Colombia to try killing cocaine fields with fungus

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The Independent US

Colombia has for the first time signalled that it is ready to accede to American pressure that it explore the use of a potent fungus to attack the coca fields that flourish across its territory. The country is the source of 80 per cent of the world's cocaine, most of it flowing to the US and western Europe.

Colombia has for the first time signalled that it is ready to accede to American pressure that it explore the use of a potent fungus to attack the coca fields that flourish across its territory. The country is the source of 80 per cent of the world's cocaine, most of it flowing to the US and western Europe.

The shift in stance by Bogota, which will be decried by environmentalists, comes just as President Bill Clinton is preparing to sign a bill for a new aid package for Colomiba. Worth $1.3 billion, it aims to finance a military campaign against anti-government insurgents, who draw income from the cocaine trade.

European Union ministers are scheduled to meet in Madrid today to consider an additional plan of aid for Colombia, including funding for alternative crops and programmes for those now living off the cultivation of coca and of heroine-poppies. The US reported this week that there has been a dramatic increase in cocaine use in Europe in recent years, most notably in Spain, Germany and Italy.

Senior Colombian officials said they were prepared to begin testing whether the fungus under consideration, called Fusarium oxysporum, is already detectable in the country's coca crops. If it is not, the government will not permit its introduction to the ecosystem artificially, they said.

The notion is that crops of coca could be inundated with Fusarium. The fungus is selective in the plants it attacks and leads to quick wilt and destruction.

Using Fusarium is highly controversial. It has been under development as a possible weapon against drugs in the US and in Russia for many years, but the work was subject to heavy secrecy.

Ecologists worry that dosing land with Fusarium could cause unexpected repercussions both to plant and animal life and even to humans. Most experts agree that more research is needed before anyone can be certain the fungus can be safely dispersed.

A tentative proposal to use Fusarium to eradicate illicit cultivation of marijuana in Florida was thrown by politicians last year precisely because of the uncertainties attached to it.

Opponents to the use of Fusarium argue that it amounts essentially to a biological weapon and the US government was confronted with the possibility that its deployment could be the violation of a global treaty banning biological weapons.

Recently, government fumigation planes using wide-ranging sprays have only driven coca production deeper into the jungle. This increases hardships for Colombian campesinos who already must struggle to live amid the menaces from the drug traffickers, death squads, and guerrilla forces. When they cannot come up with sufficient funds for the 'taxes' levied on their crops, many peasant families volunteer their sons and daughters to FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and an estimate 30 per cent of the rebel fighters are women and adolescent girls.

Beatriz Linares, a children and womens' rights ombudswoman in Bogota for the Defensoria de Pueblo, said: "The preferred labour force are female children because they have very delicate hands. You won't see a school or health facility for kilometres and kilometres, so the only option a child has is to became a harvester. They only leave the fields when they hear a plane, and then only run five metres away. Their bodies are directly exposed to the fumigation spray. We are talking about women who give birth to children, and about little girls."

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