agrotoxic war

In Colombia, women’s health paid the price of misguided drug control policies

Air-spraying of glyphosate to destroy coca plantations has caused miscarriages, fetal abnormalities, and maternal deaths
In Colombia, women’s health paid the price of misguided drug control policies
Photo: STR New (Reuters)
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In 1998, Yaneth Valderrama was four months pregnant with her third child, when she was accidentally sprayed with glyphosate, a powerful herbicide, while working in her family’s fields in the Colombian town of Solita, on the Chaquetá river. A few hours later, she experienced a miscarriage; after six months of related health complications, she died. She was just 28.

The herbicide had been sprayed, as was routine then, to destroy one of the many illegal coca plantations in the area—a front in the war on cocaine and other drugs. And while Valderrama and her family were not coca farmers, their fields, full plantains and other vegetables, were not spared—nor was she.

It took 20 years for her husband, Iván Medina, and daughters, to be able to get her case in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) The case was presented by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a global advocacy organization, and its local partner Conde Abogados. The commission admitted that the Colombian government might be liable for Valderrama’s death (link in Spanish).

In its judgment, the commission accepted the evidence of glyphosate’s impact on reproductive health, including in causing miscarriages, and listed its forcible use as a violation of reproductive health rights (link in Spanish). The IACHR also accepted as valid a second case of the chemical’s impact on reproductive health, that of Doris Yaneth Alape (pdf), who lost her pregnancy at 28 weeks after exposure to a glyphosate fumigation.

How glyphosate became a weapon of the war on drugs

Glyphosate is the most common herbicide in the world. Developed by the agricultural giant Monsanto in the 1970s, it has since been used in farms all over the the globe to destroy pernicious weeds.

Typically, glyphosate is applied manually in fields whose yields it is used to protect, at a distance close enough to target the unwanted weeds while protecting the main crop. In Colombia, however, it has historically been used for another purpose: the forced destruction of coca fields.

Most of Colombia’s coca is grown illegally in remote areas of the Amazonian region, by farmers who sell it to cartels for international smuggling. These farmers belong to communities that moved to the areas mostly in the second half of the last century, eventually finding in coca a reliable source of income. The area offers two advantages for the production of illegal drugs: it has the right climate, and it is extremely hard to reach and penetrate.

Enter glyphosate, which can be sprayed in high concentrations from airplanes, and destroy the illegal fields—albeit by destroying every other crop in the vicinity and catching humans in the crossfire as well.

A coca collector in the field
A coca leaf collector works at a coca field in Colombia.
Photo: Raul Arboleda (Getty Images)

Glyphosate exposure is especially harmful during pregnancy

Glyphosate’s carcinogenic effects have long been known, as have the skin and respiratory issues caused by the chemical. But the damage to reproductive health—including to fertility and pregnancy, as well as long-term genetic consequences—is yet to be fully grasped, although a sense of its magnitude is provided by a survey of of 80 articles on the impact of glyphosate, published in September 2022 in the journal Exposure and Health.

The survey, led by Fabian Mendez, a professor at the school of public health at Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia, looked into studies investigating the impact of glyphosate on reproductive health.

The results provided strong evidence for the effects of glyphosate on reproductive health, including direct consequences on the wellbeing of mothers, fetuses, and newborns. The human studies reviewed linked miscarriages, pre-term births, low birth weight, and fetal malformations to glyphosate during pregnancy. Animal studies identified glyphosate effects generations down the line from the original exposure.

Since it’s hard to control fumigation, aerial sprayers use concentrations of glyphosate up to five times higher than the concentration needed for manual spraying. Aerial sprays are much more likely to hit beyond the field they target, destroy or damage legal crops, contaminate water bodies, and expose local populations to harm.

“This is only one dimension, the biomedical effect, but in Colombia we also have effects on food security: plantains, maize, other [crops] are killed in the farms,” Mendez says.

