By Camilo Alzate Gonzáles, EL ESPECTADOR, January 16,
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
A group of campesinos from southern Bolívar Department, affected by the aerial fumigations, are requesting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace admit their case. It would be the first of its type to be investigated by that jurisdiction and it could be historic.
Aldemar Granada’s children gave a name to the small plane that spread the glyphosate. They called it “What takes our pride away”. When the machine appeared on the horizon, that meant that everybody was going to suffer: the rich ranchers and the poor, the merchants and the truckers, those that planted coca and those that did not. The spraying in southern Bolívar had no respect for anybody.
Aldemar Granada is one of the 146 campesinos that grow cacao and belong to the Association of Agricultural Producers of the High Zone of San Pablo (Asocazul). It’s an organization that between 2005 and 2013 tried to offer the inhabitants of San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Simití some productive projects that would allow them to abandon the coca and the illegal economies through the Magdalena Medio Peace and Development
Program. Everything was done with international cooperation and a collective credit with Bancolombia that they were managing.
“We were tired of the armed conflict, which started all this stuff about coca,” says Manuel Durango, one of the members. “What we wanted was to come up with a process that would let us raise our children in a legal manner, and that would guarantee schooling and food for our children,” he added.
Asocazul managed the funds and the credits, and the commitments that whoever had coca plantings had to pull them out. But, as Manuel Durango says, “the very one we least expected to do us harm was the one that did it, the government itself.”
At least 40 of these families who aren’t growing coca on their farms now were affected by the aerial spraying of the glyphosate, which continued, with interruptions, between 2001 and 2015 in southern Bolívar.
In some cases, like the case of Rosa Pineda, they “fumigated” the cacao growers on as many as three different occasions in three different years, with everything lost for her and her family. In other cases, like that of Diomedes Páez Tarrazona, the fumigation happened just a single time, but with a loss of 5,500 varieties of grafted cacao recently hauled to his farm “with five mules”, barely a week after they had been planted. After the little airplane passed by, “nothing was left”, explains Diomedes, who finally abandoned his land.
All in all, 118 hectares of cacao were destroyed by the aerial spraying, directly affecting 42 families, even though in the end, all of the 146 families ended up paying the consequences, because the Association had no way to handle the loan from Bancolombia, and the project came crashing down, explains Esther Julia Cruz Celis, the founder of Asocazul.
A suit against the Colombian government was filed in 2013, based on this case, and is awaiting a final decision by the Council of State. The plaintiffs ask for 3,246 million pesos (roughly USD $805,000 at current exchange rates) in damages. However, the campesinos expect much more than repayment for the economic damage done to them.
“Our intentions go further: we want recognition of the truth and no repetition,” explains Andrés Santiago Mejía, the spokesman for Asocazul. “We want them to tell us where they were getting the georeferencing of the properties, and why they sprayed on those coordinates where cacao was growing.”
Furthermore, Asocazul wants the case to be heard by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and has made that request to the Recognition Branch, which is in charge of evaluating whether or not to accept Asocazul as a party in one of the macrocases.
Sources in the JEP explain that in 2022 they opened a macrocase on the responsibility of the paramilitaries, third parties, and agents of the government in the conflict, and that as long as the spraying was done by the Antinarcotic Police, within the counter-insurgency strategy of Plan Colombia, the complaint by Asocazul would fit into that macrocase. “They ought to recognize that this was the government’s responsibility, and we will be satisfied with that precedent, because the truth will be known,” says Mejía.
Esther Julia Cruz Celis, the promoter and catalyst for the project, has been firmly opposed to the use of glyphosate in the region. “When they started the fumigations, perhaps the government thought that the campesinos would never wake up to what was going on,” said Cruz Celis. “Today the campesinos are demanding their rights, and they understand about the environment.”
“ What they’re trying to do is to decampesinoize the countryside as a government policy, namely, clean out the territories,” insists Attorney Rosa Mateus. “These are policies to attack and get rid of the campesinos. The anti-drug policy has always been to pursue the weakest link in the chain.”
A cloud of poison
Aldemar Granada says that glyphosate is like a mist or “a vapor that burns you.” When it falls, very fine oily drops appear, and it impregnates everything, both the animals and the people. “Then the bad itching,” he says. He suffers from chronic dermatitis from the last fumigations; his father Eleázar received the outpouring of poison on his body while he was working on a planting of cacao, and he died of cancer some years later.
Granada’s testimony is key, because the Antinarcotics Police admitted that they had destroyed his legal crops of yuca and cacao. They even summoned him to conciliation in Cartagena, but there was never agreement about the amount of his damages.
“There was nothing left for us to do but look up at the airplane throwing poison on our crops,” Manuel Durango complains.
Up until 2020 there had been a total of 263 suits filed against the national government for similar events; 41were decided in favor of the campesinos and communities victimized by the spraying, and 57 were decided in favor of the government. There are 156 suits not yet decided, including the suit filed by Asocazul.
According to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Antinarcotics Office itself admitted that in fewer than 6% of the complaints they received had there been any visits to the countryside, and that fewer than 1% of the complainants had received any compensatory damages.
“This case could mark a very important milestone in the face of new proposals to fumigate,” maintains Attorney Rosa María Mateus. If the decision by the Council of State and the JEP is in favor of the campesinos, that could “suspend or cancel all of the aerial spraying plans that they have, and even plans for spraying on the ground,” she emphasized.
For Daniel Ortiz, a researcher for the Alternative Development Center, spraying with glyphosate is trying to “fight an agricultural problem with the methods you would use to fight a war. It’s been three decades now since the spraying was started, and they keep insisting on them,” Ortiz explains, adding that the only thing spraying has generated is something known as the mercury effect: “The logic is that there’s coca all over the country and therefore glyphosate as well.”
Rafael Antonio Galvis is a settler in Santander who is also a member of Asocazul. He can’t forget the morning when the airplane scattered glyphosate over the fields where the “yellows” were, a banana plantation of 400 fields and also his cacao crop. He and his young children went out on the yard of their farm to wave white flags, but that didn’t dissuade the Police.
The priest, Fr. Francisco de Roux, went to his farm, in the heart of the hills of San Lucas, when he was accompanying the Magdalena Medio Peace and Development Program to listen to testimony. “I agree on ending the planting of coca,” concludes Rafael Antonio, “but the government needs to invest.”
His demand is a good condensation of the brutal vicious circle of the spraying, which attacks the campesinos, but never solves the problem of drug trafficking. “There is great bitterness, there are a lot of people that have taken up arms because of these attacks, with any group that reaches out to them.”