The US was strong-arming Colombia into unleashing the latest weapon in the war on drugs: a powerful new herbicide. But along with killing coca plants, the toxic fungus may pose serious dangers to the environment and human health — threats so compelling that Florida has suspended plans to test the fungus for its own anti-drug efforts.

The big American suddenly stood up, leaned over the table and said to the Colombian in a low voice, “You’d better be careful not to talk to the press!”

Dr. David C. Sands, scientist and entrepreneur, was meeting with advisors to the Colombian Ministry of the Environment last March to push a new drug-war weapon marketed by his company: a special toxic fungus which would kill coca plants. The Colombian scientist who raised Sands’ hackles had pointed out that the fungus could also attack humans with weakened immune systems — a condition common among the often undernourished and generally unhealthy poor coca farmers and workers in the tropical rain forests of Colombia, where Sands wants to carry out a massive spraying program. “He didn’t care,” said the Colombian, who asked not to be named.

Sands is not the only party pushing this new biological weapon. The US Congress is demanding that Colombia apply the controversial fungus in order to receive $1.6 billion in emergency bailout funds for Colombia’s antidrug/counterinsurgency strategycalled Plan Colombia. Last March, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-NY, tacked on an amendment to the pending aid bill requiring President Clinton to certify that the Colombian government “has agreed to and is implementing a strategy to eliminate Colombia’s total coca and opium poppy production” using, among other means “tested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides.” Myco = fungus; herbicide = plant killer.

Steve Peterson, an official with the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement division, says they want to see mycoherbicides used because they would be “more cost effective and more environmentally friendly” than chemical herbicides.

The trouble is that abundant evidence indicates that the only mycoherbicide being considered for this purpose, Fusarium oxysporum, may in fact, in massive application, pose serious dangers to the environment and human health. Florida has put an indefinite hold on its plans to test the fungus for its own antidrug efforts after environmentalists and a state official warned that it could mutate, spread rapidly, and kill off other plants including food crops. And for over a decade, coca growers in Peru have accused the US of secretly applying the fungus there to attack coca plants — in the process also harming food crops and farm animals. Moreover, the fungus can, under certain circumstances, cause lethal infections in humans with weakened immune systems. None of this, however, has dimmed US government enthusiasm for the project — nor that of Sands’ corporation, which stands to profit if the fungus is adopted for widespread use.

Years of US-funded aerial spraying have so far failed to even slow Colombia’s thriving industries of coca plants, which produce the raw material for cocaine, and opium poppies, which are used to make heroin. The country’s cocaine and heroin production has more than doubled since 1995.

The New York Times reported in early May that US-funded spraying of the herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Roundup by Monsanto Company) may have exposed scores of Colombian villagers to harmful toxins and damaged nondrug crops. But the proposed Fusarium program, experts say, could unleash far worse consequences.

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