El Espectador, December 19, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

This December 19 multiple campesino and civil society organizations were summoned to discuss an essential subject: whether or not they approve the Environmental Management Plan for the Police. It would bring the return to this country of the aerial fumigations with glyphosate. The first day of the public environmental hearing, organized by ANLA (National Authority for Environmental Permits), concluded after 4:30 pm, but it will continue on Sunday starting at 8:00 in the morning.

If there was any subject this year that the government believed to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, without having to do with it directly, it was the subject of aerial aspersion with glyphosate. Following the orders of the Constitutional Court, which in 2017 suspended the use of the chemical with a preliminary injunction based principally on public health, the Duque administration has prepared what was necessary to be able to modify the Environmental Management Plan (PMA) for the Police and, thus, to be able to demonstrate that it would be possible to renew the fumigations with glyphosate. The change in the PMA has to be approved by ANLA,  and, to do that, the entity was required to conduct a public hearing.

The steps taken to set up the hearing began on December 30, 2019, two months and one week before the first case of the new coronavirus was registered in Colombia. In just a question of days, President Duque decreed a national quarantine, and multiple plans in the length and breadth of this country, including that particular hearing, went to a wait and see status. Then, ANLA proposed that the event be held, as everything would be done at that time, virtually. In April of this year, organizations such as Dejusticia, Elementa, Consultoría en Derechos, Corporacíon Acción Técnica Social, and Corporacíon Viso Mutop sent a letter to ANLA, asking that the initiative be cancelled.

The groups, representing thousands of campesinos who know that their crops will be affected if aerial aspersion of glyphosate is renewed—that includes subsistence crops, not just crops for illegal use—ask that there not be a virtual hearing before obligatory isolation is over. ANLA did not agree, and so the groups resorted to the legal system. For an instant, they prevailed. In May, the Second Branch of the Pasto Administrative Court decided that, with a virtual hearing, it was “clear that it could not be assured that the population that is interested and potentially affected would be able to exercise their right to participate if the environmental hearing were to be held virtually.”

In July, the Nariño Administrative Tribunal upheld the decision and agreed with the communities that had filed a civil rights action seeking a hearing. The investigation was suspended until it would be possible for people interested or affected to participate. The decision reads: “the fundamental rights to due process, to prior consultation, to participation and to access to information must be guaranteed to the named plaintiffs. They are the object of threats and violations, in the development of environmental procedures for the modification of the Environmental Management Plan for the Eradication of illegal Crops Program by means of aerial aspersion of the herbicide glyphosate (PECIG).”

This is the background of what is going on today, as, finally, the ANLA set up a virtual hearing, assuring the courts that it had complied with their requirements: guaranteeing the participation of the campesino communities that, since yesterday, have been gathering at points such as Villagarzón and other municipalities in Putumayo, one of the provinces with the largest presence of crops that are used illegally. The plaintiff organizations have multiple concerns with respect to the renewal of the use of glyphosate, including that there will not be compliance with what was promised in the drug war section of the Peace Agreement with the FARC.

According to the environmental authorities, the virtual hearing will continue tomorrow, Sunday, December 20, starting at 8:00 in the morning.

Dejusticia has also said: “The Environmental Management Plan (PMA) depends on the legal requirements imposed by Decision T-236 in 2017 (by the Constitutional Court) by which the program as a whole will be evaluated, and not only the herbicide used; whether there is genuine participation by the community; whether people affected are able to have any real influence on the decisions that will be adopted; whether the investigations making up the basis of decisions are truly top-quality, impartial, and rigorous; and whether conclusions are based on objective and convincing evidence, and not on hypothesis, conjectures, or on one single study that establishes or discounts the danger of harm.

The Live Hearing

Edilberto Peñaranda, ANLA Deputy

The first person to speak and to welcome those attending the event was the ANLA Deputy, who stated that, as an environmental authority, responding to the request by the Inspector General’s Delegate for environment and agriculture, and four organizations, stated that, “We thought we could convene this public hearing and, in preparation, we carried out more than 27 informational meetings throughout the country virtually, not face to face. We made a great effort to allow the highest possible number of citizens and authorities to participate, and to express their relationship to this subject: the modification of the environmental management plan for the Program of Eradication of Illegal Crops with Glyphosate.”

