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Colombia May Test Potent Herbicide to Eradicate Coca


July-August 1998

The Colombian government is considering testing tebuthiuron, a powerful herbicide, for potential replacement of glyfosate, the product it currently uses to eradicate coca crops (Diana Jean Schemo, "Colombia to Test Herbicide Against Coca Crops," New York Times, June 20, 1998; Tod Robberson, "Company Fears Use of Its Herbicide on Cocaine," Seattle Times, April 28, 1998; Paul Haven, "Coca, Poppy Killer May Harm Amazon," Associated Press, April 23, 1998).

Colombia's anti-narcotics police commander, Col. Leonardo Gallego, backs the use of tebuthiuron because he believes that it would facilitate crop-spraying. Because it is more potent than glyfosate, the planes disseminating tebuthiuron could fly higher and avoid the frequent gunfire from rebels who guard coca plants. Tebuthiuron would also be more effective, according to the U.S. government, because it can be dropped in the form of pellets, which are more weather-resistant than liquid glyfosate.

In the U.S., tebuthiuron is commercially known as Round Up®, and is commonly used to kill weeds in small areas, far from crops and habitation. Dow AgroSciences, the producer of tebuthiuron, has stated that it is not meant for the large scale destruction of illicit drug crops. The company cautions not to apply it close to trees or sources of water, where it could quickly disseminate and damage all surrounding vegetation.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Colombia Office, "Based on scientific literature, tebuthiuron can cause extensive damage to fauna and flora and to human beings, if it is not used in the correct way and according to the product's intended use (World Wildlife Fund Colombia Office, "Concern Toward The Possible Use of Tebuthiuron For The Eradication Of Illicit Crops," Press Release, March 1998).

Ted McKinney, a spokesperson for Dow, told NewsBriefs in June that the company had not yet been asked to provide tebuthiuron for use on Colombian coca crops, and that Dow AgroSciences stands by its objection to its use on coca. The company has told the U.S. government that it will not sell tebuthiuron for that purpose. This may not prevent its use on Colombian coca. According to the New York Times, Dow's patent on tebuthiuron has expired.[In 1988, tebuthiuron was manufactured by Eli Lilly and sold under the brandname, Spike®. The Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters testified on June 1, 1988 before a House Government Operations subcommittee that Eli Lilly would not participate in testing tebuthiuron for coca eradication in Peru. Lilly was concerned that since tebuthiuron would destroy all vegetation that it came into contact with, it would be subject to liability lawsuits for long-term environmental impact (Malcolm Gladwell, "Plan to Curb Drug Trade in Peru Set Back, Eli Lilly Refuses to Sell Herbicide," Washington Post, June 1, 1988, p. A1). -- EES]

Former Colombian environmental minister Eduardo Verano said he is concerned about the unknown effects the herbicide will have on people who are exposed to it. He said he also believes that its use will merely further deforestation as coca growers delve deeper into the forest to harvest their crop. Colombia's new environmental minister, Juan Mayr, took office on August 7.

On June 20, the New York Times reported that Colombia would test the herbicide, but another report a few days later said the Colombian government has not decided the issue yet. Verano said that Colombia will not test tebuthiuron until they are sure that it can be done safely (Tod Robberson, "Colombia Denies Report It Will Test Herbicide," Dallas Morning News June 26, 1998).

Ted McKinney, Dow AgroSciences - 9330 Zionsville Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46268, Tel: (317) 337-4792.

Environmental Minister Juan Mayr - Calle 16, Number 6-66, Bogota, Colombia, Tel: (011) (571) 336-1166.

Vanessa Diago - WWF Colombia Program - Tel: (011) (572) 888-1518. E-mail: <>.