Monsanto and the 'Drug War'

by Jeremy Bigwood

Earth Island Journal, Winter 2001-2002


A prominent US Senator and other government officials from both Washington and Bogota stood on a Colombian mountainside above fields of lime-green coca - the plant sacred to Andean Indians, but also the source of the troublesome drug, cocaine. They were awaiting a demonstration of aerial herbicide spraying, part of the US drug war in Colombia. The spectacle, put on by the US embassy in Bogota last December, was supposed to address Senator Paul Wellstone's doubts about the accuracy and safety of the US-sponsored drug fumigation program. Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, is a fierce critic of military aid to Colombia and the demonstration needed to come off without a hitch to win him over to the use of aerially sprayed herbicides.

"They had said that by using satellite images they could hit very precisely targets without any chance of danger to surrounding crops," said Jim Farrell, Wellstone's spokesperson. That turned out not to be the case. On the very first flyover by the crop duster, the senator, the US ambassador to Colombia, the lieutenant colonel of the Colombian National Police and other embassy and congressional staffers were fully drenched with the sticky - and possibly dangerous - Roundup herbicide.

"Imagine what is happening when a highlevel congressional delegation is not present," Farrell noted.

The US has sprayed tons of Roundup and Roundup Ultra (produced by the St. Louis-based chemical and biotechnology giant, Monsanto) during the 24-year-long drug war in Colombia. The use of these herbicides has consistently produced health complaints from people in the Colombian countryside. Those complaints have gone largely ignored by Washington and Monsanto.

A month before Wellstone was doused, Colombian indigenous leaders visited Congress to speak out against the fumigation. "The 12 indigenous peoples have been suffering under this plague as if it were a government decree to exterminate our culture and our very survival," said Jose Francisco Tenono, the only leader who was not afraid to use his real name. "Our only sustenance - manioc, banana, palms, sugar cane and corn - have been fumigated. Our sources of water, creeks, rivers, lakes, have been poisoned, killing our fish... Today, hunger is our daily bread. In the name of the Amazonian Indigenous people I ask that the fumigations be immediately suspended."

So far, Tenorio's pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Last summer, Congress approved $1.3 billion for "Plan Colombia" to carry out the drug war and more funds are forthcoming.

Official Denial

US officials proudly point to the large areas of coca and poppy eradicated as proof that the fumigation is successful. But they strongly discourage journalists from probing the effects of aerial spraying any further. Last January, during a meeting with US Embassy staff in Bogota, the top officer at the State Department's Narcotics Affairs Section was emphatic and his tone threatening: "You cannot mention Monsanto!" he boomed, spit flying from his mouth. But Monsanto is a major part of the Colombia story and there is no way to ignore it.

Meanwhile, a State Department official in Washington insisted that the relationship between Washington and Monsanto "is proprietary information between us and our supplier. It's exempt from the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requirements too, so I don't think you will be able to get it."

Monsanto has been equally tight-lipped. "We don't divulge information about who we sell our product to or the size of the contract or anything like that... l will not confirm that it is our product that is being used in Colombia," says Janice Armstrong, Monsanto public affairs director for Roundup.

Who Profits?

Roundup is manufactured by Monsanto using hexitan esters supplied by Britain's ICI Specialty Chemicals and liquid isoparafins manufactured by Exxon. Almost 70,000 gallons of Roundup were sprayed in Colombia in the first months of 2001. In 2000, roughly 145,750 gallons were sprayed over 53,000 hectares (205 square miles). With a retail price between $33 to $45 per gallon (Monsanto refused to confirm the wholesale price for such volumes), this represents a cost of around $4.8 to $6.6 million - paid to Monsanto by US taxpayers.

Monsanto boasted almost $5.5 billion in sales in 2000 and nearly $150 million in profits. Roundup is the world's leading herbicide and the company's flagship product. Monsanto is also involved in developing biotech agriculture and has manufactured "Roundup Ready" soybeans and other crops that resist the herbicide. George W Bush's agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, was on the board of Calgene, a biotechnology company that was purchased by Monsanto. Monsanto donated $12,000 directly to Bush's presidential campaign and, during the 2000 elections, dropped $74,000 on congressional campaigns, most of it going to Republicans.

Agent Orange Redux?

This is not the first time that a Monsanto herbicide has been accused of doing ecological damage and harm to humans. During the Vietnam War, the US used a series of chemical defoliants called Agent Orange (a 50/50 mixture of herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T). However, there was a problem: the mix included varying amounts of a breakdown product of the "dioxin" class called TCDD.