He explained that this is a method of participation in which authorities, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens have the opportunity to give their opinion, present information that is relevant to the activity that the Police are seeking to carry out. “We hope that every citizen present in the different places will take part in this public environmental hearing that they have signed up for. But under the circumstances, for all the people who were not able to sign up, we will give them a chance to intervene once we have heard all of the authorities that have an official duty to take part.”

Major General Julio Cesar González Bedoya, Region 2 Police Commander (Huila, Caquetá, Putumayo, and Tolima). The Police are the party requesting the modification of the environmental plan to allow aerial aspersion of glyphosate.

The officer used a video that explained in detail the characteristics of the environmental management plan. The audiovisual resource indicates that right now the project is in the environmental public hearing phase, and that before the study was designed, there was a dissemination to regional authorities in the provincial capitals; they held informational meetings with broad community participation and broad outreach, keeping in mind that there are communities in areas that are very far removed. In other words, they distributed the information widely, as they were required to do.

Another key point explained in the video is the manner in which the aspersion is being planned.  “Thanks to technology with satellite imagery, we identify the areas raising coca, we can tell how big the plants are, if they are productive or not. We can make an image of the areas and put the information into the flight systems, which can identify the areas where aspersion will be most effective. We will go to areas that are already deteriorated and we don’t want to affect anything else. That is how, based on technology, we can use aerial aspersion on the largest plantings. That is how the planes pass over the legal crops and just apply herbicide to the coca.”

On this specific subject, which was of such great concern to the communities, the Police insisted that the technology had advanced so much that with satellite images, they could guarantee with precision not just the extent of the area that would be sprayed, but also  the dosage that they would need to apply. Besides that, the Police Commander pointed out, the plane used for the aspersion is one made solely for agricultural use (AirTractor) and, therefor, it has smart systems of flow control that permit the authority to maintain the flow within certain parameters, and thus guarantee that the aspersion hits the target and does not go outside the designated area.

With respect to the use of glyphosate as a herbicide, the institution has made a rigorous study of the aspersion mix that is used, to determine exactly the right mix to affect the plant that is used to make cocaine. “It’s designed very carefully. More than 60% of the mix is specially conditioned water; the glyphosate is 33% and an adjunct mineral gives it structure and weight so that it stays the way we need it to be. All of this has been studied very carefully. Glyphosate has characteristics similar to soil as far as PH, which makes it able to be absorbed, and there is almost no probability that it could be displaced and contaminate the soil. It’s systemic in plants; it enters through the leaves, it’s incorporated, there is a wilting in the tissue, and the dying plant can no longer perform photosynthesis,” explained spokesmen for the Police agency.

Diego Trujillo, the Inspector General’s Delegate for environmental and agricultural matters. One of those who requested the public hearing on the environment.

The Inspector General’s Delegate spoke in order to make his agency’s position clear. Trujillo indicated that, even though the war on drug trafficking works in tandem with the Peace Process, they are not treating the problems in a joint manner, and therefore it will be very difficult to find the peace and harmony required in the rural areas. “Even though the subject is the environmental management plan, seeking a method that will be effective, if the government does not commit to making social advances toward equality and justice in the countryside, it’s going to be difficult, and what we plan to do is to create incentives for the areas that have been affected by aspersion and that continue to be devastated, deforested, and with biodiversity destroyed,” he stated.

The Inspector General’s representative added that it looks as if the Police are committed, but, “what happens in the countryside and carrying out the plan will tell if they are doing what they said they would, and not violating the rights of the population that lives near the areas that are sprayed, even though they are supposed to be excluded by the plan.” Besides that, he warned that with climate change it may be that no technology can guarantee that strong winds or heavy rains would not affect the aspersion that they say is precise. “The Armed Forces must make clear that the rural population is not the enemy that has to be pursued; they have to seek those that are behind the grand strategy of land grabbing for growing the illegal crops. The big problem in Colombia is the absence of land registries in the rural areas; there are a lot of people interested in ending up as owners of public property that will be devastated if aerial aspersion is not managed well.”

