolivia’s Drug War, Success Has Price,” Washington Post, 3/4/2001).

7.  Are the alternative development programs being implemented effectively, are they economically and politically viable, and do they cover the affected population adequately?

While fumigation and military aid was rapidly put into effect, the alternative development programs have not even gotten off the ground.  While bureaucratic reasons can be found for this delay, implementing alternative development is clearly not yet a US policy priority.  The fumigation side of the policy was implemented vigorously, eradicating some 72,000 acres by February, with full knowledge that the alternative development programs were not ready to begin.  As of March, a report by the Center for International Policy found only two U.S.-funded agreements or “social pacts,” in which farmers agree to voluntary eradicate illicit crops in exchange for alternative development aid, had been signed, incorporating 1453 families.  The numbers targeted are only a fraction of the families who should be eligible: the Governor of Putumayo claimed in March that the local government could sign up 27,000 families, if the resources were available and fumigation were halted.  

As of April, barely any sign of alternative development aid had arrived even for the limited number of families covered by the pacts. The lack of implementation of these programs has already eroded confidence of the local population and local governments in the “soft” side of the policy.

Moreover, US-funded fumigation efforts in Putumayo destroyed crops in many areas that should not have been targeted, such as small farms, alternative development projects, and an indigenous community that had just signed a pact to eliminate coca.  One problem is that areas identified by satellite as industrial-scale coca plantations on the ground can be seen to be many small plots grouped together, according to a site visit by Adam Isacson and Ingrid Vaicius  (“Plan Colombia’s Ground Zero,” Center for International Policy, April 2001).  According to a March 2001 paper on “The Impact of Fumigation,” prepared by local Putumayo leaders, the municipality of Valle del Guamuez received 180 complaints of 1796 hectares of food crops fumigated, 42,663 farm animals killed or harmed (from livestock to poultry to fish in fish farms), and 885 people affected with health complaints, including diarrhea, vomiting, and rashes, while the municipality of La Hormiga has received 850 complaints including 8194 hectares of food crops destroyed, 5174 people affected with health complaints, and 171,643 farm animals affected.  While such claims must be verified, there is clearly an impact on human health, livestock and legal crops.  According to the national ombudsman of Colombia, eleven alternative development projects were fumigated, including programs funded by the UN, Europe, and the Colombian government (“Ombudsman proves impact of fumigation on 11 projects for alternative development,” National Ombudsman of Colombia, February 12, 2001).

It is an axiom of development that good programs are designed as well as implemented with extensive participation by those who will benefit from or be affected by them.  By this standard, the alternative development programs in Plan Colombia are off to an abysmal start.  Two successive governors of Putumayo province have asserted that they were not consulted in the design of the program (previous governor Jorge Devia Murcia and current governor Iván Guerrero).  Neither  other local authorities nor the affected communities were consulted by Colombia’s central government or the United States.  Six governors from southern Colombia have denounced fumigation efforts.  “Fumigation is not the solution,” said Governor Guerrero, “It has a great defect.  It doesn’t really take into account the human being.” Mr. Guerrero warned that fumigation will drive the poorest farmers deeper into the arms of drug traffickers by ruining their food crops and alienating people from their national government. (Christopher Marquis, “Colombian Governors Protest U.S. Backed Spraying of Coca,” New York Times, 3/13/2001).

The Putumayo local government, farmers, and local civic groups have presented a proposal for manual eradication by the growers themselves, a gradual phase-out of coca, and truly sustainable crop substitution and other development programs.  Former Putumayo governor Devia cautions that past government alternative development programs administered by the Colombian government alternative development agency PLANTE were done without consultation, without knowledge of local conditions, with some corruption, and were characterized by broken promises to peasants which undermined future faith in such programs.