TCDD was shown to have very serious toxic effects. According to the 1994 "Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens," Agent Orange causes "toxic effects in animals includ[ing]... vascular lesions, chloracne, teratogenicity, fetotoxicity, impaired reproductive performance, endometriosis and delayed death." It also proved toxic to humans. The application of Agent Orange and TCDD caused more than 50,000 birth defects and hundreds of thousands of cancers in Vietnamese civilians and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The effects of Agent Orange are still being experienced 26 years after the end of the war.

After the war it came to light that Monsanto had known about this toxicity as early as the late 1940s and had tried to cover it up. Monsanto workers had regularly complained of skin rashes, joint and limb pain, after being exposed to 2,4,5-T. After the end of the war, US veterans sued Monsanto and the company settled out of court, paying about $80 million in damages. Monsanto's Vietnamese victims received nothing.

Given this history, it is not surprising that neither US officials nor Monsanto executives want a spotlight shone on the use of the company's products in Colombia, where many of the symptoms of those sprayed with Roundup are similar to those noted by the Monsanto employees in the 1940s, and soldiers and civilians who were sprayed in Vietnam.

So far, there have been no substantiated claims of gross human toxicity that compare with Agent Orange. Indeed, Roundup is available as an over-the-counter weed killer in most US hardware stores. The herbicide is sold in 130 countries.

However, even Monsanto's own warnings point to toxicity: "Roundup will kill almost any green plant that is actively growing. Roundup should not be applied to bodies of water such as ponds, lakes or streams as Roundup can be harmful to certain aquatic organisms... We recommend that grazing animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, tortoises and fowl remain out of the treated area for two weeks. If Roundup is used to control undesirable plants around fruit or nut trees, or grapevines, allow twenty-one days before eating the fruits or nuts."

Information Slowly Emerges

In December 2000, Dutch journalist Marjon Van Royen investigated local health reports in Colombia and found that there had been "consistent health complaints," including "burning eyes, dizziness and respiratory problems."

According to Elsa Nivia, a Colombian agronomist who works with the Pesticide Action Network, local authorities reported 4,289 humans suffering skin or gastric disorders in the first two months of 2001. Some 178,377 animals (cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, ducks, hens and fish) were reported killed by the spraying.

Digging further, Van Royen found something alarming: another additive called Cosmo-Flux 411 F was being added to increase the toxicity of Roundup Ultra The Roundup/Cosmo-Flux mixture has never been scientifically evaluated nor has the public - either in the US or in Colombia - been informed of this practice.

In a talk at the University of California at Davis in May 2001, Nivia said: "The mixture with the Cosmo Flux 411 F surfactant can increase the herbicide's biological action four-fold, producing relative exposure levels which are 104 times higher than the recommended doses for normal agricultural applications in the United States; doses which, according to the study mentioned, can intoxicate and even kill ruminants." The use of this enhanced Roundup would not be acceptable in the US without prior testing and scientific evaluation.

The Roundup label warns: "Do not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift. Only protected handlers may be in the area during application."

"Drift" is a major issue, as Senator Wellstone discovered first hand. The small crop duster airplanes and helicopters that spray chemical herbicides in Colombia often fly too high to accurately target the drug crops. Labels warn that spraying must be done on windless days. But nature does not often provide windless days in the tropical Andean valleys. A small plane flying as low as 65 feet is subject to high crosswinds that characterize rainforest ecology. These winds easily blow the herbicide toward non-target areas, contaminating crops, rainforests or bodies of water.

Last spring, the German government lodged complaints against the fumigation program when chemical "drift" destroyed Colombian aquaculture projects they had underwritten- fishponds meant to provide protein for campesino subsistence.

The Colombian government's own Human Rights Ombudsman's Office has called for an end to the fumigation. Repeated incidents of crop eradication and fishpond poisonings have led some campesinos and indigenous groups in Colombia to surmise that the antidrug program is targeting them for eradication as "guerrilla supporters."

While the ecological destruction and human health impacts attributed to Roundup may not be a deliberate part of Washington's policy at the very least US officials seem indifferent to the "collateral damage" caused by the drug war. And Monsanto, which tried to cover up the dangers of Agent Orange 30 years ago, has more at stake than a cushy government contract. If its flagship herbicide, sold around the globe, proves harmful in Colombia, consumers just might wonder if it's safe to spray in their backyards.


Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. Published with the permission of CorpWatch [PO Box 29344, San Francisco, CA 94129,].


Resources "Plan Colombia's' Ground Zero'," Report by the Center for International Policy [1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 312, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 232-3317,|.

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