Colombia's Glyphosate Ban: Security vs. Health

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the OECD conference in Paris in January 2014. (Photo: OECD)

Earlier this summer, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the suspension of glyphosate—a main component found in Monsanto's Roundup—in mass aerial sprayings against illicit crops. A recent World Health Organization report confirms that glyphosate harms flora, fauna and human populations. While Santos' move has been applauded, support is not universal. In fact, the issue has caused great controversy in Colombia, even within Santos' own cabinet. Opponents of the ban believe that, despite the pro-health argument, the chemical is an effective herbicide that has contributed to the nation's drug-production decline.

In Colombia, the war on drugs overlaps another war. After 50 years, civil war continues to rage against between the state and rebel groups like the FARC, whose principle source of income is narco-trafficking. Spraying drug crops is intended to reduce this source of income. Security versus health is at the heart of this debate, and the tension is exacerbated by the peace negotiations currently underway between the government and FARC.


Opponents of the glyphosate ban focus on the idea of protecting people indirectly by eradicating the cause (illicit crops) of the drug war, a phenomenon that has affected millions. Less drug production equals less crime.

As part of Plan Colombia—a bilateral anti-narco-trafficking agreement with the United States—Colombia has been fumigating coca plantations with glyphosate for more than a decade, especially in difficult access areas. Santos' predecessor, President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), oversaw the herbicide's introduction. He continues to assert its worth. "The sprayings decreased known illicit crop fields from 163,000 hectares in 2002 to 48,000 in 2013," he says. "Between 1999 and 2014, 1.7 million hectares of coca have been sprayed with glyphosate."

Those on Uribe's side are asking, what will replace glyphosate? Uribe says that manual eradication—the method that Santos' administration has announced as an alternative—would not be appropriate because it endangers the soldiers executing the labor. In recent years, 23 attacks on manual eradicators have occurred. Even Santos' own minister of defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon, has echoed doubt for this alternative and the ban overall, questioning whether it will do more harm than good.

Some skeptics also suspect that the glyphosate ban is part of a secret deal made in Havana, Cuba, where peace negotiations are being held with FARC. It is no secret that the country's largest guerilla organization is an avid supporter of the ban.


Those against the use of glyphosate argue that the ban protects people more directly. By not spraying where people live and grow food, serious health issues are avoided. In 2014, the Colombian government determined that if the herbicide was proven harmful, it would apply precautionary policies or suspend it altogether. The decision was further supported by the fact that fumigations have also affected legal agricultural production, such as that of maize and soy. The issue is complicated by the fact that coca plants are sometimes camouflaged among other crops, such as coffee. Overall, the product is sprayed over large areas, destroying everything it touches and affecting the people there.

Spraying in southern Colombia has also caused diplomatic tensions. In 2008, Ecuador sued Colombia, taking it to the International Court of Justice for environmental and health damages caused by the herbicide, which is easily carried by the wind across borders. The issue was resolved in 2013, when Colombia paid $15 million for compensation of damages and a promise to discontinue sprayings near the border. If foreign nationals do not deserve glyphosate's effects, why does Colombia's own citizenry?

The drug war

Although the controversy is likely to continue, complaints about the herbicide are widespread. It is true that spraying at some point managed to contain the flood of illegal crops. But now that the health risks are clearly established, policies are changing. This leaves the question of how to combat narco-trafficking going forward. Colombia appears to be taking the stance of "first do no harm."

Santos has very good reasons for wanting to pursue an alternative direction with the drug war. As a former minister of defense, he as much as anyone has witnessed the problems of the old U.S.-sponsored tactics that Uribe still promotes. Santos believes the drug war is a failure, and he was one of the first heads of state to say so. This makes for a very interesting backdrop, and the negotiations with the FARC add even more dimension to the story.

Colombia has been at civil war for more than 50 years. Ammunition and poisons are everywhere to be found on the front lines of combat, and breaking that cycle is not simple. In this context, seeking alternatives to the drug war is important not only for Colombia, but for Latin America as a whole.

Ailana Navarez is a journalist, photographer and political analyst with a concentration in Latin America. She is pursuing a major in government with a specialization in international relations and a minor in psychology at Harvard Extension School. She is a South America regional specialist for Pulsamerica (a U.K.-based Latin America analysis firm) and has been featured in several international news outlets, including Telesur, International Policy Digest, Mercury Magazine and Casa Rosada.

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