by Kintto Lucas
(IPS) COLOMBIA --
spraying of the fusarium exosporium fungus to destroy coca fields in Colombia could devastate the Amazon jungle ecosystem, warn experts.
A report by two U.S. journalists, ethnobotanist Jeremy Bigwood and biologist Sharon Stevenson -- who have lived and worked in Peru for 11 years -- describes the history of the fungus and its effects in various countries.
The authors echo warnings by other scientists and environmentalists of the damages fusarium could cause if it spread into the Amazon ecosystem.
Fusarium exosporium has already demonstrated its destructive effects in Peru, according to the report, copies of which were distributed in the town of San Vicente del Cagu‡n, where the peace talks between the government of Pres. Andrˇs Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been taking place since January 1999.
San Vicente del Cagu‡n is located in a Switzerland-sized area in southern Colombia from which state security forces were withdrawn for the peace talks.
Parts of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela could suffer the impact of the fungus within the next few months, Bigwood and Stevenson warn.
Along with copies of the report, small farmers in the southern Colombian departments of Caquet‡, where San Vicente del Cagu‡n is located, and Putumayo presented photos of fields of plantain, yucca and peas that had been totally destroyed by the fungus.
Although the Pastrana administration has assured farmers that it would not approve large-scale application of the fungus in Colombian territory, it has not refuted the claims by peasant farmers in southern Colombia, who demanded that coca crops be eliminated manually, without the use of fusarium.
"If they use the fungus, more than 500,000 coca growers will have to move elsewhere, because we won't even be able to plant other crops," Pedro, a local coca farmer, told IPS. "We're already seeing that in Putumayo."
Bigwood and Stevenson explain that "the idea of using a fungal herbicide to kill drug plants began in the 1970s after a fungus, later identified as EN-4, began to kill off the coca at a soft drink research plantation in Kauai, Hawaii." The U.S. researchers found that the fungus spread through the soil and water.
1986, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service "began a full-blown research project, classified for a time, to find a biological agent to kill coca."
U.S. scientists say the EN-4 strain of fusarium only attacks plants within the genus erythroxylum, which includes coca. But other plants in that genus are grown in Colombia and used by indigenous communities for religious and medicinal purposes.
Moreover, a 1995 International Institute of Biological Control study on the fungus program in Hawaii reported that non-erythroxylum plants under stress could be infected by EN-4.
In the early 1990s, a breakout of fusarium occurred in the Alto Huallaga region in eastern Peru. Local residents called it the "seca-seca" (dry-dry) plague, because it dried up all kinds of crops.
"The soil-borne mold infects crops by secreting toxins into their roots, which then putrefy and dissolve the plant's cells, often eventually killing them, or worse, poisoning humans or animals who feed on contaminated plants or plant products. The fungus can survive in soil for years," say Bigwood and Stevenson.
The authors cite Luis Parra, an herbicide expert who oversees spraying of coca and poppies in Colombia with glyphosate, who said he had "a lot of doubts" about fusarium. "I don't believe in the specificity of these organisms," he added.
Bigwood and Stevenson pointed to the coincidence that one of the breakouts of fusarium occurred near the U.S. anti-drug base in Santa Luc’a, where peasant farmers complained that their crops were being sprayed from helicopters.
In 1991, in a trip to the Valle del Huallaga, the members of the governmental National Human Rights Coordinator of Peru were shocked by the extent of the destruction caused by the fungus, which had dried up coca bushes and other crops.
Virtually everywhere the officials went, they heard reports of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) planes spraying coca fields with the fungus.
Over the past decade, the fungus has spread to Yurimaguas, the northernmost part of Peru's coca growing region, and beyond Pucalpa to the east, say Bigwood and Stevenson.
According to the report, 3,000 peasant farmers in the area of Tingo Mar’a and Leoncio Prado had to seek other means of subsistence with great difficulty, such as panning for gold, when the "seca-seca" attacked alternative crops planted in old coca seedbeds.
The fungus also forced farmers to move farther into the jungle and to other regions to plant crops.
U.S. government researchers found that Fusarium also killed tomato, achiote -- a tropical South American bush -- and papaya plants.
Colombia's ministry of the environment has yet to approve a United Nations Drug Control Program-proposed project, or a related U.S. State Department "action request," to conduct field trials for eventual large-scale application of the fungus.
In Florida, protests by environmentalists thwarted attempts to use the fungus to kill marijuana plants. David Struhs, the head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, warned in an April 1999 letter that the fungus could remain in the soil for up to 40 years.
"Fusarium species are capable of evolving rapidly... Mutagenicity is by far the most disturbing factor in attempting to use a fusarium species as a bioherbicide. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species," he pointed out.
"The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops, including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines, and are normally considered a threat to farmers as a pest, rather than as a pesticide," Struhs added.
What Bigwood and Stevenson call Fusarium's "notorious tendency to mutate" has been the central focus of research on the fungus, and led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban field trials in the United States.
Colombia's Center for Higher Research (CINEP) complained that the fungus was being applied in the Amazon province of Sucumb’os, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, just as it was used in the early 1990s in Peru's Valle del Huallaga.
Ecuadorean military sources confirmed CINEP's allegations that Washington was testing fusarium in that country. They said the field trials were carried out without the authorization of the armed forces' joint command, and had been detected by radar.
However, Ecuadorean Environment Minister Rodolfo Rend—n insisted that his country would not permit experiments with the fungus.
After a visit to the province of Sucumb’os, CINEP researcher Diego Pˇrez reported that field trials were being carried out five kilometers from the capital of the province, Lago Agrio.
Bigwood and Stevenson reported that there was abundant evidence of the toxic effects of fusarium in animals and human beings.
The toxin fumonisin B1 produced by fusarium has been found to cause edema of the lungs in pigs, cancer in rats, and cancer of the esophagus in human beings.
But other strains of fFusarium are even more dangerous, and have been found to contain nivalenol, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding and skin lesions, and deooxynivalenol -- or vomitoxin -- which has been used as an agent of chemical warfare.
The fusariotoxin, considered an agent of biological warfare, is even more toxic, and direct contact with it has been found to cause a high rate of mortality among laboratory animals.
The widespread spraying of a fungus that can mutate hundreds of times, survive in the soil for decades and produce undetermined quantities of toxins that attack plants, animals and humans is too dangerous in one of the planet's most biologically diverse ecosystems, which supplies a large part of the planet's oxygen, Bigwood and Stevenson warn.
July 31, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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