In late March, New York City's Catholic Workers hosted a Sunday afternoon presentation by two human rights workers from Colombia. After celebrating the noon Mass at Nativity Church, I walked over to nearby St Joseph House to hear them speak of the negative impact there of U.S. military aid. Regulo Madero is president of the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights in Berrancabermeja, a city in the northern part of the country. Carlos Palacio, coordinator of a group called Community Leaders in Defense of Campesinos, is from the southern province of Putumayo. Their comments were framed against the background of Colombia's 40-year-old civil war. The war involves guerillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government forces. All are involved in human rights abuses, but especially the paramilitary units. Human rights workers themselves are now being more threatened than ever. Mr. Madero said that five members of his organization had been killed.
Both emphasized that the situation is only being made worse by the $1.3 billion in aid approved by Congress last year to combat Colombia's massive production of illegal drugs, much of which finds its way here. The aid package, known as Plan Colombia, is being used primarily for military training and equipment.
A particularly harmful aspect of Plan Colombia is an aerial fumigation program aimed at wiping out illegal crops of coca and poppy in the southern part of the country. The herbicide being used, called Roundup, is made by the Monsanto Company; its primary ingredient is glyphosate. The herbicide does indeed kill the coca and poppy fields from which cocaine and heroin are made. But it has also killed many poor families' basic food crops planted nearby, such as yucca, avocados, maize and plantains. Also damaged have been the cananguchal palm trees, a staple of life for indigenous people, who use them not only for food and drink, but who also employ even the fibers from the leaves for clothing and roofing material.
The aerial spraying, moreover, contaminates streams and ponds, and has caused the sickening of domestic animals. Chickens often die after drinking the polluted water, and humans too are being adversely affected. Eye inflamation, skin problems, diarrhea and headaches are just some of the effects, which have been especially harmful for children. The intensive spraying in Putumayo began only last December; the long-term effects are as yet unknown. Local mayors there have spoken out strongly against it, and in early March four governors from the southern part of the country came to the United States to urge officials in Washington to end the fumigation program, but without effect.
Because their livelihood and food resources are destroyed, many campesinos are forced to move farther into the Amazon forests to clear new plots of lands--a move that poses the added threat of deforestation in an already fragile ecosystem. Although the Colombian government has urged campesinos to grow alternative crops, these do not provide the same level of income for poor families; nor has the government's offer to provide financial help for those who take this step resulted in the promised payments. Even when campesinos do grow alternative crops, these too have frequently been sprayed and destroyed along with the coca and poppy plants.
Mr. Madero and Mr. Palacio spoke at the Catholic Worker and elsewhere on behalf of some of the poorest people of their country whose human rights and livelihood have been harmed by Plan Colombia. Their basic plea was therefore: ask our government to stop the military aid with its aerial fumigations component; find other ways to eliminate illegal crops, and pursue a negotiated resolution to the armed conflict. Listening to these two human rights workers, I could easily imagine how supportive Dorothy Day would have been of their cause--a woman dedicated to Gospel nonviolence who was always responsive to the cry of the poor, whether city dwellers or farm workers in the vineyards of California.