Debate stalls US bid to use deadly spray on Peru's coca
Here at the heart of the remote Upper Huallaga Valley, ridge after ridge is dotted with plots of coca plants - the world's largest supply of coca. In an uneasy alliance, heavily armed narco-traffickers and the Shining Path guerrillas control the region and what in sheer export revenue is Peru's leading industry.Skip to next paragraph
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In an effort to undercut the base of much of the cocaine flowing into the United States, the Reagan administration wants to begin an unprecedented aerial spraying of a poisonous herbicide, known as Spike, throughout this remote and rugged region. Critics and advocates agree that a blanket of poison would probably be the fastest way to kill the vast crop and destroy the economic base of the traffickers and the guerrillas.
But controversy over the environmental effects of such spraying has so far stalled the joint US-Peruvian herbicide program.
Meanwhile, despite other types of eradication efforts, the size of the coca crop is growing at an estimated 10 percent a year.
Manual eradication of the plants is costly and time consuming. Sometimes it takes two men to dig up a stubborn coca plant. And it is dangerous. In the past five years, the Shining Path guerrillas or drug traffickers have killed 34 people involved in eradication efforts or related crop-substitution programs. Only 800 acres of nearly 500,000 acres of coca under cultivation in Peru were manually destroyed in 1987, for example.
Large-scale herbicide use is considered a ``critical'' component of the US antinarcotics plan in Peru, a State Department narcotics division official says. ``It is considered a breakthrough, and without it you're basically going to have to do manual eradication. To eradicate just 10 percent of the crop would be just a holding action, because that's only [equal to] the growth.''
``If we use Spike, we'll get [financial] help'' from the US,'' reasons Gen. Juan Zarate, chief of Peru's police antidrug operations. His chief concern, he explains, is getting new equipment - arms and aircraft - to combat the narco-traffickers, who are better funded than Peru's police.
US-Peruvian testing of several herbicides, applied manually to small plots, started in Peru last October. US-contracted agricultural consultants reported that Spike, the trade name used by the Eli Lilly & Co. for tebuthiuron, showed early promise when grass begin growing on the test sites.
But aerial spray tests of Spike scheduled for this summer have been stalled because of the environmental controversy stirred by last spring's publicity about the program.
Both Peruvian and international environmentalists are concerned about the rapid deployment of the herbicide in the region without adequate environmental-impact studies. Concerns include long-term persistence of the herbicide in the soil, the chemical's movement in water runoff to other areas of the rain forest, and possible ``drift'' of the herbicide during aerial drops of the chemical pellets. Others suggest coca growers will only hopscotch to new areas, inviting a more widespread use of chemicals over time.
US sources counter that Spike's environmental destruction does not compare with the erosion and agrochemical damage caused by coca production. Further, they say, if Spike is used seriously enough in the first instance, coca growers will see the futility of trying to replant it.
Meanwhile, the Lilly company announced in May it would not sell Spike for coca eradication in Peru. US sources who are determined to forge ahead with Spike - and there is concern they may force Lilly legally to sell the chemical for the program - say the company is concerned about being held liable for any damages as well as concern over terrorist retaliation against its other business activities in Peru.