The Glyphosate Strategy for Cocaine: An Environmental, Economic, and Social Threat

Five years after discontinuing the practice, the Colombian government is set to resume aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca plants to confront its drug trafficking problem. Though the Colombian government is aware of the tactic’s environmental and social consequences, financial pressures from the United States oblige them to restart the fumigation, putting indigenous communities who use the plant for medicinal purposes at risk.

Glyphosate is a chemical often used as an herbicide to kill weeds, plants, and grasses. It has been utilized by Colombian government forces to destroy coca leaf crops to prevent them from being manufactured to extract and traffic cocaine. This strategy was applied for over two decades as part of Plan Colombia in the 1990s, a joint collaboration between the United States and Colombia to fight drug cartels and the trafficking of narcotics. 

Colombia’s drug trafficking problem began in the 1970s with a rise in drug kingpins and cartels, especially the Medellín Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar. This illegal manufacturing, trade, and smuggling of cocaine characterized the eventual U.S. War on Drugs and shaped anti-drug policy for the 1980s. One of the ways drug trafficking has been targeted and addressed by the Colombian government is by spraying glyphosate at its source: the coca plant.

Coca is a naturally growing plant native to South America, particularly in the regions of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as within the Andes Mountain Range. While the coca leaf has been used for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of soroche, or altitude sickness, and served as a nutritional additive for indigenous communities of South America for 8,000 years, the plant has been capitalized on by drug traffickers. Under the Illicit Crops Eradication Program, thousands of acres of coca plants were sprayed until 2015, when the World Health Organization (WHO) classified glyphosate as a 2A substance. This classification means that glyphosate contains carcinogens potentially harmful to humans and animals. As a result, the Colombian government halted the practice of spraying glyphosate on the coca plants.

However, according to the 2020 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the production and export of cocaine has increased in recent years. Per the report, coca cultivation “continued to be identified in close to 70% of all departments in Colombia,” with manufacturing quadrupling from 2013 to 2018.

The increase in coca cultivation, manufacturing, and trafficking in Colombia has caused the United States to exert pressure on Colombian President Iván Duque. President Trump has criticized Duque for not enacting more preventative measures to stop cocaine from entering the US. These criticisms have financial implications for Colombia.  Should cocaine production continue to soar, the United States has threatened to cut the monetary aid Duque’s government needs to combat the cartels.

The pressures led to a compromise on March 5, 2020, when the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy released a statement that set the bilateral agenda between the United States and Colombia. Its main goal is to halve coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia by 2023, using manual labor, rural development and security programs, and most notably, a “Colombian-led aerial eradication component.” Though not explicitly stated in the initial release, the “aerial component” Colombia will lead is the spraying of glyphosate, despite its WHO status. However, a collaborative relationship with the United States is critical for Colombia, even with environmental, social, and financial costs. Failing to engage in glyphosate spraying could potentially lead to the US removing Colombia as a narcotics partner in the War on Drugs.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer within the WHO determined glyphosate as a likely carcinogen to humans, after concluding that exposure to the chemical is genotoxic and can result in DNA damage and oxidative stress, two bodily mechanisms associated with carcinogens. The chemical itself also damages the communities in which it is sprayed; nearly 20% of all coca cultivation sites are in the Amazon Basin, a region with numerous indigenous populations. By damaging the livestock, soil, water, and air, glyphosate targets people who use the plant for traditional purposes.

Critics of glyphosate spraying have cited environmental concerns as well due to its carbon footprint. Elizabeth Tellman, a geographer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, finds glyphosate counterproductive to preventing drug trafficking and unnecessarily expensive because “once the [first] fields are destroyed, the cartels [can] simply clear more forests elsewhere and plant new coca crops,” putting the already growing deforestation crisis in the Amazon Forest at even greater speeds.

Financially, the move to continue spraying glyphosate has been criticized as making little sense. To reach Colombia’s target goal of destroying the coca crops, costs would near $2 billion. If Colombia instead regulated the production of coca by purchasing the leaf harvests, the costs would be around $700 million. Opponents of glyphosate spraying argue that regulating the cocaine industry in this way would reduce cartel profits and minimize the demand for the illicit drug since it would be obtained from a regulated source and no longer sold on the black market, thus devaluing the product and cartel profit margins. 

Even historically, glyphosate spraying was found to not be economically viable. A 2015 analysis from the Brookings Institute evaluated the cost effectiveness of aerial spraying in Plan Colombia, deeming it to be unviable. The study noted that because of the 4.2% effectiveness rate of glyphosate, 32 hectares need to be sprayed in order to eliminate one hectare of coca. Calculating for the costs of the glyphosate itself, the plane, protective equipment, etc., the cost of destroying one hectare of coca amounts to around $57,150, significantly exceeding the price of coca leaves generated from one hectare’s worth at $450.

Though the United States is the biggest consumer of cocaine and its main destination, critics of glyphosate spraying note that the U.S. should contribute more to the anti-cocaine efforts and not solely subject Colombia to the harsh timeline. U.S. pressure on Duque’s administration to resume aerial spraying is potentially attributed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent finding that glyphosate has no carcinogenic risk to humans, which contradicts the findings of the World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer. Some speculate the EPA findings may have been influenced by lobbying.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exact date the aerial spraying will restart has not been provided. Perhaps now is the time for the United States to help Colombia address this issuing a more thoughtful manner.


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