DRCNet Interview: Jeremy Bigwood on Colombia's Borders 4/19/02

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Jeremy Bigwood is an independent investigator, journalist and photographer who has covered Latin America since 1976. His work has received funding from the John T. and Catherine P. MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute, among others. Bigwood has done extensive research on chemical herbicides, including mycoherbicides in the context of coca eradication programs. In February, Bigwood was a technical advisor to the Ecuadorian delegation at a tripartite meeting between Colombia, Ecuador and the United States, to establish a "buffer zone" along the Colombia-Ecuador border where spraying to eradicate Colombian coca crops would be banned. DRCNet spoke with Bigwood about the meeting and about instability on Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela.

Week Online: What were the talks about?

Jeremy Bigwood: They were meetings about setting up a buffer zone between Colombia and Ecuador. There would be a belt of Colombian territory extending inward from the border where the Colombian government would not be allowed to spray any chemical herbicides as part of its coca eradication program. Only manual eradication would be permitted. There is a dispute over the width of the buffer zone -- Ecuador wants a 10 kilometer buffer, but Colombia offered three. During that meeting, the head of the Colombian National Police offered eight to 10 kilometers, so there is some movement, but still no agreement.

WOL: Who was at this meeting?

Bigwood: The US had Richard Baca, in charge of the State Department's Colombia Narcotics Affairs Section. The Colombian government had fairly broad representation, including police and health officials. The Ecuadorians had representatives from the ministry of agriculture and livestock, the ministry of the environment, and the national police.

WOL: What was your role at the meetings?

Bigwood: I was there as a consultant to the Ecuadorian government's environment ministry to demonstrate the concerns associated with spraying chemical herbicides. My expenses were paid by a Soros grant. I put that money to good use; I documented the toxicity of some of these chemicals and wrote a scientific review for the Drug Policy Alliance. I supported the Ecuadorian call for the buffer zone on ecological grounds. The US and Colombia are frequently changing the formulations they use when they spray, and none of these formulations have been tested in tropical regions like northern Ecuador. We based our concern on the scientific literature about the ingredients we knew were being applied in these herbicides. Those ingredients were toxic to aquatic life, including fish, and various things found in the soil, such as fungi and nematodes. For that reason, Ecuador wanted this area where chemical herbicides would not be sprayed. We did not talk about the issue of damage to human beings, because we have no hard evidence, so our argument was based solely on damage to the ecology. Until there is testing of these compounds in these conditions, Ecuador wants that buffer zone.

WOL: Will they get it?

Bigwood: Both the US and Colombia have agreed in principle, but we're still dealing with how big it will be. Ecuador wants 10 kilometers. The end result will be that there will be a buffer zone. The Colombian National Police say they are already respecting a five-mile limit, which would be about 11 kilometers. I expect to see an agreement with fixed figures coming out of these negotiations within a month. Then, if the Colombians sign this agreement and turn around and break it, they can be taken to the Hague. This is serious. It will be a buffer zone for Ecuador, but there is none for Colombia. This is a small step forward.

WOL: Why is Ecuador so adamant?

Bigwood: The Ecuadorians are concerned about fish, soil toxicity, and damage to insect life. Many rivers from Colombia flow into Ecuador, so they're mainly worried about water toxicity. They're also concerned about contaminants from sprayed areas near the border leaching into the ground water. The government of Ecuador really believes that its future depends on the country's biodiversity. It is a species-rich area and they're afraid they may lose a species -- a plant that could produce a new medicine, for example -- that they could exploit in the future, making them lots of money. That's their major concern.

WOL: Why has the US government agreed to this buffer zone? Are they saying they accept the scientific evidence, or is this more to pacify the Ecuadorians?

Bigwood: They won't tell me why they're doing this. We had a rather hostile relationship when I was there, and they weren't really forthcoming, but they have agreed to the principle of a buffer zone. In the meeting, they agreed that the particular formulations had never been tested and that the effects in tropical areas were unknown. They agreed there was toxicity to aquatic life. They can't argue with the scientific evidence that shows some danger to the environment. And this is very important to the Ecuadorians.

WOL: There is turmoil in another country bordering Colombia. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last weekend was first ousted by a military coup with civilian support, then returned to power two days later by a counter-coup with civilian support. The Bush administration, which dislikes Chavez for his left-leaning populism, his consorting with certain foreign leaders, and his alleged support of the FARC in Colombia, cheered the coup, but is now backpedaling furiously from any hint of support for such an anti-democratic move. What's going on here, and how does it affect the situation in Colombia?

Bigwood: What happens in Venezuela is very important for Colombia. Venezuela is right next door. Chavez does not favor Plan Colombia or the Colombian government, and both the Colombian and the US governments were very pleased when it looked like the coup would succeed. Now they are much less pleased. But what happened in Venezuela was very similar to the coup in Chile in 1973 -- except this time it didn't work. The US government was doing exactly the same thing: blaming Chavez as they blamed Allende for bringing it on themselves, but now we see these prior contacts at the Embassy.

The coup didn't work because Chavez' support was strong enough. The chavistas came down from the hills [by the tens of thousands on Saturday demanding Chavez' return to power], and the other side, the American cronies that the US was going to put in were so bad, so corrupt, that even the anti-Chavez people thought they would be as bad or worse. Also, Latin American leaders and the Organization of American States (OAS) immediately condemned the coup as a breach of democracy. The US tried to control the OAS last weekend, but failed.

WOL: Is Chavez now "inoculated" from further attempts to overthrow his government, or do these events signify that he is weakened and faces further rebellions?

Bigwood: It will be difficult to pull off another coup. He has shown he has popular support, the alternative wasn't very good -- one-day President Carmona quickly showed his intentions by decreeing the constitution invalid and dissolving the legislature and the supreme court -- and Latin America lined up behind democratic rule. Any future coup plotter will have to factor in those things. Much will depend on his performance. Chavez might tune down the rhetoric when it comes to the Venezuelan oligarchy, but he won't move any closer to the US. It's clear that the US was behind this or helping it. He won't forget that.

Visit http://www.jeremybigwood.net to learn more about Jeremy Bigwood's work.

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Issue #233, 4/19/02 Federal Meth Bill Provision Would Send Promoters to Prison for Drug Use at Events | Budget Woes Imperil Virginia Substance Abuse Funding, Governor Asks Legislature to Undo Drug Court Cuts | DRCNet Interview: Jeremy Bigwood on Colombia's Borders | Drug War! Race & Party, NYC Saturday Night | Save New York State Prison Art! | Northeast Summit for New Drug Policies | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar

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