On July 6th, the New York Times reported that Colombia had agreed to a US program to test and potentially deploy the mycoherbicide fusarium oxysporum (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/136.html#fungus) as an integral part of the US's $1.3 billion Colombian and Andean aid package. Last week, the State Department confirmed the Times report.
But Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, who has the authority to veto or approve the project, says his government has no intention of testing or studying fusarium. He told the Associated Press in a June 15th interview that the State Department "told lies" when it said Colombia had acquiesced in the plan.
"We will not accept the introduction of any foreign element, which is what they have offered us under the name fusarium oxysporum," Mayr told the AP. "We have told them to forget it."
"I think it makes no sense to permit the entry of an external biological agent that can have an adverse effect on our ecosystems," said Mayr. He added that his position was based on an examination of the plan by government, academic and private sector researchers in Colombia. He said they rejected the plan categorically, warning of possible mutations and harm to people, livestock and the environment.
The plan to use high-flying planes to dump mass quantities of the mycoherbicides on Colombia's vast coca and opium poppy producing regions has been pushed by an unholy alliance of Republican congressional drug warriors, the drug czar's office, the US Southern Command and self-interested scientists.
Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) even successfully introduced an amendment requiring the president to certify that Colombia was in compliance with US directives to implement such a program. In conference committee, however, that amendment was transformed and in its current language now calls for the Secretary of State to report to Congress by early November with details on "the effects on human health and the safety of herbicides used on illegal crops with funds from the aid package."
So, just what is going on here? The short answer seems to be that no one knows. The State Department stands by its position. The Colombian Embassy has not responded to DRCNet's phone calls requesting clarification.
"We don't know," Ingrid Vacius, an analyst for the Center for International Policy (http://www.ciponline.org) told DRCNet. "We're seeing the same things you're seeing, all the conflicting information. There's a big controversy, but that's all we know."
That same response was repeated by all of the interested organizations that DRCNet contacted. Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America (http://www.wola.org), however, provided some suggestions as to what could be behind the confusion.
"The contradictions between the US and Colombian governments here reflect a lack of transparency by the US and the fact that the US government slipped this into the legislation without proper consultation with their Colombian counterparts," she told DRCNet.
If Tate is correct, US policy-makers' arrogance may prove to be the undoing of the misbegotten fusarium program. But, as the battle of the press accounts suggests, the end result is still up in the air, and US leverage over the Colombians will probably only increase as the flow of dollars and weapons from Washington to Colombia quickens.
Still, Rep. Gilman's amendment has mutated from a demand for the program into a potential obstacle to it. As WOLA's Tate noted, it may be impossible to certify that the mycoherbicide is safe and effective. "These are programs that were shut down in the US for environmental reasons. It seems dubious that there is sufficient evidence these programs can be carried out safely."