If the Yanacona Indians have their way, the Colombian government in coming months may allow them to take out tens of thousands of poppy plants - the source of heroin - with their own hands. Literally.
They want to be left alone to yank the flowers from the ground, instead of having police airplanes spray their land with herbicides to combat drug crops.
The collateral damage to corn and other crops - as well as the health risk to humans, say the Yanaconas - has long been an issue here. But several recent events have put drug eradication by spraying on the front burner. First, the looming prospect of a doubling of US antinarcotics aid to Colombia - which means more spraying. Second, the latest round of peace talks with rebels.
"No more contamination and destruction of the ecosystem with spraying," was one of the demands made by Raul Reyes, a member of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) negotiating team before the talks began on Sunday.
And earlier this month, an international conference for environmental journalists held in Bogota focused heavily on narcotics trafficking.
"Everywhere there's been spraying, there have been complaints - hundreds of them," says sociologist Ricardo Vargas, who spoke at the conference and is the author of a study commissioned by the Netherlands' Transnational Institute, soon to be published as a book titled "Spraying and Conflict."
The Yanacona's governor, Eider Meneses Papamija, says that the spraying "goes against the health of our people," and links the practice to vomiting by children, damaged corn and potato crops, and slow sales in milk, since customers think the cows have eaten contaminated grass. At the same time, he says his people are eager to get rid of the "cursed flower" and return to traditional crops, while developing economic alternatives to selling the poppy's milky latex for producing heroin.
This community lives in the central Andean range, a mountainous region about 100 miles south of Cali. These are the kind of mountains the delicate flower does well in, and Colombia, with three mountain chains snaking through its territory, has been steadily supplying more of the world's heroin in recent years.
According to current US government figures, poppy flowers and coca plants - the source of cocaine - are now planted on more than 10 million acres of Colombian soil. Col. Leonardo Gallego, head of the anti-narcotics division of the National Police, said this month that the results of Colombia's "First National Census on Illicit Crops" puts the total at closer to 7.8 million acres.
In fact, US antidrug funding to Colombia is now at an all-time high and may be going higher. The $289 million authorized for this year put Colombia third in military aid, behind Israel and Egypt. A $1.5 billion aid package over three years is currently being debated in Congress. Colombian officials say about 10 percent of the US aid is currently used for spraying. At least $10 million of the aid package will go toward the development of ecologically sound eradication methods. But, according to a US congressional aide, approximately $114 million of the package will be aimed at increasing removal efforts, primarily by spraying.
The herbicide Roundup, produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto, has been a key weapon in eradication efforts.
Luis Eduardo Parra, Colombia's chief environmental auditor for the government's drug crop eradication program, says that Roundup and its main ingredient, glyphosate, have undergone decades of safety studies. He adds that the herbicide is widely used in the US for such commercial crops as corn.
Mr. Parra also says "the drug traffickers dupe the peasants and Indians into believing that if they plant potatoes and beans together with coca or poppy, then the police won't spray, and that if there's spraying, then they can complain. This is simply not true."
But agronomist Elsa Nivia says the Yanacona claims may have a basis in fact. She heads a nongovernmental organization in Cali that works to "combat the use and abuse of pesticides and to promote ... sustainable alternatives."
The environmental problems, says Ms. Nivia, often arise from such factors as what solvent is mixed with Roundup before spraying, the dosage of glyphosate used, and whether or not the herbicide drifts during spraying onto neighboring lands.
The herbicide is dissolved in solvents ranging from water to kerosene to diesel oil, say scientists. Roundup is "an environmentally friendly herbicide ... but toxicity varies hugely according to the formulation and dosage," says Albert Fischer, a former researcher at Colombia's International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
Mr. Fischer also mentioned that spraying could "eliminate ancestral crops ... in some cases, thereby eliminating important genetic diversity."
Parra says the Yanacona's charges are "without basis ... and used to call attention to themselves and to pressure the government in negotiations over other needs, like more land."
But Colombia's minister of the interior says he's willing to give the Yanaconas the benefit of the doubt and let them pull the poppies from their land. But if they violate the trust, he says, the spraying will begin again.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society