Villagers: Air War Against Cocaine ‘Ruins Our Water;’ Officials Say No

By Kelly Hearn

PUERTO NUEVO, Ecuador - Climbing to the metal lip of the 60-foot water tower here, Orlando Gomez huffed, out of breath and drenched in an Amazonian sweat. Mr. Gomez is in charge of drinking water for this little town deep in the rain forest, a two hour’s drive by beat-up road from an oil town called Lago Agrio.
From the tower, Mr. Gomez could see the dirt roads and little tin-roofed wooden houses of this gritty river settlement. He turned slightly toward a distant green wall of mahogany and cedar trees and the muddy San Miguel River, which marks the border between Ecuador and Colombia.

Most of the people in Puerto Nuevo used to live on the Colombian side of the border. They crossed the San Miguel into Ecuador to get away from the troubles in their home country:  the long-running guerrilla war, the violence of drug-trafficking gangs and the mist of pesticide that drifts over the land, a mixture of chemicals designed to kill the coca plants that produce the main ingredient in cocaine. The people here escaped the war and the drug violence.  But Mr. Gomez, who works as Puerto Nuevo’s supervisor of water,  said the pesticide, paid for by the United States as part of its war on drugs for the last eight years,  has followed them to what amounts to their refugee village in Ecuador. And, according to Mr. Gomez, the pesticide, known as Roundup, has had devastating effects.
“It doesn’t just make people sick and kill their crops,” he said, “it ruins our water.”

A Red Cross nurse, visiting Puerto Nuevo on the day I was there, told me she has treated rashes and stomach illnesses that she believes were caused by the spraying.

As convinced as Mr. Gomez and others here are of the harmful effects of the pesticide, United States and Colombian officials contend that it is not harmful to people, livestock or other plants besides coca. It is “one of the most widely used agricultural herbicides in the world,” United States official say, and “has been tested widely” without harmful results.

Studies on the effects of the pesticide on humans have been inconclusive, according to Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy, a policy analysis center in Washington, D.C.

In an interview, Camilo Opsina, the Colombian ambassador to the Organization of American States, told me that the government of Colombia stopped fumigating coca fields within six miles of the Ecuadorian border two years ago. But people in Puerto Nuevo told me that Colombian spray planes still fly close to the border.

Mr. Gomez and Jose Reyes, an elected town leader in Puerto Nuevo, said that Puerto Nuevo’s water supply is not only hurt by herbicides but by oil spills into the river and seepage into the ground water from oil drilling operations in the area.

During my visit to Puerto Nuevo, Mr. Reyes pointed to a woman standing waste deep in river water, washing clothes as her children swam and played. “With the oil and the spraying, we know the water isn’t clean,” said Mr. Reyes, “but it’s all we have.”

One young man confronted me in Puerto Nuevo. He was angry and he was almost shouting. He said he was 21 years old,  and only identified himself as Jorge, apparently because he suspected there might be repercussions.  He was upset by the official denials that the pesticide can be harmful.
“When they spray on the Colombia side, it comes across the river and pollutes everything,” he said. “Why don’t the gringos and Colombians come over here and drink this water and see if they don’t die.”

People in rural Latin America have been raising their voices about these problems for years.  Health conditions may be poor in these regions, United States official say, but there is no justification for blaming the anti-cocaine pesticide program. One American officialasserted in an interview with The New York Times that the pesticide is “less toxic than table salt or aspirin”.

‘‘Being sprayed on,” he said, “certainly does not make people sick.’’

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