Tuesday, May 12, 2015

More than just the glyphosate: Colombian and US governments (probably) to stop spraying tons of herbicides on Colombia’s land and people

It appears likely that the Colombian and US governments will stop “fumigating” the country’s land and people, following a WHO report classifying glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.”

As the Guardian reports, this move follows two decades of contemptuous inaction – or, I should say, contemptuous action - in the face of protests:
Many people, both in Colombia and abroad, have condemned and protested the fumigations for years. The stated reasons - aside from the fact they haven’t succeeded in eradicating coca cultivation - are legion. One such reason is that they have killed 1,000s of hectares of legal crops belonging to 1,000s of campesinos, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, and because of devastating environmental impacts including destroying soil fertility, contaminating water, and pushing coca cultivation deeper into particularly environmentally sensitive, biodiversity-rich regions like the Amazon.

Other reasons include intensifying Colombia’s civil war, facilitating killings and abuses by paramilitaries, encouraging support for guerrillas, forcing people to flee to neighbouring Ecuador, increasing poverty, and causing appalling health impacts. Headaches, vomiting, eye irritations, skin rashes and burnings, poisoning, lower sperm counts, miscarriages, hair loss, respiratory problems including lung cancer, foetal deformations, destruction of red blood cells and mental health disorders have all been reported.
(Seriously, there were representatives of Colombian indigenous groups appearing before Congress 15 years ago.) Indeed, the indifference of the US and Colombian governments and their corporate partner Monsanto was evident from the very beginning:
[T]he assistance package known as Plan Colombia was signed into law by President Clinton on July 13, 2000. Its stated purposes are to eradicate narcotics production and help restructure the country's economy, in particular ensure delivery of social and economic benefits to its cocoa [sic]- and poppy-growing regions. Although approved by President Andrés Pastrana, the Plan was not discussed or approved by the Colombian Congress, the local governments, civil society, or those most affected, the peasants. The Plan will disburse $1.3 billion of a $7.5 billion budget, most of it in the form of military aid, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt. [emphasis added]
So there have always been numerous reasons – humanitarian, medical, ecological, political, financial, practical – for the spraying to stop (or not to start in the first place). But the WHO report on the probable carcinogenic effects of glyphosate (in the context of negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government) is the factor that tipped the scales.

Not surprisingly, “Monsanto has responded to the WHO’s research by calling it ‘Junk Science’, ‘biased’ and ‘irresponsible’.” But here’s the thing the news reports are missing: It’s not just glyphosate. The patent on glyphosate expired years ago. The patented product in all of its forms is a mixture of water, glyphosate, and compounds called surfactants which help the chemical to penetrate the waxy cuticles of leaves and can lead the mixture to have especially serious effects on amphibians. Roundup isn’t glyphosate; it’s a glyphosate-based herbicide.

Monsanto benefits from the widespread tendency to use “Roundup” and “glyphosate” interchangeably. Whatever is found about the health and environmental harms of glyphosate alone will inevitably be of a lesser magnitude than what is found about glyphosate+surfactant(s). The confusion plays into the company’s ability to deny the vast violations of human and animal rights from which they’ve profited for decades.

In fact, the company and the US government were secretive from the start about the chemical formulation used in Plan Colombia, making it all but impossible to assess the true extent of the harm. As CorpWatch reported back in 2001:
[A] State Department official in Washington recently told CorpWatch that the relationship between the U.S. Government and Monsanto ‘is proprietary information between us and our supplier. It's exempt from the FOIA 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, so I can't confirm that... I will not confirm that it is our product that is being used in Colombia’, says Janice Armstrong, Monsanto Public Affairs director for Roundup.
But people at the time believed that they could piece together from assorted evidence that what was being sprayed in Colombia was Roundup Ultra (water, glyphosate, and a surfactant of some sort) plus another surfactant, believed to be something called Cosmo-Flux 411f. As one report stated years ago,
Concern over the possible dangers of Cosmo-Flux 411f prompted the British multinational Imperial Chemical Industries, a supplier of one of Cosmo-Flux 411f’s ingredients, to announce in 2001 that it would terminate its involvement in the chemical’s manufacture as a precaution against being associated with U.S./Colombian fumigation campaigns.
Even if glyphosate had been sufficiently studied at the time of the launch of spraying in Colombia, which it hadn’t, neither Roundup Ultra nor Roundup Ultra spiked with Cosmo-Flux 411f had been in those conditions. Moreover, there’s zero reason to expect that either the concentrations were what they said, or that the spraying – in the context of the Colombian drug war and war between the government and the FARC – was done with safety in mind. And there’s even less reason to believe anything the US government or Monsanto, the purveyors and users of Agent Orange, have to say about the safety of this chemical in military (or any other) use.

This is a true-crime story that has yet to be really told.

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