Plan Colombia: The Harmful Impacts of Aerial Spraying of Coca and Poppy Crops


In 2000, the United States and Colombian governments together launched intensive and expanded aerial spraying operations to destroy the coca and poppy crops used to make cocaine and heroin. These spraying operations form a key component of the multi-billion dollar U.S.-financed program known as “Plan Colombia”. As part of this program, planes repeatedly spray herbicide over coca and poppy crops in forests, fields, and towns of rural Colombia. Between 2000 and 2008, more than 1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) were sprayed.

A controversial policy

Many organizations and institutions have criticized the aerial spraying program for being ineffective and causing significant environmental, social, and economic damage in Colombia. Despite ample evidence to support these critiques, the U.S. and Colombian governments have insisted that continuous spraying is necessary to prevent the spread of coca and poppy cultivation, and poses no risk to human health or the environment. The Colombian Public Defender’s Office, the Colombian General Accounting Office, various national and international environmental and human rights organizations, and even the European Parliament, beg to differ.  These groups have emphasized that repeatedly spraying herbicides on “illicit” crops, while failing to provide sustainable, alternative sources of income and government assistance, simply motivates farmers to replant their crops elsewhere, which increases deforestation and expands the area adversely affected by coca and poppy production.

AIDA’s role

AIDA opposes the widespread use of chemicals to forcefully eradicate coca, poppy, and other crops grown for illicit use. We have done extensive work to make the U.S. and Colombian governments comply with laws intended to protect the environment and human health. As part of our efforts, we have educated U.S. and Colombian authorities about the program’s potential ecological and social impacts; urged authorities to conduct more rigorous environmental and health analyses; advocated against herbicide spraying in Colombian national parks and the Ecuadorian border region; and documented environmentally-protective, participatory, alternative development projects that would be far more effective in stemming “illicit” crop production.

Shift away from aerial spraying

While aerial spraying of coca and poppy crops continues in Colombia, in 2007, authorities began decreasing the number of hectares sprayed and increasing those subject to forced manual eradication, a method that involves teams of eradicators, protected by security forces, pulling plants out by hand. While this method is flawed because it generates distrust in communities and can lead to violence, forced manual eradication has proven to be more effective than aerial spraying and hence, less environmentally damaging. For these gains to last, however, farmers must be able to find sustained, alternative sources of income.  Without equitable and environmentally-protective economic development in rural Colombia, all efforts to eradicate coca and poppy cultivation will eventually fail.

It is AIDA’s hope that Colombia and the United States will heed the lessons learned from a decade of massive spraying, and work together with rural communities to form solutions that truly protect human rights, nurture and sustain the environment, and eliminate the poverty and inequalities that fuel coca and poppy production.

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