Monday, April 14, 2014

Anti-Fumigation Fight Sees Tactical Victory in Colombia

Colombia’s top administrative court has struck down a controversial program authorizing coca fumigation in national parks. While authorities say fumigation in protected areas was rare anyway, the ruling comes amid growing skepticism about aerial spraying and could hasten its demise.

On March 31, the Colombian Council of State announced that it had decided that spraying in national reserves contributed to a loss of natural vegetation and irreparable damage to the environment.  The main target of the ruling was glyphosate, the pesticide most frequently used for coca eradication. Citing inconclusive evidence about the health and environmental safety of glyphosate, the tribunal found that spraying in protected areas could not be justified under the precautionary principle of policymaking.

In response to the decision, Colombian drug control officials downplayed its significance. Ricardo Restrepo, head of the country’s anti-narcotics police, told the AP that his office “had never” sprayed in natural reserves, pointing to two parks where they have refrained from acting.

Nevertheless, the decision appears to be part of a trend, as more officials in the country turn against the practice. In October, the Colombian government agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador to compensate for health problems caused to Ecuadorean farmers by glyphosate spraying along the border as part of an aerial coca eradication campaign. The agreement sparked controversy in Colombia, where the government was accused of holding the Ecuadorean border region to higher standards than the rest of the country.

In a visit to Washington last month, Colombian Justice Minister Alfonso Gómez Méndez asked his U.S. counterparts to reconsider allocating funds for coca eradication, proposing that they be used instead to address “the causes of illicit cultivation.”

As Just the Facts’ Adam Isaacson has noted, however, the government is not unified on the issue. Officials in the National Police and Defense Ministry have stepped up praise for U.S.-supported fumigation programs, in direct response to the government’s signaled openness towards cutting them.

While the Council of State ruling only applied to spraying in certain protected areas, it is still a significant blow to the arguments in favor of fumigation. As Rodrigo Uprimny of the Bogota-based Dejusticia research center argued in a Saturday column for El Espectador, the same argument used by the court applies to spraying in general. He writes:
In this judgment, the Council of State cancels a resolution authorizing spraying in national parks, for violating [precautionary principle, or] PP. One might think, then, that the sentence only impacts spraying in those areas. But this is not the case. For procedural reasons, the council could only invalidate that resolution, because it was the norm in question; however, its doctrine on the PP is broader and attacks the legal grounds for spraying, as the damage to human health and fragile, rich ecosystems do not occur in national parks alone.

News Briefs 
  • El Espectador looks at a forward-thinking needle exchange program underway in the central Colombian city of Pereira, which supplies users of injectable drugs with clean needles as part of an effort to cut down on HIV and hepatitis transmission. The paper also notes that the program, which has support of international harm reduction advocacy organizations like the Open Society Foundations, stands in stark contrast to President Juan Manuel’s recent efforts to crack down on low-level drug trafficking by demolishing houses accused of links to “microtrafficking” in a northeast Bogota slum.
  • Even as certain Venezuelan opposition sectors remain critical of talks with the government, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has announced the makeup of its delegation to continued talks. While the government’s side will be represented by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, Libertador Mayor Jorge Rodriguez and Vice President Jorge Arreaza, El Universal reports that the MUD will be represented by deputy MUD Secretary Ramon Jose Medina and five opposition lawmakers. The first round  these talks is set to begin tomorrow.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is having a tough time in her first month back in office. On Saturday, she had to face the second emergency of her young second term, following the 8.2 earthquake on April 1. A major fire swept through the hills of the port city of Valparaiso, leaving at least 12 dead and forcing authorities to evacuate some 10,000 to evacuate. La Tercera reports that Bachelet has postponed her first planned overseas trip this week -- official visits to Argentina and Uruguay -- in order to coordinate disaster efforts.
  • According to El Universo, Ecuadorean environmental groups presented some 700 thousand signatures to electoral authorities on Saturday in favor of holding a national referendum on President Rafael Correa's decision to end restrictions on oil drilling Yasuni National Park. BBC Mundo has an excellent profile of the coalition behind the pro-referendum effort, which is made up primarily of young people disenchanted by Correa’s environmental policies.
  • Imprisoned former USAID contractor Alan Gross ended his hunger strike on Friday, reportedly in response to a request from his 91-year-old mother. According to a statement from his lawyer, Gross said similar protests would not be needed in the future as long as both the U.S. and Cuban governments “show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other.”
  • Frank Bajak of the Associated Press chronicles the phenomenon of “subnational authoritarianism” in Peru’s Ancash Region. Since coming to power in 2006, Governor Cesar Alvarez has silenced critics and reportedly bought off local media outlets. The March killing of one of his most vocal opponents, Ezequiel Nolasco, has focused attention on Alvarez’s abuse of power, but federal authorities are accused of ignoring evidence of his brutality.
  • Ultimas Noticias has an in-depth report on the impact that scarcity of basic goods in Venezuela has had on the country’s poor. According to the paper, scarcity has forced residents of low-income areas around the capital city of Caracas to flock in record numbers to private and state-managed supermarkets in the center to stock up on food.
  • The Washington Post highlights declining domestic support for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, even as his popularity abroad continues to grow. Analysts cited by the Post claim that the president’s ambitious reform efforts have yet to benefit most Mexicans, a factor which could hurt him and his PRI in July 2015 midterm elections.
  • Sunday’s edition of Mexican daily El Universal featured an investigation into the use of the controversial legal mechanism known as the “arraigo,” which allows the pre-trial detention of suspects for extended periods in order to allow investigators to build a case against them. According to the paper, over 11 thousand people have been held under this procedure, most for “crimes against health,” a term applied to drug-related crimes. Fortunately for critics of the arraigo, there is evidence that the emphasis on pretrial detention is falling. The first year of the Peña Nieto administration saw a 64 percent drop in arraigo detentions compared to the last year of President Calderon’s term in office, and a 22 percent drop compared to the same period in his predecessor’s administration.
  • On Sunday the New York Times published a front-page article on delayed development and infrastructure projects in Brazil, which have languished due to a slowed economy and bureaucratic inertia. While the government has defended state funding on infrastructure projects despite the delays, critics say they point to the problems with Brazil’s reliance on state-controlled companies and banks to promote economic growth. 

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