Under newly elected President Iván Duque, Colombia is testing remote-controlled drones designed to track and destroy coca, the crop used in cocaine production. The government has reportedly tested ten drones so far.
The drones carry payloads of glyphosate, a powerful herbicide. During early tests they’ve destroyed “hundreds of acres of coca,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Duque’s government hopes the drones will offer more precision than traditional crop-dusting methods, which rely on small planes and often harm legitimate nearby crops.
President Duque said in an interview that the drones, furnished to Colombian police by Fumi Drone SAS, “permit total precision at low altitude above the plants and additionally minimise the damage and implications for third parties.” Contrasting traditional crop dusting, drones can hover about two feet above coca plants, spraying a much lower concentration of the glyphosate.
As the WSJ reports, Colombia saw dramatic reductions in the production of known coca plants between 2001 and 2012, thanks in part to aggressive aerial policing. In 2012, however, the practice was slowed after the World Health Organisation warned that glyphosate might be cancerous. The former president, Juan Manuel Santos, banned the practice entirely in 2016, calming health concerns, but reversing the gains made in destroying the crop. WSJ reports there were 470,000 acres of coca in Colombia in 2001 and 193,000 in 2012. The White House, however, claims that coca fields swelled to 516,000 acres by 2017.
Counterintuitively, the report mentions that Duque is wary that drone usage will lead to more on-the-ground clashes between police and farmers. An individual drone can only handle a payload of 1/80th the amount of herbicide a traditional plane can. The low altitude and need to replenish the herbicide means more on-the-ground officers and drone operators, potentially leading to clashes—particularly as many farmers have found that, economically, a coca field cannot be easily replaced by legalised crops.
“If they come with forced fumigation, there will be confrontations with the police,” Leider Valencia, a spokesman for an organisation representing coca farmers, told WSJ. “I can promise that.”