Past experiences of alternative development suggests that the following must be considered:

  • alternative development cannot solely focus on crop substitution on existing lands (where soils may be poor and sustain only certain kinds of crops), but must provide some farmers with more appropriate lands through agrarian reform, and must provide pickers, who often come from urban areas, with urban job opportunities;
  • marketing must be considered from the start, factoring in to all calculations the costs of transport to markets; that rural roads must be developed;
  • coca growers’ unions should be consulted regarding the design and implementation of programs, although the US has generally preferred to keep these organizations at arms’ length; and
  • gradual phase-out programs are more workable, because there is a substantial timelag between coca removal and adequate harvests of new crops (the social pacts being used in Putumayo allow a one-year phase-out, which local experts consider insufficient).

What is particularly worrisome is the question of how alternative development programs can thrive in a setting of increased military campaigns, stepped up fumigation, and increased recruiting and attacks by guerrilla and paramilitary forces.  Successful alternative development programs require the support of communities and their leaders.  The military and fumigation programs are already causing people to disperse, destroying the community fabric and organizations needed to implement programs successfully.

Another concern is whether there is adequate funding for alternative development programs, which are by necessity expensive.  The US aid package was sold to the US Congress with the expectation that European governments and the Colombian government itself would contribute the bulk of the funding for the social side of the package.  Plan Colombia was supposed to total $7.5 billion, with $4 billion coming from the Colombian budget and $3.5 billion from the international community.  In fact, it is not clear whether Colombia has dedicated additional funding to Plan Colombia activities, beyond its regular budget.  European countries have been reluctant to provide assistance, concerned at the unilateral and military approach the United States has taken. “It’s the only aid package I know of where the military component was put smack in the middle of a development package,” said one Scandinavian diplomat.... “It contaminated everything in the eyes of Colombian civil society and the European community.” (“Europeans Scale back Colombian Drug Aid,” Scott Wilson, Washington Post, 10/19/2000) European governments appear to be focusing aid efforts on peace-building efforts in northern Colombia rather than contributing to alternative development in the south.

Members of Congress should continue to watch whether alternative development programs and other socioeconomic programs are adequately funded, but even more important, that they are effectively implemented.  They should carefully evaluate any claims by the Colombian government and the US administration that consultation with affected communities and local governments is occurring in any systematic way.  The programs, as noted, are off to a poor start, but real and systematic consultation and flexibility in implementation could still improve results.  Poorly designed and inadequately funded alternative development programs combined with increased fumigation and militarization of southern Colombia will have disastrous consequences, not the least of which will be to drive peasant farmers into the ranks of the insurgency or the paramilitaries and to spell the failure of drug control programs.

8.  Are US-funded programs to strengthen human rights and improve the justice system effective?

While US funding programs for human rights and justice system strengthening are well-intentioned and their goals appear well-designed, these programs must be carefully monitored to ensure that they are effective.  Like the alternative development programs, they are barely being implemented; as of April, only some $5 million worth of programs had been disbursed by the Justice Department, which manages these programs.  The context in which they are provided, the largely military aid package, has burdened them from the start with certain liabilities.

For example, a number of the nongovernmental organizations best qualified to implement such programs have declared that they will reject such assistance.  More than 100 Colombian NGOs signed an August declaration that Plan Colombia was co-opted by US military strategy, making their participation unethical and dangerous (Steven Dudley, “Colombian Groups Say U.S. Aid Endangers Them,” Washington Post, 8/23/2000). Organizations are also worried that accepting US assistance will make them targets of guerrilla violence.  Publicly rejecting the assistance, however, also could make them more vulnerable to paramilitary attacks.   The  rejection of funds by well-qualified organizations leaves the field open to contractors with less experience in Colombia, who may still face difficulties when they need to subcontract projects to Colombian counterparts.

