American Poison in Peru: Spiking Coca

By Paul Kvinta
July 1990; pages 6, 11; Volume 1, No. 7

During a trip to Peru recently, I spoke with a United States embassy official about America's addiction to cocaine. He told me coca crop eradication in the Andean Mountains is the only way to win the "drug war" in the United States. He said he favored crop substitution programs for peasant farmers only with the simultaneous destruction of coca crops by the United States.

"If we're going to give these people a carrot, then there's got to he a stick attached to it," he said.

The stick amounts to chemical warfare in Peru's backyard. In March, U.S. officials completed a year-long analysis of an aerial application of the highly toxic herbicide "Spike" (tebuthurion) on Peru's upper Huallaga Valley. The valley is home to 65 percent of the world's coca crop. The results, according to State Department's Catherine Shaw, show that "Spike successfully kills coca and lets other plants flourish." Environmentalists, however, and even government narcotics experts have warned against using the herbicide in the delicate rainforests of the Upper Huallaga. They say Spike's use on crop land and against coca, two applications it was not designed for, will cause serious soil erosion in the jungle and lay waste to numerous plant and fish species.

Spiked Coca

Spike's current manufacturer is DowElanco, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company. Dow was the second largest supplier of Agent Orange to the U.S. government for aerial use against rainforests and North Vietnamese crops during the 1960s. Eli Lilly Corporation, Spike's original creator, refused to sell the product to the government in 1988 for environmental reasons. The State Department now says Dow might possibly sell large quantities of Spike to the government for a coca eradication program in Peru.

A chemical attack on South America will only provide a quick fix in George Bush's "drug war" and ignore the social problems imbedded in the cocaine economy. The war's biggest losers will be Peruvian rainforests and peasants, and ultimately, the American public.

A Toxic Jungle

Spraying Spike in the Upper Huallaga Valley would devastate a rainforest already severely damaged by drug lords. Located between the eastern Andean slopes and the dense Amazon jungle, the valley's steep incline, high altitude, and heavy alkaline soil content make it perfect for growing two things - coffee and coca. Enterprising growers have chosen the latter. While estimates vary, experts figure total coca cultivation in the valley anywhere from 300,000 to 900,000 acres.

Adding Spike tocres.

Adding Spike tooying with environmental disaster. Unlike defoliants, tebuthurion attacks root systems and proceeds to foul-up photosynthesis. North American farmers use Spike to remove mesquite and other rugged brush from flat rangeland in the arid Southwest. The Upper Huallaga is neither flat nor arid, and the valley supports hundreds of delicate plant species, not just the sturdy coca bush. Yet in 1987, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Matters began applying Spike by hand to small experimental coca plots in the valley. Pleased with the destructive results, officials saw an end to their tedious and inefficient hand eradication program and planned serial testing of Spike for 1988.

Scores of people protested the testing. Walter Gentner, the top U.S. technical advisor on narcotic eradication, was demoted in June of 1988 and later resigned after speaking out against Spike.

"There are at least 350 species of plants in the areas where coca grows," he said at the time. "What about the reaction of each of these to the residual tebuthurion that may be in the ground? We have data showing that Spike applied to wet soil can travel great distances."

Scientists of the Environmental Protection Agency said Spike can leach into ground water and not only contaminate river sources, but ruin land for future crops. Peruvian ecologist Edgardo Machado pointed out the non-coca farms at the lower end of the valley which would be affected by residual Spike. Most devastating, ecologists warned that coca barons would flee the toxic dusting by moving further into the rainforest and clearing more jungle for new crops.

Responding to outcry, Eli Lilly refused to sell the herbicide to U.S. officials. Lilly said its product was not designed for use on coca and insisted on guarantees against possible medical or environmental lawsuits, something the government would not give. The State Department conducted its March 1989 aerial testing with Spike it had in reserve.

In October of 1989, Lilly sold its agricultural arm, Elanco, to Dow Chemical, forming DowElanco. Ted McKinney, a Dow spokesperson, recently said the company did not support Spike's use on coca. But the State Department's Shaw, in an interview, said the government could purchase Spike from Dow when specific eradication plans had been made.

