Out on a technicality? Not a credible threat
May 222007

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana has published a transcript of a December 2006 telephone conversation, illegally intercepted by Colombian police, between Bogotá’s foreign minister at the time, María Consuelo Araújo, and her brother Sergio. (The minister resigned in February because of allegations that members of her family, including Sergio, worked closely with paramilitary groups.)

After Ms. Araújo asks her brother to come to Bogotá to help her decorate her apartment, the conversation turns to a dispute brewing at the time between Colombia and Ecuador. The Quito government was blasting Colombia publicly for carrying out anti-drug herbicide fumigations along the two countries’ border, despite an early 2006 Colombian promise not to do so.

Sergio Araújo: How have things gone with those Ecuadorians?

María Consuelo Araújo: It’s that the Ecuadorians don’t understand… our territory, our coca, our glyphosate… and they don’t let us spray… the jodetería [f***ing mess] is purely pressure from the FARC… Look, in Ecuador’s banana crop they use 800,000 gallons of glyphosate each year.

Sergio: And why don’t you say that?

María Consuelo: I’ve said that everywhere.

When the Colombia-Ecuador fumigation crisis ended (if it indeed has ended), the two countries agreed to a visit to the border zone by Paul Hunt, a New Zealander who is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to health. Hunt was in northern Ecuador last week; the Colombians denied him permission to investigate on their side of the border.

Hunt announced his preliminary conclusions at a press conference on Friday afternoon (MS Word .doc format). The UN special rapporteur’s words were strong, unequivocal, and contrast sharply with what Colombia’s foreign minister told her brother back in December.

They also contrast sharply with what the U.S. and Colombian governments have long insisted about glyphosate fumigation. The UN official has dealt a strong blow to the failed fumigation policy.

Here is the relevant excerpt, with emphases added.

In my opinion, there is an overwhelming case that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border should not re-commence. The studies already identified in earlier reports should be undertaken and completed. These are needed for a number of reasons, not least in relation to compensation. As President Uribe of Colombia is reported to have said on 30 April 2007, where damage is proven, compensation should be paid.

My UN report will set out the legal reasons for my opinion.

In summary, Colombia has a human rights responsibility of international assistance and cooperation, including in health. Consequently, as a minimum, Colombia must not jeopardise the enjoyment of the right to health in Ecuador. It must ‘do no harm’ to its neighbour.

There is credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border damages the physical health of people living in Ecuador. There is also credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying damages their mental health. Military helicopters sometimes accompany the aerial spraying and the entire experience can be terrifying, especially for children. (Some children told me that, while they were in their school, it was sprayed.)

This evidence is sufficient to trigger the precautionary principle. Accordingly, the spraying should cease until it is clear that it does not damage human health.

It would be manifestly unfair to require Ecuador to prove that the spraying damages human health because Ecuador does not have access to essential information that is required to make that assessment. For example, Ecuador does not know the precise composition of the herbicide that Colombia is using. Thus, Colombia has the responsibility to show that the spraying damages neither human health nor the environment.

When Colombia’s international human rights responsibilities are read, in this way, with the precautionary principle, there is no doubt in my mind that Colombia should not recommence aerial spraying of glyphosate on its border with Ecuador. This legal argument may also apply to other relevant parties. In summary, to ensure conformity with its international human rights responsibilities, Colombia should respect a ten-kilometre no-spray zone along the border.

I accept that glyphosate is used in Ecuador, but there are at least two important distinctions between the Ecuadorian use of glyphosate and its use on the border by Colombia. First, I am informed that the Government of Colombia (or others on its behalf) adds some components to the glyphosate, in contrast to Ecuadorian policy and practice. Second, the general practice in Ecuador is to manually and directly apply the herbicide, whereas in Colombia aerial spraying is used on an extremely widespread basis. Thus, any suggested equivalence between Ecuadorian and Colombian practice is misleading and disingenuous.


The glyphosate aerial spraying issue has become deeply politicised. When an issue becomes politicised in this way, human rights are always among the first victims. The health and lives of ordinary people – especially the most disadvantaged and poor – are forgotten or obscured.

It is imperative that when considering this very important issue the human right to health – at root, the well-being of disadvantaged individuals and communities – is placed at the centre of all decision-making.

3 Responses to “UN official: “credible, reliable evidence” of fumigation’s harm”

  1. Tambopaxi Says:


    Sorry, I’ve got to take exception to this posting.

