In the depths of the mountainous jungle terrain of the Macarena National Park in southern Colombia, hundreds of labourers toiled amid endless fields of coca bushes under a scorching sun. Using their bare hands, they tore out the green coca plant – the main ingredient for cocaine – from its roots and destroyed it. Surrounding them were dozens of armed soldiers deployed to protect them from possible guerrilla attacks. The oppressive sound of military helicopters hovering above filled the humid air. It took eight months for 900 labourers to destroy nearly 3,000 of the 4,600 hectares of coca in the park.
The project was beset with problems from the start. The Macarena National Park and its surrounding area is the heartland of the FARC guerillas – Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. The risk of working in FARC-controlled territory was great. The guerrillas ambushed government workers and soldiers in a bid to maintain their territorial control.
Over the months, workers resigned their jobs and deserted. The number of workers who dared to remain dwindled to around 200. The risk to their lives was simply not worth the humble wages, just $12 a day. Since the start of the campaign bomb attacks and landmines placed by the guerrillas have killed 14 police and 8 contract workers.
The mounting death toll forced the Government to shift to more extreme methods of destroying coca – crop-spraying. Duster planes, accompanied by military helicopters, are now flying low over the park’s jungle canopies spewing the toxic herbicide, which contains the controversial chemical glysophate. Today Colombia is the only country to use such crop-spraying methods in its war on drugs and also to do it in its own national parks.
A recent editorial in Colombia’s leading daily, El Tiempo, was scathing: ‘Those who think that fumigating the Macarena National Park will bring an end to coca growing there are mistaken. There will be more coca and less of the national park.’ Ecuador shares a jungle border with its neighbour Colombia and the Ecuadorian authorities have repeatedly raised concerns over the environmental effects of spraying glysophate along their shared borders. The aerial fumigation of coca fields is staunchly supported by the US. It’s a profitable business and the bulk of contractors, herbicides, and duster planes originate in the US.
Despite decades of crop spraying, Colombia remains the world’s leading producer of cocaine, supplying 90 per cent of the US market. Environmentalists in and outside Colombia fear that crop-spraying will also spread to other national parks. According to the Colombian authorities, it will take five days to fumigate the remaining coca fields in Macarena. But it will take decades to discover the real extent of the damage glysophate causes in one of the most biodiverse countries on earth.Anastasia Moloney