"We do have an ability to talk to Dow Chemical about Spike," she said. "The door is definitely not closed."

The Human Factors: Peru and the Cocaine Economy

Besides destroying the rainforest, Spike would threaten the Peruvian people, especially Andean farmers. President-elect Alberto Fujimori inherits a country that experienced 2,775 percent inflation in 1989, the highest in the world. Real wages simultaneously fell 60 percent, the foreign reserves ran out, and the country's international debt rose to 17 billion dollars. This year Peru has lost 125,000 hectares of legal crops to the worst drought in 10 years.

Coca is the most successful thing going in Peru. As the country's largest growth industry, it employs 300,000 people, earns 1.2 billion dollars annually (30 percent of the value of all Peruvian exports), and generates the most foreign exchange. Coca dollars arm the thousands of money changers that fill Lima's streets daily, selling the U.S. currency an insurance against inflation. In the Upper Huallaga Valley, peasants can earn 10 times as much money harvesting coca rather than coffee. With no alternative industry, development, or crops, farmers have turned to the magical bush in order to live. They did not create the tremendous demand and prices for cocaine - North Americans did.

Peru's cocaine economy has steadily expanded as its legal economy has dwindled. An example of this inverse relationship is obvious with the 1990 coffee crop. According to the April issue of The Andean Report, "poor prices, drought, and the overvalued inti threaten to turn the coffee harvest ... into a financial disaster for growers and their cooperatives. The only beneficiary is likely to be the cocaine industry, with many coffee growers saying that they arc prepared to plant coca instead." Coffee prices fell to a 50-year low from 127 dollars per 100 pounds to 70 dollars per 100 pounds in 1990. Instead of waiting the three or so years for international coffee prices to bounce back, farmers will simply plant coca, a crop very similar to coffee and much more profitable. As long as a demand for cocaine exists in North America, hungry Peruvians will grow coca, and eradication becomes an impossible fantasy.

It is ironic that George Bush wants to destroy Peru's fastest growing business sector and still demands the country pay its foreign debts. Instead of helping doctor Peru's legal economy, he has chosen to smash its illegal one for his own purposes. But coca eradication is taboo in Peru. Presidential candidates hardly discussed the issue during the recent campaign. Coca production made the Bolivian "economic miracle" of 1985 possible as hundreds of thousands of peasants joined the cocaine economy to survive harsh International Monetary Fund austerity measures. Peru relics on such a cushion as well, and rapid eradication would make survival for many people very difficult.

Dow Chemical

According to the book Agent Orange on Trial, Peter Schuck says officials at Dow Chemical knew of the hazardous dioxin TCDD in their defoliant Agent Orange in 1964. Despite the potential health hazards, Dow proceeded to sell the product to the U.S. government for defoliation of Vietnamese jungles and destruction of specific crops. Arther Galston, a Yale biologist, would later report in 1979 that a mixture of just one drop of TCDD per four million gallons of water could lead to cancer in laboratory animals. Thousands of affected American soldiers sued Dow for damages after the Vietnam War. Peruvian peasants won't have the luxury of using our legal system. If Dow has even the lightest notion that Spike could harm Peruvian peasants or Peruvian rainforests, the company should refuse to sell its product to the U.S. government.

George Bush has pledged $423 million to help fight drugs in Peru. One American military base already exists in Santa Lucia in the Upper Ruaga Valley, complete with Green Berets and assault helicopters. Meanwhile, only 13 percent of 10.6 million chemically dependent Americans currently receives drug treatment. Blighted inner-city areas desperately need seed money to start businesses and programs that could offer kids hope and opportunity. The trumpeter of free enterprise doesn't realize he has a demand problem, not a supply problem. Both Peruvians and Americans could benefit if the administration chooses not to incorporate Spike into its "war on drugs".


Paul Watzlavick and Maria Lourdes Fernandez-Dávila contributed to this article.