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By * NRC Handelsblad
In Aponte, Colombia, since the fumigation of the Amapola fields as part of the war on drugs, an alarming number of children have fallen ill. The waiting room is full of children crying from the painful sores on their body.
Desperate for the itch
"This is an epidemic. Since the fumigation of the fields in the Aponte indigenous reserve, 80% of the community's children have fallen ill."
"I am lost," says the young doctor who runs the Aponte health center by himself. The waiting room is full of children crying from the painful sores on their body.
A little boy is desperate for the itch, but the doctor José Tordecilla has to dispatch both him and his mother. "I only have medicine for 10% of the children. I can only treat the most serious cases."
A little later, in his office, Tordecilla says, "This is an epidemic." Since the fumigation of the fields in the Aponte indigenous reserve, 80% of the community's children have fallen ill. He points to the patients in his registry: "This is a medical drama." Fever, diarrhea and eye infections began after the spraying, because before that, about 10% of the children were sick and suffered from normal illnesses such as the flu or mumps.
On November 3, the fumigation began in the 8000 hectares of the Aponte indigenous reserve in southern Colombia (department). For ten days in a row, the planes sprayed the area with long, blue tails of herbicide. Three planes accompanied by three war helicopters suddenly appeared over the high mountains of the Andes.
The agricultural engineer Luis Camoes has made video recordings. "Look over there, they fumigate the water source of the Páramo" -he says-. The video shows and in a slow flight he fumigates his cargo over the jungle. And it returns not just once, but three times. Again and again he sprinkles his poison over the spring. And not just one, but all three water sources received that treatment, Camoes notes.
The United States financed and coordinated the spraying program against the increase in coca and poppy production in Colombia and always used the herbicide Roundup. In the last two years, a new and more powerful chemical has been indicated. A spokesman for the United States Department of State confirmed to this newspaper that the Colombian fumigation program included the use of the chemical Roundup Ultra, a compound to which surfactant substances were added, similar to soap and that are easily absorbed by plants. . The US spokesperson also confirmed that the Colombian chemical Cosmoflux is mixed with Roundup Ultra. The hypotheses suggest that the addition of these surfactants is the cause of the new diseases.
Washington denies that the new chemicals endanger health. The fumigation of illicit crops is a controversial issue. Colombia is the only country in the world where it takes place. According to US authorities, aerial herbicide spraying is the only way to control coca and poppy production. Critics point out that this measure does not affect growth and that the environment is being affected.
In the community house of Aponte, the agricultural engineer Luis Camoes says referring to the fumigation of the water sources: "This is the end of our project" The reforestation of the area of the three sources of birth of the rivers that was part of a official program.
Camoes and the inhabitants have dragged the trees with horses to the water sources almost 3,000 meters high. The resources came from Plante, the Colombian government organization that finances alternative development projects. USD170,000? they have been invested by the Plant in Aponte to encourage people to replace their poppy crops with legal crops. The Plante project was an imminent success, "There are virtually no poppies here," says Camoes. "Now one branch of the government is spraying what the other left behind."
One day crossing the area, it generates a feeling of melancholy. Despite his crippled leg, the chief climbs like a mountain goat. From five in the morning, the indigenous chief leads us along narrow paths up the hill and down the hill. "And then the planes and helicopters came and after that there was nothing left of what I had," says Carlos, a peasant farmer who holds a bouquet of dried plants in his hands. A wrinkled bean plant, whitish yucca, and a dry ear. This is what is left of the fumigated land. He is the seventh peasant we have visited. But the story is always the same.
"Doctor, they fumigated all of our crops. What can we live on now? Besides corn and yucca, Carlos planted a small batch of poppies." I don't like it. But it's the only thing that's for sale, "he says, sitting next to his wife on the ground of their ranch. A couple of marmots roam around. In addition, the furniture consists of a sleeping canvas and a cooking container on a stove in the Like the other 700 peasant families of Aponte, Carlos grows his lot of poppies to buy books for his children, medicines or clothes. "We grow food ourselves, but for other things one needs money."
However, the fumigation in November was not the first for Aponte's indigenous farmers. In June their crops were destroyed, they say. Carlos had just acquired a loan with the plant and his poppy crops were replaced by barley. "Even before the barley germinated, it had been fumigated to death," he relates. After that he went back to his little poppy batch.
Plante required him to pay one percent interest on the loan for the destroyed barley. "How could I do that ma'am? Now we don't even have anything to eat. How can we pay off a loan?
Again we climb with the Chief. Again a little ranch, again crops destroyed. The young peasant girl shows her baby, her genitals are covered with sores. "From the fumigation," says the woman and shakes her black braids. She herself presents a bud around her mouth. He has a headache, he says, and burning eyes. She thinks it is because of the contaminated water. "It is inhumane what they do to my people" says the chief when we finally get to the water sources that he has wanted to show us all day. The trees are white. The spring dried up. Poppies are not yet visible in a wide field. "Why do you think they want to poison our water?" he asks, as if no one knows the answer.
In the population the doctor has not made much progress with his patients. "I'm just a village doctor" He sent a request for medicine to the provincial authorities. The request was denied. And he was told that the disease caused by the fumigations was "a lie." "It seems that everyone is obliged to remain silent," says the doctor as he examines the sores on another child's chest with his stethoscope.
Later, in Bogotá, it becomes clear what "lies" means, the head of the anti-narcotics police growls when we ask him to comment on what we have seen in Aponte.
"You have not seen what you have seen. We have never sprayed there." He refuses to watch the video and separates the photos of sick children. "It's false! The evidence they bring me is false" shouts General Socha before leading us out of his office. "Don't come here to provoke a discussion. I don't allow you to question me."
His unit is decorated with an illustration of oversized spray planes. "Drug traffickers" calls for small farmers who grow a small batch of coca or poppies among their ordinary crops. And when a banana tree or a corn plant is fumigated, according to the general, it has been planted on purpose by the narcoguerrilla to mislead naive journalists. "But do you never make mistakes?" we asked. "Never spray legal crops, a forest or a water source?" "Never." "It is impossible for us to make mistakes," says the general, because they take aerial photos of the area to be fumigated. After that, they take the coordinates and then everything is observed with the help of the Americans. "They have tried to sue us for this," says Socha. "But there has never been an arrest." When we object that the Colombian judicial system, the general lets himself be dominated by his emotions: "I don't know who they are or who sent them to doubt about our authorities. You underestimate our laws."
According to the Colombian scientist and fumigation expert Ricardo Vargas, the general is right on one point: the construction of the Colombian fumigation program allows a very small margin of error. "This makes the scene terrible," says Vargas.
Fumigation as a strategy to affect the survival of communities? I wouldn't think that.
* Article NRC HANDELSBLAD (Netherlands)
"DESPERATE FOR THE SCRATCH" December 2000.