Whether war on terror or on drugs, the US seems to be facing setbacks everywhere. But it is the others who are paying a heavy price. While Mexican farmers undergo untold miseries, even the famed Amazon forests could be turning into a desert.
An agonizing soul-searching is on as ministers from across the world gather in Vienna to forge a new UN approach to drugs.
AdvertisementThe Bush administration's aggressive approach doesn't seem to have yielded much of a dividend. Supplies have not exactly plateaued.
Many advocate a new strategy based on "harm reduction" measures, such as needle exchanges. Critics are urging a "paradigm shift" from repression to a public health approach, including decriminalisation of marijuana. The tragedy unfolding across Latin America seems to drive home the need for such a shift.
Colombia is the world's main cocaine exporter. Since 2000 it has received $6bn in mostly military aid from the US for the drug war. But despite the fumigation of 1.15m hectares of coca, the plant from which the drug is derived, production has not fallen. Across the whole of South America it has spiked 16%, thanks to increases in supply from Bolivia and Peru, Rory Carroll reported for the Guardian.
Drug-related violence is growing menacingly. More than a 1,000 people across Mexico have been killed in the first eight weeks of this year, he believes the drug violence has reached its peak and that Mexico is winning the drug war. Almost 6,000 people died in drug-related violence in Mexico last year alone, an unprecedented level of mayhem that is showing signs of spilling northwards into the United States. More than 1,000 have been killed already this year in Mexico.
Apart from the human toll, the very destruction of the Amazon could be collateral damage in the war on cocaine. The fragile Amazonian soil could "soon be turned to desert". They are the words of a Catholic priest.
The fumigation policy is having disastrous consequences. Military planes targeting coca farms, funded by the US, are spraying mists of pesticides over food crops, grazing animals and even areas where children are playing.
Locals complain of breathing problems and rashes; "strips of skin" have been peeling off cows, and chickens have died; and maize, yucca, plantain and cacao crops have wilted and shrivelled. "We fear there will soon be a very serious food shortage in the region," says a churchworker.
The US has been funding the spraying campaign for more than two decades, but 70% of the world's coca leaf is grown in Colombia. Glyphosate is the most frequently used pesticide; its biggest selling commercial formulation is Roundup, made by Monsanto. The company acknowledges that contact with glyphosate may cause mild eye or skin irritation. But independent studies have suggested a far greater range of symptoms, including facial numbness and swelling, rapid heart rate, raised blood pressure, chest pains, nausea and congestion, writes Grace Livingstone in Guardian. Her book America's Backyard: the US and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror is to be published this month.
In Colombia, glyphosate is mixed with other chemicals, and because the exact composition has not been made public it has been impossible to test its toxicity. One addition, a surfactant, makes the corrosive liquid stick to the surface - leaf or skin - on which it is sprayed. The pesticide is used at higher concentrations than stipulated in the US, and is sprayed from above the recommended height of 10 metres. Farm workers in the US are advised to keep clear of weedkillers, yet in Colombia aerial spraying takes place with no warning, showering humans and animals with chemicals.
All Colombia's neighbours - Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil - oppose the "fumigation" policy. The Andean and European parliaments have called for its suspension, as have numerous environmentalists, scientists and politicians in Colombia. But spraying has intensified since the launch in 2000 of Plan Colombia, the US-funded counter-narcotics strategy.
When their land is poisoned, peasants migrate and start growing coca again. They have no alternative. Spraying simply displaces the problem. Despite decades of spraying, coca cultivation in Colombia has grown by 500% since the 1980s, according to US state department figures. US politicians heralded a drop in cultivation after the launch of Plan Colombia, but the area of land covered by coca crops is now larger than when the plan was launched. Perhaps the clearest indication that the policy is failing is the falling price of cocaine, suggesting more, not less, of the drug is entering the US market.
One of the most fragile ecosystems in the world is being poisoned, Grace Livingstone warns.