The problem of glyphosate spraying

There may be risks associated with the environmental and operational conditions in which the spraying is carried out
Pedro Arenas*
Monday, April 13, 2015

FumigationsAn article published recently in El Espectador commented on the two issues that underpin the Colombian discourse on the subject of drugs. To be precise, the government’s discourse is far from reflecting what goes on in practice, or the actions that are still being carried out in the country. Colombia is seen as the star pupil in complying with the United Nations drug treaties and it continues to do things that many other countries would avoid.

A report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – part of the World Health Organisation – has reopened the debate about the advisability of aerial spraying with glyphosate. The agency, which is based in Lyon, France, lists five pesticides – including the popular glyphosate – as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” as they may cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma,(1) although there is already “convincing evidence that glyphosate (…) can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

This statement by an international scientific body adds to the suspicions and complaints expressed by Colombian academics, NGOs and communities. The Minister of Health, Alejandro Gaviria, told Associated Press that this news has put the ministry on the alert, but counter-narcotics police chief General Ricardo Restrepo reiterated to the same news agency that his mission is “to implement the strategy.”

The firms of contractors that have benefited from Plan Colombia and United States 'aid' money have said that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers glyphosate to be safe. That does not fit with the biodiverse reality of the Colombian countryside where the agrotoxin is being applied intensively and on a massive scale. They do have something that works in their favour: in Colombia, the burden of proof falls on the victims.

Colombian environmentalists and academics have done well to denounce what is happening in the Colombian countryside with 'la fumiga', but since the photos of babies born with genetic abnormalities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta at the end of the 1970s, there has been no 'proof' endorsed by the authorities that the spraying is killing people, and no evidence beyond the pictures of indigenous people suffering from skin rashes or eye irritations.

According to Colombian law, the Ministry of Health had the responsibility to order hospitals in the areas subjected to spraying to be ready to deal with any contingencies that might arise as a result of the fumigation campaigns, including keeping records of emergencies, medical consultations and suspected or clear cases of health consequences in humans. Likewise, the Agriculture Secretariats and Municipal Technical Assistance Offices (UMATAS) were supposed to keep records of animal health cases. However, preventive measures of this type were never implemented, and therefore the official figures on deaths and illness in these areas are not known for certain. This situation was studied by CEDES at the University of the Andes, which used comparative tables to demonstrate that there has been damage to health in the fumigated areas.

In a compilation of the National Environmental Licensing Authority’s monitoring reports on the fumigation programme’s environmental management plan, it is stated that the Counter-Narcotics Police “are complying with environmental monitoring.” But the agency also found several cases of complaints in 2014 by people from indigenous and African-descent communities in the Chocó region that their health had been affected.

It is also accepted that there may be risks associated with the environmental and operational conditions in which the spraying is carried out. The fact that the spraying takes place in the midst of armed conflict was corroborated by the shooting down of the fumigation planes last year in Piamonte, Cauca. Incidents like this make it impossible to comply with many of the rules established for the overflights, in addition to the type of vegetation adjacent to the crops, which in many cases is more than 40 metres tall. But the health of farmers and their animals has mattered little in the evaluations of the effectiveness of these spraying campaigns and their collateral effects.

For now, the Ministry of Health is keeping silent about the official propaganda that maintains that glyphosate is not damaging to human health. This included the notorious footage of officials pretending to drink the poison in glasses of water, while others allowed themselves to be sprayed with the chemical by a plane flying over their heads. The Ministry’s stance goes against the principles that ought to govern its actions, especially the precautionary principle. Any country that is concerned for its citizens’ health undoubtedly ought to call a halt to a programme like this. Bearing in mind the link between the right to health and the right to life in the Colombian constitution, such a move becomes all the more urgent.

(1) A cancer of the lymphatic tissue. This tissue is found in the lymphatic glands, the spleen and other organs that form part of the immune system. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is characterised by the way in which the cells shine under the microscope, the type of white blood cells it originates from, and whether or not there are certain DNA changes in the tumour cells themselves.

* INDEPAZ Observatory of crops and farmer

This article was published in: (27/03/2015)

Translation: Sara Shields