Valderrama was one of the many victims of a drug control policy that aims to destroy coca plantations without providing sustainable alternatives to the farmers cultivating them. So far, there is no accurate estimate of how many pregnancies have been affected by glyphosate, or how many women developed reproductive health issues because of it, says Catalina Martinez Coral, the regional director of CRR, based in Bogotá. But, she says, it is fair to estimate that most farmer communities were affected, putting the potential victims in the order of thousands of people.

A toxic tool of the war on drugs

Colombia isn’t alone in the use of glyphosate, but it is unique in the way aerial spraying has been employed as a tool in the international war on drugs.

The Colombian government’s national narcotics commission authorized the aerial spraying of glyphosate in 1992, with the goal of destroying illegal coca plantations in the Amazonian areas of the country, including in Chaquetá.

The mass fumigation of coca crops was also an important part of Plan Colombia, the 2000 US-backed initiative to tackle drug trafficking and internal conflict in Colombia. The plan has received much praise, including by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it “helped to transform a nation on the verge of collapse into a strong institutional democracy with historically low levels of violence.”

But the plan’s successes are less unequivocal, particularly in reducing coca production and trafficking. According to United Nations data, there were roughly 45,000 hectares under coca cultivation in 1994, when the spraying began. By 2021, that number had climbed to 204,000 hectares. At the peak of the fumigation efforts, in 2006, as many as many as 172,000 hectares were fumigated with glyphosate.

Aerial view showing coca fields in the mountains of El Patia municipality, Cauca department, Colombia.
A view of coca fields in the mountains of El Patia municipality, Cauca department, Colombia.
Photo: Raul Arboleda (Getty Images)

In 2003, the herbicide’s use was bound under regulations due to its harmful health and environmental impacts, and its aerial use was suspended in 2015, following the World Health Organization’s concerns over its toxicity.

A year later, in 2016, Colombia reached an agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a farmer-led, anti-imperialistic guerrilla movement that had engaged in a decades-long fight against the government. Many FARC members were themselves coca growers, and the revenue from the sales of the remunerative crop had sustained the movement, which opposed global agrarian multinationals and advocated for wealth redistribution.  

The agreement included steps toward the eradication of coca plantations with the cooperation of local farmers. “The peace agreement stated that voluntary substitution should be prioritized as the first medium of action, if that fails we move to forced manual eradication, and only if that fails we could move on to aerial spraying—the peace agreement did not preclude aerial spraying but it did leave it as the last resort,” said Isabel Pereira, the coordinator for drug policy of Dejusticia, a legal and human rights research organization based in Bogota.

In exchange, the government agreed to support local farmers in finding alternate revenue streams, including by creating a market for other crops. Yet out of the 90,000 families that signed up to get government support for transitioning out of coca production, only 3% received the required funds and help, said Pereira. For the rest, starting new coca plantations next to the ones destroyed by glyphosate remained the only option to support their families, just as it had been during the conflict.

So in 2018, in part due to international pressure, particularly from the US, the government announced its intention to resume spraying in 2020. Although a court ruled that local communities had to be involved in the decision, and the pandemic temporarily halted the spraying, there is no guarantee the herbicide won’t once again become the go-to anti-coca weapon.

A house with a mural in support of FARC
The agreement with FARC was not sufficient to eradicate coca production
Photo: Daniel Munoz (Getty Images)

Why destruction of coca crops is bound to fail

Destroying coca fields is only a temporary band-aid when the communities growing them are not offered viable alternatives, said Pereira. “Coca can be carried very easily, has a fixed buyer, has a fixed rate, can be sold at a good price because it goes to the international market, has an added value—and all of these elements combined are what brings in a decent income,” said Pereira. Not many other crops offer the same access to a well-paying international market, and it’s even harder to come across products that are as easy to transport.

Some options can be effective in the short term: for instance, paying for ecosystem services—government payments for farmers who use their lands to provide some ecological preservation—or carbon bonuses. But ultimately, these solutions cannot provide the financial stability of coca crops. “We need to open up the conversation about legalization,” said Pereira. “As long as this continues to be an unregulated, illegal, and highly profitable market, there will be nothing that can compete in terms of income, in terms of stability, in terms of making ends meet for these families—and an international market, that is something almost no other agricultural product has.”