TODAY’S DRUG POLICY AND YESTERDAY’S GLYPHOSATE Aerial fumigation is facing a very different moment in the world and in the country with regard to drug policy and its limits.

By Isabel Pereira,* Dejusticia, December 16, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

This Saturday, December 19, in Florencia, Caquetá Province, there will be an environmental policy hearing on the modification of the Environmental Management Plan for the Eradication of Illegal Plantings with Glyphosate (PECIG in Spanish). This hearing is one of the steps in the process of renewing aerial aspersion that the Duque administration announced in its campaign. It has been promoted by his Ministers of Defense, and he has even requested the Constitutional Court to make more flexible its orders that had suspended the program.

PECIG, a strategy that has been developed in Colombia for many years, now is in a process of renewal that is entangled and bogged down, while the Duque government’s light planes are still parked where they have been for two years. What’s behind the complexity of this process, and what relation does the paradigm shift have to global drug policy?

Saturday’s hearing is part of the implementation of Decision T-236/2017 that imposed strict conditions on the renewal of PECIG, which has been suspended in this country since 2015. Basically, the Court, recognizing that there had been damages to health, to the environment, and effects on the rights to participation and prior consultation in the midst of operations in Nóvita, Chocó Province, required that if the activity is to be renewed, there must be an impartial and objective evaluation of the risks to human health and ecosystems, and of ways to prevent that and to mitigate it, among other things. In 2019, the Court further added that before aspersion can be renewed, the policies of voluntary crop substitution contained in the Final Peace Agreement must be implemented.

All of these obstacles to aerial aspersion are not just fanciful, but rather they are based on the fact that it’s a very expensive strategy, with injuries to health, to the environment, and to rural development, and not very effective in the long run. When fumigation was booming—between 1994 and 2015—there seemed to be an international consensus on its desirability. There were very few critical voices in United Nations settings, or in bilateral relations with the United States, which, by means of Plan Colombia, supported and financed the use of glyphosate.

But today it’s a strategy that is criticized within and outside of this country, by UN human rights movements, by local and international experts, and by the same country that previously demanded that we fumigate, the United States. In the last decade, the vision on drug policy has been transformed, as it passed beyond being a political issue that seemed disconnected to the world of human rights. Today it cannot escape that vision. Something that is logical—that actions of government should not cause unacceptable harms to the citizens—is a focus that is relatively new in drug policies, as it also has to do with something very simple: the strategies to combat the illegal plantings, being part of the United Nations system, are also subject to human rights standards.

The strategies for reducing illegal crops make up part of the global drug policy, that’s to say, of the compliance with the three international treaties of the United Nations, by means of which countries commit to the elimination of coca, marijuana, and opium poppy for illegal purposes, i.e. those that are neither medical nor scientific. Of course this has left Colombia in the eye of the hurricane, and in the middle of the local wars and the international wars on drugs.

A recent development that expresses that change is the publication in 2019 of the “International Directives for Drug Policy and Human Rights.” This is a joint effort between the United Nations Development Program (PNUD in Spanish) and the World Health Organization (OMS in Spanish) and the United Nations Joint Program Against AIDS (Onusida in Spanish), in collaboration with the Human Rights and Drug Policy Center at the University of Essex. With respect to fumigation with herbicides, the directives are clear; they recommend specifically that governments “prohibit aerial fumigation of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical products as a method of preventing and eradicating illegal plantings for the production of drugs, unless it is demonstrated that such chemical products present no risk to human life or to the environment.”

This international regulatory development is the result of years of pronouncements, alerts, complaints, and advocacy from civil society, and from human rights agencies. In the years of Plan Colombia, and because of the damage from glyphosate not just in Colombian territory, but also on the Ecuador side of the frontier, the subject was taken up by many United Nations agencies related to children, food supply, ethnic communities, toxic substances, and human rights overall. No agency of the multiple agencies that make up the United Nations system defends the glyphosate strategy today.

At the national level, the Constitutional Court has begun to incorporate these international precedents in its decisions on drug-related matters. That was the case in the Decision on consumption of drugs in public areas, and also in Order No. 387 in 2019, following up on the decision not to renew the PECIG. In both decisions, there was reference to the international directives and different rights that are affected negatively by drug policies that are based on punishment.

All of these changes reveal something very simple and very powerful. Not everything works successfully in the war on drugs. We can’t ignore the negative impacts of an illicit economy in a territory, because it also implies control, through violence, by illegal armed actors, territorial disputes, and corruption of official institutions, among many other kinds of harm. But what is clear is that in the name of eliminating the illicit economy, we should not cause still further damage. The aerial aspersion of glyphosate has been associated with various harms to health, including miscarriages, respiratory and dermatological problems and the destruction of livelihoods and of legal crops, and ultimately, it only results in the transport of the coca to other areas.

Judging by the informational meetings that have preceded the hearing on this Saturday, there is no encouragement or support in the farming communities for fumigation, which is not surprising. These are campesino communities that have chosen peace and voluntary crop substitution. They see glyphosate as a threat to their very survival, and besides that, they see its supporters as inexplicably pig-headed. Meanwhile, this government has weakened the voluntary crop substitution program, arguing that there are not enough funds, but they suddenly find the funds for an expensive strategy.

On Saturday, the pulse of the current government’s drug policy, anchored in the past, will be measured against the reliance on peace, and a transformative vocation for the territories where coca was grown. Let’s hope that they don’t take advantage of the Christmas season to make decisions that could harm an entire generation.

* Isabel Pereira Arana, Coordinator for Drug Policy at Dejusticia

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