In recent years, people in the Arauca region of Colombia have suffered some of the worst excesses of repression. In September 2002 the Government of Alvarro Uribe declared the region a Zone of Rehabilitation. Over one weekend in August the authorities detained 42 trade unionists and other social leaders this figure later to rose to 75. At the same time the Colombian military announced the commencement of fumigations of the coca crop in the western part of the region, close to the Venezuelan border.
The herbicide used in fumigations is a mixture of glyphosate and a flux that provides extra adhesion. Monsanto produces both chemicals. There are no scientific studies into effects of these products being used in combination. However, the damage caused by fumigations is well known, particularly to the inhabitants of the Putumayo region in the south of Colombia, where the herbicide has been used since 2000. There, fumigations have destroyed food crops, water sources and has led to serious health problems. The commencement of fumigation�s in Arauca raises concerns amongst campesinos that the region would suffer the same fate as Putumayo. In response, a commission was formed consisting of campesino organisations, trade unionists, lawyers and NGOs. Between 1 and 4 November the commission visited a number of municipalities to the west of Saravena. This is an account of my experiences as part of the commission.
The first night was spent in a village that we reached after several hours drive along the dirt track that constituted a road. The region of Arauca has some of the largest oil reserves in Colombia, but this village has seen little benefit. Likewise the area is known for coca production yet the lifestyle is hardly Beverley Hills. At a meeting campesinos complained of neglect by the Government. In the local school there are 50 pupils but only 10 books. The health service is rudimentary, any medical condition that requires more than basic treatment involves a flight from Saravena- 4 hours drive away- to Bucaramanga or C�cuta. Since 1 September, when fumigations began the number of people who need to make such a journey has increased. After two months villagers reported that two women had suffered miscarriages. A health worker also stated that he had witnessed an increased incidence of nausea, stomach complaints and conjunctivitis. It should be noted that these are the immediate effects of the fumigations. The long term consequences are yet to be experienced.
The campesinos also outlined the economic conditions that have led some to cultivate coca. Campesinos who sell produce such as maize, bananas and yucca find that they incur the transport costs of the wholesaler. Those who produce coca are able to sell their produce without any additional cost. Campesinos reported that they have approached the military with an offer to eradicate the crop manually to no avail. Amongst the campesinos a belief prevails: the fumigations have nothing to do with the War on Drugs, they are the latest device to force them from their potentially oil rich land.
On the second day we saw numerous examples of food crops destroyed by fumigations. The most dramatic being the fumigation on 18 October of a 1 hector farm on which there was no coca. Not only was a yucca plantation fumigated but also a farmhouse that stood in the middle. Colombian law stipulates that fumigations should not be within 200 metres of dwelling houses, food crops or supplies of fresh water. At the time of the fumigation, a woman who lived in the house was stood outside with her child. She told us he was 7 years old; his back was covered in a red rash that developed after the fumigation. The woman reported that she is pregnant.
We also visited one of what the Colombian state describes as a drug laboratory that had been abandoned. Around the �laboratory� was the discarded packaging from the materials used in the process. Cement imported from Venezuela, glyphosate- the herbicide used in fumigations- produced by Dow Chemicals and several drums of petroleum provided by Mobil.
At about 4 p.m. we arrived at a row of houses, one of which was illegally occupied by the army. A member of our group photographed the house a evidence of illegal activity. Two hundred metres further on the army stopped our bus and demanded the camera. Three of our group left the bus to discuss the matter with the commandante in the house. After about ten minutes there was a burst of fire from an automatic weapon. We crawled along the floor of the bus to take shelter outside. As we did a mortar bomb exploded. To our relief our companions were released and we were allowed to leave. The whole incident had been a pyro-technic display designed to scare us.
That night we stayed in a lodging house in a nearby village. The owner was extremely anxious that in the event of the army arriving and demanding our beds we should offer no resistance. We heard from a man whose home the army had occupied. They were using the fact that there was coca on his land to dissuade him from making an official complaint. The following day, more examples of the army�s abuse of the local population came to our attention. We heard of a school being occupied in a neighbouring village. A woman took us to her home above a workshop. Three days before the army had thrown a bomb into the workshop, alleging it to be a storage facility for chemicals used in the production of cocaine.
Then there were more accounts of fumigations. Between 10 and 15 planes had fumigated the area in 5 weeks destroying an estimated third of the crops in the vicinity. A lawyer who was on the commission told the meeting that the Colombian Courts had ordered fumigations to cease until a study had been carried out into their impact. The state had appealed the decision and as the status quo prevails pending an appeal, the fumigations continue.
At the next village we met with campesinos in a grey concrete building that was open to the elements. it was the school. There were more accounts of fumigations: two hectares of rubber destroyed, one hector of grazing land, two hectares of maize, livestock losing body hair and still born calves. The most serious incident concerned a nine year old girl. She had required hospital treatment in Bucaramanga after eating a guava contaminated with herbicide. A number of campesinos raised concern about the future. There was no advice about when fumigated land could be used to grow crops. The meeting went on to discuss the State compensation scheme and its deficiencies. A member of the US based human rights group, Witness For Peace spoke of his experiences of the compensation scheme in Putamayo. Out of 8000 claims only two cases had received compensation, 430 studies had been completed leaving in excess of 7500 outstanding three years after the scheme began.
On the final day the commission went to a farm on the River Arauca, which forms the border with Venezuela. A farmer showed us a field of maniocre that had been destroyed by fumigations. Next to the field was a lake. The farmer reported that, fish, frogs, and caiman- a protected species had died. Glyphosate is insoluble in water. The damage caused to the environment is likely to be cumulative. A particular cause for concern as the rivers of Arauca feed the Orinoco.
The commission returned to Saravena at 2 p.m. only to learn that half an hour before a double assassination had taken place outside the hospital. One victim was a young woman, Maritza Isabel Linares Qui�onez she had received death threats because of her work amongst displaced indigenous people. The other was a priest, Saulo Carre�o Hernandez, he had agreed to drive Maritza to the hospital where she worked out of concern each day. Somehow the killers who were on a motor cycle managed to negotiate the oil drums placed across each main road to slow traffic down, avoid the army look outs made from black bags filled with sand that are on virtually every street and pass through the check points that ring every exit from the town to make good their escape.