To conclude his statement, Trujillo said that the Inspector General’s Office is concerned that the Police are insisting on using Chinese glyphosate that has been seriously questioned, and that in 2015 resulted in an investigation into corruption in the acquisition of the herbicide. It was not the one recommended by the health and environmental authorities at that time. “Transparency in this important process has to do with the technical parameters and with products that permit more acceptance in the territories and for the environment,” he concluded.

Mauricio Albarracín, Attorney and Assistant Director of Dejusticia.

The spokesman for Dejusticia began his presentation by stating that the modification of the environmental plan for aspersion of glyphosate should not be approved, because the practice violates the fundamental rights of the communities protected y the Constitutional Court. “We agree that drug trafficking has generated ill effects on the lives and security of Colombians, and, in spite of the fact that it is the government’s duty to fight against drug trafficking, this has to be done by means of strategies that respect the Constitution   (…) we invite the authorities not to stigmatize those of us who take a different position and are expressing disagreement with policies that violate human rights,” he said.

Albarracín made clear that he is not trying to leave the government without any tools to fight against drug trafficking and, on the contrary, his intention is to look for the right alternatives to confront the problem. He added that this hearing did not comply with international parameters for citizen participation and that, as a representative of Dejusticia, he did not endorse this event but rather, on the contrary, he has aided and supported the people who believe that this hearing violates fundamental rights. “By public statements, mobilizations, and protests, society is requesting a Christmas and a country free of glyphosate ( … ) This hearing is being held on a Saturday, five days before Christmas, and at a moment with a high risk of infection by coronavirus.”

And regarding the subject, the Attorney claimed that the environmental management plan proposed by the Police is not in compliance with four pillars of the Constitution: the ecological constitution, the protection of ethnic and cultural diversity, the guarantee of peace as a right and duty under the Constitution, and the protection of campesinos as the subjects of special constitutional protection. Likewise, he pointed to five arguments that show that the plan ought not to be approved by the environmental authority (ANLA).

First, the spokesman explained that there had not been prior informed participation by those who would possibly be affected. This is a central element in the nature of the activity and the impact it creates in the communities and in the environment. “It has to be prior, broad, deliberative, and effective. In this process here, there is a lack of accessible information, transparency, and participative procedures that go both ways. It’s trying to discuss a management plan made up of more than 3,000 pages, that contains language that is not accessible to the population that might possible be affected. The information lacks transparency, as the studies published by ANLA and on the Anti-drug-trafficking (Police) web page don’t contain the attachments with the prior technical studies. Without complete, open, public and understandable information, it’s impossible to guarantee citizen participation,” he warned.

In the second place, he said that the information about the risks and harms is not sufficient, poorly structured, and not impartial, so that you can’t exactly define the certainty of the level of risk of the plan, and you can’t determine preventive measures. In that way, he claimed, the basic nucleus of the guarantee of environmental protection is not accomplished. “It was not objective, because it was done by a panel contracted by the National Police and is not supported with technical attachments or methods that would permit defining the magnitude of the environmental impacts. The appraisal of the risk of glyphosate is not only incomplete, but also inadequate for the use to which it’s being put,” he said.

In the third place, Albarracín pointed out that the plan does not comply with the obligation to implement the Peace Agreement in good faith, when the Agreement prioritized the policies of substitution before aspersion. It has to comply with the constitutional principle of good faith, and implement the policy of voluntary substitution if forced manual eradication is not successful, and aspersion with glyphosate can only be used as a third alternative,” he insisted. The fourth argument furnished by Dejusticia emphasizes that the environmental management plan violates the principle of legality.

“The Police and ANLA have decided not to discuss important aspects of the environmental effects of this process, because that would be tackling their specific plans. Nevertheless, we don’t know how the procedure for approval of these plans will function. In spite of our efforts to obtain more information about the legal rationale of this policy, we haven’t received satisfactory answers,” the attorney explained. Finally, he indicated that they have not carried out a prior consultation with the ethnic communities through a prior and informed agreement on the decisions that affect their territory, especially when the damage is produced by a chemical substance.

