Fungi for Colombia?

Jeremy Bigwood and Sharon Stevenson

Perhaps the most unnoticed part of the Plan Colombia Bill sailing through Congress is the proposed use of Atested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides@ B fungi developed with an aim to killing drug crops. Upon first glance, the concept of using such a method may perceived as a benign solution to the US=s Adrug problem,@ an easy way to wipe out the Ascourge@ at its source.

And like so many aspects of the US position on Colombia, the origins of the mycoherbicide program hearken back to the Vietnam war period, a period when the toxic chemical Agent Orange was widely used against Aenemy@ crops and cover-foliage, and the beginning of Nixon=s war on drugs. It was then that the idea of using some kind of living organism to attack drug plants was researched. At various times proposals included plant-eating bugs, viruses applied through even more bugs, and, most promisingly, fungi.

Certain fungi B mainly rusts and molds B have been known to infect and kill plants by secreting toxic chemicals into their root cells, replacing these with their own fungal cells, until the target plant dies or is harvested B sometimes causing a deadly intoxication of animals and humans who feed on it. Most of the research on these fungi has attempted to find a way to kill these plagues or at least protect agricultural crops from them. Some research, however, has been a little more devious: it was to extract the toxic chemicals from these fungi so that they could be used as biological warfare agents, relevant here only in that some of these biowarfare toxins are produced by the same species being proposed to be used as mycoherbicides against drug plants. And yet other research by USG entities Bboth classified and unclassifiedB has been designed with the aim of killing crops, in this case, drug crops.

US classified research stems from the 1960's, when an outbreak of a fungus started to kill off the coca at an experimental research station in Hawaii. This appears to be the result of a native Hawaiian fungus mutating, B moving from a traditional host to the imported coca. More coca was planted, and more died. In the 1970's and 1980's, US government scientists eventually isolated strains of Fusarium oxysporum from the diseased coca. The most important of these lethal strains was called EN-4 and isolated by a Dr. David Sands.

Other strains of the same species were developed and formulated to attack marijuana and opium poppy. Last year, Dr. Sands, who by now was an entrepreneur marketing the mycoherbicide teamed up with Florida Drug Control Office head Col. Jim McDonough, formerly of General McCaffrey=s ONDCP. They proposed to douse the state of Florida with the fungus to kill off Florida=s outdoor marijuana crop, an idea that was met with strong opposition from Florida=s Department of Environmental Protection under the leadership of Dr. David Struhs, who noted that Fusarium has a tendency to mutate and attack crops other than the target crop, as well as the ability to lie dormant in the soil for years. Struh=s warnings alerted Florida=s news media and citizenry into action, and the plan was noisily nixed. Indeed McDonough was not even allowed to test the fungus on a few plants in an environmentally-secure research site!

Dr. Sands then set his sights on Colombia. He went there last March after convincing Colombian President Pastrana to arrange a meeting with top Colombian scientists in Bogotá. At the meeting, he presented himself as a scientist, but all of his literature bore the seal of his company, Ag/Bio Con. During the meeting he threatened one English-speaking Colombian scientist not to talk to the press.

Scientists in Colombia who attended Sands= presentation then investigated Fusarium oxysporum and found out that apart from environmental problems and toxicity issues of contaminated products, that there is a clear and present risk to immunocompromised humans. According to peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature, the rate of death from Fusarium infection can be as high as 76% . This would be especially pertinent under a Plan Colombia counterinsurgency setting, where displaced campesino families will be fleeing our escalation of their civil war. Such populations will be, by definition worn out and immunocompromised, not just from the bad food that one must live on in jungle hamlets, but from nights of fasting, walking, stumbling, and being eaten alive by the insect life of the area. Under such circumstances, spraying massive doses of a mycoherbicide that has been associated with a 76% kill rate in hospitalized human patients would be tantamount to biological warfare.

After Dr. Sands left Colombia, Colombian officials and scientists came up with a counterproposal to study natural pests and plagues that attack coca, apparently to ameliorate or slow down the US attack by taking it into their own hands and finding less dangerous native pathogens to kill coca and poppy.

Even before Sands= visit, the US had been pressuring the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) to conduct a mycoherbicide project in Colombia. In fact, Madeleine Albright herself wrote an "Action Request" to UNDCP head Pino Arlacchi to set up testing for "large-scale implementation" of Fusarium on coca in Colombia. Why did the US want the UN to do it? For political cover. The US did not want to appear as the pusher behind the project. The US also handed over all of its mycoherbicide technology to the UNDCP, as well as a large amount of money. Coincidentally, Arlacchi, the UNDCP head, needed money at the time. His office was small, with little influence. However, others within the UN were less than happy with this idea. If UNDCP was seen to be a part of US/Colombian counterinsurgency strategy, then how could the UN possibly mediate a negotiated solution to the Colombian civil war? And, if not the UN, then who? So, it was without great zeal that the UNDCP office in Colombia proposed to the Colombian government that they sign on to this project.

The draft contract and the AAction Request@ between the State Department and the UNDCP also alleged that Dr. Sands= strain of Fusarium, EN-4 had already been "found" in southern Colombia and was spreading north, thereby obviating the need to pass through the international legal hoops of exporting a new pathogen to Colombia. How convenient! In a copy of the draft contract BB which was a photocopy of the one the USDA=s Agricultural Research Service had sent around their office, one of their top researchers had scribbled a note doubting EN-4's presence in southern Colombia.

We decided to check this out, since it was a critical point: if the State Department and the UN were lying, and there was no EN-4 in Colombia, Sands= product could not be legally applied in Colombia. In late March we went to southern Colombia. We asked the FARC, we asked agronomists, we asked the Catholic church. Back in Bogotá, we asked the spraying expert recommended by the Embassy, we asked Klaus Nyholm, the head of the UNDCP in Colombia, Ministries of Environment and Dangerous Drugs (Estupefacientes), NGO personnel, and the answer was a resounding "no" Bthere had been no outbreak of Fusarium of any kind on coca in southern Colombia. No EN-4 in Colombia. This meant that Sands= product could not be legally imported and used in Colombia.

The final version of Plan Colombia signed into law on July 13, 2000, indicates that the Colombian government has agreed to use, among other things, Atested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides@ to eradicate drug crops.

For more information and updates on the Fusarium controversy, go to


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