Colombia to end anti-drug crop dusting amid health concerns

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    For 15 years, the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia has relied on crop dusting to kill the plants used to produce cocaine.

    But this week, Colombia's government announced it is phasing out the U.S.-led program.

    So, how will this shift in policy affect the relationship between the two countries?

    Joining me via Skype from Bogota, Colombia, is Juan Forero, the South American bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

    So, give us a little bit of background for people just waking up to this story. What is the program that we've been doing and why has it been so important?


    It was 15 years ago what was called "Plan Colombia", which was a U.S.-funded, initially a big U.S.-funded program began, and it basically entailed used crop dusters to hit coca.

    And so, this was a very controversial program when it began. There was a lot of criticism, but this was approved in the Bill Clinton administration and it was 15 years ago, it was in December of 2000, when crop dusters just hit industrial sized fields of coca all across Colombia.


    All right. So, recently, the World Health Organization says that the chemical being used to keep that coca down could possibly cause cancer. Is that right?


    Yes, exactly. There is a research arm of the World Health Organization which said that it could possibly cause cancer in humans.

    So that caused quite a controversy here in Colombia, although there had been criticism about fumigation for many, many years.

    I think part of the issue though, part of the reason, the big part of the reason why this is finally coming to a close is because of political reasons.

    You know, in other words, this thing just served its cycle. It did what it had to do in the minds of some, and now, it's time to try something else. And that's because of new political realities in Colombia.


    So, what are the alternatives here to spraying? I mean, the people who could manually eradicate all these crops. Some of those soldiers have died because they stepped on land mines.


    Look, it's pretty horrific. You have had about 200 deaths over the last 10 years, and most of those are soldiers.

    Some of them are civilians were paid to eradicate. And that's because the rebels that control some of these coca fields have put land mines in those field. So, that's basically almost stopped manual eradication.

    But really, the answer to resolving the coca issue is bringing the state into some of these regions. Colombia is a very large country.

    It's about twice the size of France. And you have all these far-flung regions that really aren't part of the state. The state needs to bring in roads and hospitals and schools.

    There really are two Colombias. You need to bring in the state and almost everybody actually pro-fumigation, anti-fumigation, is in agreement with that.


    And what happens to the farmers that seem to be caught in the middle here.

    On the one hand, you've got government saying don't grow coca. On the other hand, you have the rebels who sometimes make their money off of the cocaine industry.


    Yes, exactly. I was in Putumayo state just the other day and I was talking to a lot of these farmers and I know them because I had been there a few months before in a particular area where I'm seeing more coca.

    And some of these farmers are saying, look, I mean, the guerillas are telling us to grow coca, and when the guerrillas tell you to grow coca, I mean, that's pressure tactics.

    And so, you know, they definitely are caught in the middle. If they grow they have the spray planes come or eradicators come, and if they don't grow they could be in a bind with the people who count on that coca for money.


    So, what is the relationship between the United States and Colombia like in the context of this? And you also said there's kind of new political realities on the ground?


    Well, I think over this, they clashed, because I think the counter-drug officials in the U.S. government are very much wholeheartedly supportive of fumigation, so they didn't want it to end.

    But the political realities are different in Colombia. When this program began, Colombia was in a really, really tough state.

    Certainly, the Colombia that you have today 15 years later is a different country. It's very dynamic, a growing economy. There's a lot of good things that are happening here.

    And right now, one of the big things that's happening is that the government is in the midst of peace talks with the guerillas. That would end a very long conflict.

    And the government's point of view is that fumigation is really a kind of militaristic approach in regions that are now peaceful.

    What they want to do is win hearts and minds and you don't do that by fumigating them, by dropping defoliant on top of these people.


    All right. Juan Forero, the South American bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, joining us via Skype from Bogota, Colombia, thanks so much.


    Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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