In conclusion, the spokesman for Dejusticia made clear that the plan for environmental management is contrary to Constitutional Court case law and to the environmental permitting process; it does not respect the guarantee of peace, or the protection of people who are the subjects of special protection, as in the case of the ethnic communities. In that sense, he said, the possible environmental permitting is contrary to what is enshrined in the Peace Agreement and lacks the elements of objectivity, independence, accessibility, and impartiality. Similar reasons, also leading to rejection of the plan, were offered by Carolina Sorsano, of the organization Terrae, and Jorge Forero, Attorney for Elementa, who also requested the public hearing.

Jhon Fredy Criollo Arciniegas, Secretary of Environment and Agriculture in Caquetá

The provincial official suggested the possibility of jointly analyzing and exploring situations of manual eradication. “We support the policies of the national government, but we are also conscious of the fact that there are some Peace Agreements that are also in effect and that allow an alternatives to aspersion as a way to protect social and environmental interests in the Province of Caquetá. Our territory has some different implications; it’s a hydrological star, an ecosystem sea with high environmental fragility, and that leads us to check out other alternatives,” he indicated.

The Secretary added that there are several guides from the Environment Ministry itself that regulate various actions. “There could be a drift of the aspersions by the climate itself, and for that reason they are included in the environmental management plan, but it’s also important to educate the communities out in the countryside. I believe that the way to claim our rights is through knowing how to withstand any activity that deviates from what has been framed initially. Caquetá is quick to guarantee the rights of the organizations and of all of the people of Caquetá.

Jorge Tadeo Oyola, Delegate of the Local Officials in Florencia, Caquetá.

“It would be a mistake to renew the aspersions, because that is a strategy that has been shown to be inefficient and ineffective. It has been in use for more than 17 years and it has not succeeded in eradicating this scourge. It affects not only the illegal crops, but also the animals and human beings because, being a herbicide, it is not specific for just one kind of crop, but rather it also affects agricultural products and subsistence crops, as well as plants and animals. The impact seen in the rear view mirror of experience affects people’s rights and we think there has to be a change of focus in anti-drug policy, with a vision of protection of public health,” he declared.

He added that it would be contradictory and unethical if the government were to act deliberately against the people. He insisted that the policy of aspersion with glyphosate doesn’t work and is indefensible because is affects people’s health. Besides that, he said that the government must implement new alternatives and solutions, such as voluntary substitution and manual eradication, among others. These might provide a solution to the situation.

Alberto Rivera, Inspector General for Regional Environment and Agriculture in Santander.

The official from the Inspector General’s Office wanted to emphasize citizen participation and its importance in these kinds of decisions. “What does it mean to guarantee citizen participation? I believe that guaranteeing citizen participation means that the agencies have to include the statements from the communities or their organizations as a fundamental element in their thinking ( … ) it means consulting the culture of those who are part of a certain territory and respecting their fundamental and collective rights. It means making a rigorous analysis of the risks to health and environment of those who are part of the community in a particular territory,” he said.

Rivera stated that guaranteeing that fundamental right means that the environmental and physical layout has to be closely connected, scientifically and technically, based on full knowledge so that the indicators measuring the risks to health and to the environment will disappear or will have minimal impact. “I would like to have the ANLA analysis respond to civil society on the impact of glyphosate on bees and other pollinators. It’s a unique opportunity to build and design a strategy that works together with the government’s necessities and those of the authorities, but has to be tied to compliance with the orders in the Court decisions and that looks toward the countryside in a much more constructive manner,” he concluded.

Lilia Hincapié, the Inspector General’s Regional Environment and Agriculture Official for Valle del Cauca Province, for her part, expressed her concern about the possible contamination that aspersion of glyphosate could generate in the territories of El Naya and Buenaventura, where there is no water service and the communities have to depend on local water sources. Furthermore, the Local Official from Darién in Valle del Cauca claimed that “the crop substitution program has no continuity, even though I disagree with the application of herbicides or glyphosate, because the wind currents and a quantity of other factors won’t guarantee that they fall with focus on the coca, and I am aware that we have to make sure that the coca won’t be present. The government has not given up, nor can it give up its commitment to eradication, but I also know of people that use these crops for their survival. They should be able to count on the government’s support for them to get started on a different route.”