    First, the UN report. Sorry, no matter how artfully written the report simply making an accusation does not/not impose a burden on the accused to change his conduct. I see (at least in this posting) no objective evidentiary proof whatsoever to support the UN Rappoteur’s assertions; again, assertions are not enough.

    Paul Hunt simply seems to be repeating everything the Ecuadorians have said, and nothing else. Where is the proof? Did the Ecuadorians give Hunt concrete, properly, scientifically supported evidence that Colombian sprayed glyphosate is 1) different from the glyphsate used in Ecuador; and 2) that that material is directly/directly and uniquely responsible for problems identified on the Ecuadorian side of the border?

    Here are some other questions to consider:

    What are ordinary Colombians in Colombia saying about the use of glyphosate against coke (and I’m obviously excluding the small coke farmers lamenting the demise of their crops)?

    Why would the erstwhile Min de RREE say the same thing about Colombian use of glyphosate to her brother that she said publically? Acaso es cierto sus comentarios?

    Another question: One would think that, by now, some opponent of glyphosate in Colombia would have obtained a sample of the allegedly different stuff that’s being used in Colombia, and analyzed it. It beggars the imagination that, after years of protests against the use of (Colombian) glyphosate, no one has been able to substantiate Ecuadorian and UN accusations of an engineered plyphosate, much less, make a connection between that material and problems on the Ecuadorian side of the border – and again, that doesn’t take into account the possibility of health problems on the Colombian side of the border: where are the conclusive/conclusive studies on either side of the border linking glyphsate to the problem?

    Finally, two points the end of Hunt’s report:

    Hunt says “…he’s informed that Government of Colombia adds components…” Please. The guy was in Ecuador for a couple of days, is whipped up north by the Government of Ecuador to listen to accusations, etc., and then leaves after a quick press conference he repeats solely what the Government tells him. And then people wonder why lots of what the UN does is not taken seriously? (BTW, there was a separate UNESCO visit to Ecuador just before Hunt’s visit to investigate the deteriorating environmental situation in the Galapagos; while there was some handwringing the about the “regrettable”, it was a pitty-pat report that carefully avoided responsibilizando a nadie for the crumby situation out there; interesting difference in approach, is all I can say.)

    …And lastly, Hunt’s comments on Ecuadorian application of glyphosate: I have business interests in the south of Ecuador, in big banana country, and I’ve been sprayed with glyphosate three times in my car by airplanes. You can get the stuff off of your car with repeated applications of water, but it takes a while. Obvious point, though, is that Hunt is dead, flat wrong; glyphosate is widely/widely used here, especially by big ag interests, and as far as I’m aware, the Government of Ecuador has never protested the use of air sprayed glyphosate here.

    In sum, if there’s anything that lacks credibility at this point, I’d say that it’s the results of the Hunt visit to Ecuador. Hunt drops in for a couple of days, sees/hears what the Government of Ecuador wants him to, repeats what the Ecuadorians say, and then leaves. This is serious business on the part of the UN? I think not.

  2. richtiger Says:

    A quick scanning of “glyphosate” sites on the web seems to indicate that this chemical is a relatively benign herbicide. It poisons plants through a metabolic pathway that does not exist in animals, and it does not remain active long in the environment as it readily “binds” to soil in a way that neutralizes its toxicity. It’s also readily degraded by bacteria.

    However, compounds called “surfactants” are usually added to the glyphosate to prevent it from forming droplets that roll off plant leaves. These surfactant compounds can be (not all are) toxic and carcinogenic in humans.

    So, the particular mix of ingredients used in the Colombia spraying would be relevant as to whether the “glyphosate” were dangerous to Ecuador and its citizens.

    It does seem, however, that basic notions of national sovereignity should preclude Colombia from spraying right along the Colombia-Ecuador border.

    Seems to me like a 10-mile buffer zone would be good idea. I mean, there’s plenty of coca in Colombia for Colombians to work on, so to speak.

  3. KyleHanky Says:

    While Tambopaxi, you are correct to question the approach of the UN here, I think you are wrong on a many fronts. Let’s start with the first paragraph. I think in order to see evidenciary proof, you have to look beyond the press conference write up, perhaps wait for the upcoming report. But the main thing is to look to outside sources.

    One study done by an Ecaudorian doctor found a massive increase in cell damage in Colombians that had been in contact with the spray in one way or another compared to those who had no contact (the control group). CODHES talks about the study in one of its reports, and the book “Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Coca Fumigation” documents it as well. Numerous, consistant testimonies carried out by journalists and international and Colombian organizations only adds to the claims.

