When Will They Ever Learn? DRCNet Speaks With Jeremy Bigwood 5/5/00

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p>In all the recent talk about US plans to send guns and helicopters to fight the drug war in Colombia, there has been very little said about concurrent efforts to induce Colombians to allow their fields to be sprayed with a coca-killing fungus, even after concerned citizens in Florida successfully fought a similar plan last spring. The silence was broken this week when MoJo Wire ran "Drug Control or Biowarfare?", a story that details the human and environmental risks the US State Department is choosing to ignore in moving forward with this project. DRCNet is pleased to present an interview with co-author Jeremy Bigwood.

Please read "Drug Control or Biowarfare" at http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/coca.html.

First, tell us a little about your background.

I'm a photographer, and for awhile I worked in enthobotany. I was lucky enough to work around people like Dick Schultes and Art Gordon Wasson. But what I really studied was the chemistry of mushrooms. So that meant I had to study mycology and chemistry, so that's my scientific background.

On top of that, I used to make research trips to Latin America to collect plants which I would take back to the University of Washington and Evergreen State College where I was working, and extract and publish papers on them.

WOL: How did you get interested in the fusarium problem?

JB: I was in Peru in 1992, and I had heard about this epidemic that was affecting coca. At the time I was working as a photojournalist in the Huallaga Valley. I was covering the MRTA, who occupied a zone where coca was being grown. I heard about this wilt problem, and the theory was that a fungus might be causing it, as it had been suspected to have caused a similar disease in Hawaii.

Then a friend introduced me to the journalist Sharon Stevenson, who in 1991 had written about the problems with the fungus in Peru for the Miami Herald. In that article she had quoted campesinos and other people laying the blame for this fungus on the United States, so my interest was piqued.

WOL: The spread of the fusarium oxysporum fungus was responsible for the destruction of thousands of hectares of coca in Peru in the early to mid 1990's. But then one reads news stories where US anti-drug agencies take credit for the reduction in Peru's coca cultivation. Why the disconnect?

JB: The problem is that the way things work in government, the spokespeople are often not the people in the know. The people on the ground knew the fungus was responsible, and they also know the fungus in Peru mutated and spread to other crops, forcing whole populations to move somewhere else to farm.

WOL: You co-wrote the Mother Jones story with Ms. Stevenson. When did you begin working together?

JB: In 1999, we applied for and received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to investigate all aspects of the fungus and mycoherbicides in general, including the extraction of toxins from fungi that have been used for biological and chemical warfare.

But we had filed several FOIA's (Freedom of Information Act requests) before we knew that we had the grant, and we got good information. Maybe it was a mistake, but we got good information from the State Department saying that they were gung-ho on the Colombia issue.

WOL: So the State Department has been pursuing this for some time. Why has there been so little information made available to the public? Why hasn't the media paid more attention?

JB: First of all, a newspaper can't afford to pay a journalist to spend the amount of time we have just filing FOIA's and the like. In a democracy you have to have certain people looking into things. But with today's economics and the complexities of the issues, it's really difficult to do unless you have grants for journalists. These projects just take so long to do, and require so much time and work. Especially if you're working through the Freedom of Information Act -- I have FOIA's that went out in 1994 that I am still waiting on. So the tools that are to aid us in transparency aren't really working in this society. It's a real problem.

WOL: You went to Peru and Colombia this spring. What did you learn there?

JB: We had very little luck in our first week in Colombia, but then we had a series of interviews that were really good. We found that the issue of the fusarium fungus had been raised with the Colombians by two groups: the United Nations Drug Control Program, which had written up a contract at the behest of the United States, and Ag-Bio, the US company that wants to sell them the fungus. It was apparent that it was really the US ramming this concept down the throats of the Colombians.

We also found that the Colombians had done plenty of their own research, and had found a lot of things that we hadn't checked into. One of the things they found was the toxicity of fusarium in immuno-compromised patients. They had dug up a lot of medical papers on this. The research found that the rate of death among these patients with fusarium infections was around 76 percent. There is no medicine that really works very well for this. Once you get it in your system, and you're immuno-compromised, you're just like a plant. It's just eating you like it eats a plant.

WOL: What does this mean in a Colombian context?

JB: In the Colombian context this becomes very important, because the rest of the US plan for Colombia is about dislocating people. If it goes down the way it's written, we'll see the US building strategic hamlets -- or you could call them concentration camps -- where you round up the campesinos, and the ones that remain in the countryside are on the run. At the same time, you have this massive fusarium spraying operation.

What happens to those campesino people who may not be very well fed, they become the kinds of immuno-compromised people who could easily be killed by fusarium. And then what we're really talking about is biowarfare. We're no longer talking about wiping out crops. We're now talking about using a biological weapon against human beings.

WOL: Are the people at the US State Department cynical about this danger?

JB: I don't think they are. I really don't think they get it. I don't think we have the caliber of people at the State Department who have the interdisciplinary training that would enable them to think these things through. I'm afraid we don't have winners there.

Anyone who would research this would find out about the toxicity of this fungus to humans, or that the fungus mutates easily, and the toxicity of the compounds involved. All you have to do is a little bit of research. It isn't that hard.

Either that or they've been led down the path by Dr. Sands from Ag-Bio. Because basically, the more one investigates this, the more it looks like a very bad idea.

WOL: What can concerned citizens do about this?

JB: There certainly needs to be international pressure on this. The Colombians don't have an environmental group that can take this on. The scientists have put up an incredible fight, but it's not an easy thing to do there. It's going to be very hard if the reigns of power in Colombia are controlled by the US, it's going to be even more difficult. All criticism is going to be seen as talk from the FARC.

I'm surprised that we're reliving this. I went through this with Central America, and I went through it before that with Vietnam. And now I'm going through it again and I'm just asking, when are you guys going to learn?

Bigwood and Stevenson are publishing the results of their ongoing research into the proposed and actual uses of mycoherbicides on a new web site, http://www.mycoherbicide.net.

You can read DRCNet's past coverage of mycoherbicides here:

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Issue #136, 5/5/00 Gore Outlines Broad Crime Proposal | When Will They Ever Learn? DRCNet Speaks With Jeremy Bigwood | Reno Orders End to Hemp Seed Embargo, McCaffrey Hopes to Amend Controlled Substances Act to Outlaw Hemp | George Washington University Students Approve Higher Education Act Resolution, but Student President Vetoes | RAISE YOUR VOICE: Action Needed Against Higher Education Act Drug Provision | Say No to Drug War Funding for Colombia's Abusive Military: Senate Committee Vote May 9th | NEW YORK: Rockefeller Drug Law Protest Monday, and Letters Needed | CALIFORNIA: Assembly Appropriations Committee Voting on Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License May 10th | WASHINGTON: Legislators' Medical Marijuana Sign-on Letter | NYC Forum: The People and the Police 136/todd Spitfire Concert in Los Angeles to Raise Money for Imprisoned Medical Marijuana Patient
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