Francisco Murillo, Magüí Payán, Nariño

“We are a people that has been forgotten by the Colombian government, and the people have turned to raising illegal crops. In 2017, with the Peace Agreement, they talked about eradication. The government said that everybody that turned to voluntary substitution would receive a benefit and some resources, but the government didn’t do that for the people of Magüí. We need the government to have some sympathy for us and to comply with the Agreements. Human beings have a worse enemy and that is hunger. Everybody is looking for a way to survive.”

Cristian Vargas, Cartagena, Bolívar

“Renewing aspersion is a failed policy that has not achieved the planned objectives. The cost-effectiveness of aspersion has been evaluated. There is scientific evidence from the World Health Organization that warns unequivocally that aspersion of herbicides places human health at risk. Right next to the coca leaves, there is food growing, there are subsistence crops; returning to aspersion would put the campesinos’ food security in serious danger. It would put at risk the water sources that are located next to the crops being grown for illegal uses. The worldwide effect is that, at the moment the aspersion arrives, the plantings go to other locations, broadening and damaging the agricultural boundaries of this country. We believe that we have to keep on insisting on voluntary eradication of illegal crops.”

Alex Zambrano, Local Official, Leyva, Nariño

“My territory has been very much abandoned by the government. In 2016, Leyva was the scene of aspersion because we have always had illegal crops. The only thing achieved by that strategy was that many water sources disappeared, that a lot of plants and animals disappeared, and that thousands of people in the rural area had to abandon the territory , looking for a way to survive, because the aid and incentives that the government promised were just a damp doily that in no way mitigated the serious damage that the aerial aspersion had done. The people are terrified that this is going to be repeated. They say with one voice: yes, we want voluntary substitution. We don’t want aspersion with glyphosate. The government can’t ignore the Agreements that it signed.”

Mauricio Parra Bayona, Bogotá, D.C.

The communities have said this a thousand times; they want to eradicate the illegal crops, but to do that, the government has to guarantee their social and economic rights, because the forced eradication intensifies their poverty and their misery ( … ) it’s absurd that they are trying to start over with spraying the illegal crops. In order to weaken the drug traffic it’s necessary for the government to prosecute the strongest links; that has never happened. Why don’t they capture the bankers and the big businesses that launder the money for the drug traffickers? Why don’t they capture the politicians and the public servants that are making the production and trafficking of tons of illegal drugs possible? Why don’t they capture the businessmen whose farms, vehicles, container ships and airplanes are storing and transporting tons of cocaine?”

This citizen added that the fumigation of crops for illegal uses and the forced eradication make the situation of the population worse, and that is why there are people in the communities who believe that the true objective of fumigation is to weaken and displace the population so that they can develop megaprojects. In other words, fumigation with glyphosate is like a mechanism inside of a strategy for the plunder of the land.

María Alejandra Vélez, with a group of researchers from the Center for the Study of Drugs and Security, University of the Andes

The strategy of eradication with glyphosate is not cost-effective and presents risks to health and to the environment that should not be taken on in this country. Besides that, there are five large gaps in the environmental management plan: 1. It does not consider the possible direct and indirect impacts of the program on human health. 2. The environmental management plan shows a lack of information and that lack hinders the assessment of the sustainability of the environmental evaluation. As a result, the environmental evaluation assures that there are no social costs. So the evaluatio is deficient in that it assumes there will be no social costs. That would be very difficult to justify. 3. Deficient evaluation of the costs of the Environmental Management Plan. 4. The strategy for mitigation of the risks presented does not prevent effects caused by the aspersion missing the target, such as leakage of glyphosate and its toxic metabolisms into the soil. There are direct and indirect effects that could have social and environmental costs, including to health, and those deserve to be evaluated. 5. The cost-benefit analysis is incomplete. In synthesis, the environmental management plan contains gaps in which it’s assumed without justification that the program has neither environmental nor social costs. It would be a historic mistake for Colombia to approve the current plan  for environmental management, given its serious deficiencies. At the same time, it disregards not only the scientific evidence about aspersion, but also the social and environmental demands.

At 4:30 p. m. on this Saturday, the first session of the planned environmental public hearing was closed. The second session will commence tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. According to the environmental agency, the statements prepared by the participants in the public hearing can be sent to the email or by regular mail to the address Cra 13A#34-72, in the city of Bogotá.

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