    As far as we know, the Colombian formula is completely unique to Colombia’s spray program, as its formula is secret. Whomever informed Hunt that it is different is accurate. As for the second part of the second paragraph, the study previously mentioned will show that is the case. Hunt may not give evidence of the first part but that is common knowledge and even those who spray will admit/say that it is a unique formula.

    Who knows what most Colombians think about the spraying? Find out. You find mixed opinion, but what also matters are standards of international law. Perhaps those should be analyzed as well, as Hunt seems to be attempting to do.

    I’ll skip the question about Araujo, it doesn’t seem all that relevant why she might say that, and perhaps is clear too.

    Why hasn’t any one gotten their hands on the stuff they spray. 1) It’s secret and you just can’t pick it up. 2) To get it, you must go to where they spray, i.e. incredibly dangerous. You may walk into guerrillas shooting at planes, the Col Police responding and get yourself killed. 3) Some people have tried to figure out the whole thing, and have guesses, again detailed in “Chemical Warfare in Colombia.”

    Next thing: Colombia will tell you they add components. So will the US Embassy. I can send you a US embassy made movie about the fumigations (biased and one sided it is) and they show it and dicuss it there.

    I think Hunt does say that glyphosate is widely used. Though your comment about being sprayed by a plane, I’ll assume is true, so Hunt would be wrong (but not dead wrong). Though if I adopt your methodology I would like to see a study and evidence on the spraying of your car instead of just claims after traveling to Ecuador. And of course Ecuador will not protest its own spraying. It has its hand in it and control and they allow it on their territory. They would protest Colombia’s use because (a) they do not know what’s in it (b) Ecuador has seen the previously mentioned study and thinks its findings are credible and (c) sees Colombia spraying too close (and thus Ecuadorian territory) as a violation of sovereignty over their territory as they did not allow Colombia to do so. That’s basic international relations. They don’t want someone to interfere on their territory without consent. Another example is when the Colombian Army has attacked the FARC in Ecuadorian territory. Ecuador decides what is done or not in its territory so when Ecuador carries out similar action on their own territory, it is their choice and no one else’s and their sovereignty is not violated (taking a semi-realist approach to the Colombian-Ecuadorian relationship).

    While you may have Hunt’s methodology down, I think you demean it because I don’t think we know much about it. How do we know he did not do extensive research and confirmation? His results actually fall in line with studies done and testimonies by countless people who have been sprayed (whether they grow coca or not).

    Hunt is analyzing it all from a human rights perspective and international treaties and law. Because of Colombia’s obligations (as Hunt says), Colombia must show that it does not harm otheres, not the other way around. Just like in a case involving, let’s say, principle of distinction. The Army in the case must show they are not violating the principle, not the victims show the Army did. The burden is always on the one doing the action, not the side receiving its result(s).

    Lastly, this seems to be a case of a phenomenon I noticed in myself that I dubbed “off the ground.” While I have read numerous testimonies and seen photos, etc on fumigation, there was no way I could truly confirm the results of fumigation as long as I was out of Colombia. Everything was speculative. When I got on the ground (hence “off the ground”) in Putumayo last summer and saw the effects myself, it was clear. Being a journalism/poli sci major, confirmation is huge. The only place you can confirm is Colombia, so while your skepticism is healthy and useful, that concept may play a role (as it did play a huge role for me). Perhaps after reading the study by the Ecuadorian Doctor, which Ecuador has based its claims upon and Hunt may or may not have read, you may see the issue.

    Lastly, we should note the use of the word “glyphosate” by numerous officials talking about the matter. Studies about “glyphosate” in fact don’t really apply to Colombia. One can study glyphosate all you want, but you are not studying the same thing that is sprayed in Colombia, thus results are misleading at best. The only study that has been done with on the ground testing of people in Colombia is the study I have talked about here. The OAS tried to put the case to rest but used no on the ground testing in Colombia to come up with its results (if my memory serves me right, and I’m pretty sure it does). Thus the closest thing we have to an actual study of the Colombian spray shows a massive amound of cell damage on the subjects who were in contact with the spray, while the control (those not in contact) had little to no cell damage, as is typical in a normal human being. The book is not some conspiracy theory piece either, but written by two highly experienced and well known journalists (http://www.latinamericabureau.org/?lid=3254).

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