The limited US aid available in the past for human rights/justice has focused on training.  Colombian government prosecutors and investigators, however, claim with some justification that their staffs are well trained and skilled, and that instead of training, they face two related obstacles: political will by the national government to support and implement their decisions, and infrastructure to carry them out.  For example,  technical investigations unit (CTI) staff claims that the security forces only carry out one in ten arrest warrants for paramilitary leaders, so careful investigations come to nothing.  Moreover, prosecutors and investigators claim that the central government does not allocate the cars and bodyguards they need to carry out risky investigations with sufficient protection.  Many investigators have been killed or forced into exile.  The effective human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office and the technical investigations unit are hampered by a high turnover rate due to the enormous stress and risk.

Aid programs to the justice sector are promising but run the risk of being ineffective if they provide resources and training but fail to address or are undercut by the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian executive branch and security forces.

9.  What is the impact on displacement?

US policy’s impact on displacement should not just be measured by effective delivery of humanitarian assistance but also by whether it is creating more displacement or creating the conditions that would allow displacement to slow and resettlement to take place.   With 2 million people displaced since 1985 and nearly 300,000 per year in recent years, displacement must be addressed in Colombia as a major national priority in and of itself.

Humanitarian aid to the displaced, like aid for human rights, has been complicated by the military nature of the package.  Horrified by the fact that the official US aid plan contemplated forcibly displacing an additional 10,000 people through fumigation, as well as worried about risks to their field staff if US funds were accepted, some of the most qualified humanitarian agencies decided not to apply for US assistance, while other well-qualified agencies did decide to accept funding.  However, unlike the alternative development and justice/human rights assistance, aid to the displaced has been rapidly programmed by AID.

The Colombian government’s efforts to date to provide humanitarian relief and resettlement for the displaced have been roundly and almost universally criticized for their inefficiency.  Policymakers should ensure that most assistance is channeled through nongovernmental humanitarian agencies, but should also ensure that pressure is brought to bear on the Colombian government agency Red de Solidaridad, which is responsible for attention to the displaced. 

10. What is the impact of this policy on the environment?

There are a number of unanswered environmental questions.  The herbicide used in aerial fumigation is known as Roundup Ultra, whose main ingredient is the chemical glyphosate.  While the US State Department finds glyphosate to be “less toxic than common salt” in oral toxicity studies (US Fact Sheet on Fumigation, 11/6/2000), the Pesticide Action Network has found that glyphosate is significantly more toxic when inhaled or applied dermatologically (Elsa Nivia, PAN Colombia Regional Coordinator, 11/20/2000).  An additional concern is that in Roundup Ultra, the chemicals added to the glyphosate– which are often more toxic than glyphosate itself– are unknown.  Roundup Ultra is marketed as “Roundup with two additional surfactants” (Monsanto website), but the surfactants added have not been released. Furthermore, the concentration at which the herbicide is used in Colombia is unknown, and could greatly affect the environmental impact of the herbicide application.

There are a number of other inconsistencies in the fumigation campaign.  Fumigation planes often fly at far higher altitudes than recommended (in fact, the Roundup website states that the herbicide is “not recommended for aerial application”), causing the herbicide to drift into rivers, homes, and the Amazon rainforest. Roundup is not supposed to be applied near or in bodies of water, but rivers and ponds are routinely fumigated.  In addition, the Roundup website recommends that livestock be kept out of fumigated areas for two weeks following application, but the aerial fumigation campaigns spray livestock directly, leading to illness and death.  Food crops are also killed.  The long-term impact of the fumigation campaign is still unknown, as there have been no studies of the use of the herbicide in these specific concentrations and conditions in tropical environments.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact, however, is that fumigation causes coca growers to flee and move deeper into the agrarian frontier, causing deforestation.  Often, farmers move into the Amazon rainforest, putting at risk one of the most biodiverse regions of the world.  Policymakers need to ask more specific questions about the use of herbicides, insist upon environmental impact studies, and look at the broader environmental impact of a policy that shifts coca production from one environmentally fragile area to the next.  

Written by: Lisa Haugaard, with research assistance by Tina Hodges and Elanor Starmer.

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