MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Colombia, police fight the cocaine trade by spraying the leaves of coca plants with a powerful weed killer. This program has received more than $2 billion in U.S. funding since it began in 1994. But due to health concerns, the Colombian government has decided to ground the spray planes. We have this report from John Otis.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It's harvest time in the coca fields of southern Colombia. Using his bare hands, Franklin Canacuan expertly strips the bright green leaves from his five-foot-tall coca bushes.
FRANKLIN CANACUAN: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But over the years, his field has been sprayed several times by government crop dusters. Canacuan says that the rain of defoliant once doused his 8-year-old daughter who was playing outside and who briefly became ill.
CANACUAN: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "It makes people sick. It gives them a fever and skin rashes on their arms," he tells me. "It happens right after the planes pass over."
CANACUAN: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: It's impossible to verify Canacuan's claims. However, misgivings about glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide used to kill coca, are growing.
DANIEL MEJIA: In our own study, we find that the exposure to the glyphosate used in the spraying campaigns in Colombia causes respiratory, dermatological problems and miscarriages.
OTIS: Daniel Mejia directs the Drug and Security Research Center in Bogota. He conducted a four-year study of coca-growing regions and found that such health problems increased immediately after these areas were fumigated. An even bigger red flag has been raised by the World Health Organization. In March, its cancer research arm concluded that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans. That prompted the Colombian government on Thursday to order a phasing out of the program.
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YESID REYES: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Justice Minister Yesid Reyes said the crop dusting flights will probably end by October. Still, it's an awkward time for Colombia to holster a key weapon in its war on drugs.
WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: For the first time in more than eight years, the United States government concluded that coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia has increased - and increased rather dramatically.
OTIS: That's William Brownfield, the State Department's top anti-drug official. He tells NPR that Colombia's coca crop expanded by 39 percent last year. That means cocaine production may have jumped from 185 tons to 245 tons. Brownfield said a more aggressive spray campaign might have reduced those numbers. The program is dear to the hearts of U.S. officials because they helped invent it. FARC guerrillas control many of the coca fields and frequently attack ground-based eradication teams, so Columbia opted for aerial eradication with American crop dusters and glyphosate, which is used by agro-industry all across the globe. Monsanto, which manufactures glyphosate, points to many scientific studies showing that the herbicide poses no risk to humans. It claims that the World Health Organization report ignored this research.
SANDRA TREJO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: As it turns out, coca farmers routinely handle toxic chemicals. Near the town of La Hormiga, I meet Sandra Trejo, a former coca farmer who has switched to growing black pepper. She got out of the drug trade in part because turning coca leaves into cocaine requires mixing powerful solvents like acetone and sulfuric acid.
TREJO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "People use very strong chemicals without protection like goggles, overalls or facemasks," Trejo says. "So we can't blame all the problems on glyphosate."
But President Santos says there are other reasons for scrapping the spray program. He says that going after big-time smugglers rather than peasant coca farmers can be a more effective way to fight drugs. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, La Hormiga, Colombia.
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