Before and After the Leaves: A Brief Material History of the Herbicide Glyphosate in the Forest


Starting from image analysis and the “before” and “after” diptych, Hannah Meszaros Martin provides us with a political understanding of the military use of glyphosate against various forests of the world. She turns in particular to the chemical “act of killing” against coca plants in the context of the so-called “War on drugs” in Colombia bankrolled by the U.S. government and enacted by the Colombian army.

Meszaros Martin Funambulist 1
Gassed, 1919, John Singer Sargent / Imperial War Museum, London.
Meszaros Martin Funambulist 2
Un mundo sin fin (A World Without End) by Yesica Liliana Florez Arroyo (2014). / Photo by her brother Edinson Ivan Arroyo, San Miguel, Putumayo.

Two paintings hang together. Seen side by side, the paintings bracket a missing event that spans both centuries and continents: a blindspot in the history of herbicides. The first, by John Singer Sargent, called Gassed (1919), hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. The painting depicts a group of World War I soldiers in the aftermath of a mustard gas attack. Surrounded by a yellowish haze, blinded, they try to walk in a line, holding onto one another. Evoking Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568) and the biblical indictment that “if the blind follow the blind, they will fall into a ditch,” Sargent’s painting could be read as a dark, foreboding parable of the ways in which humans (or certain humans) have initiated the new era of the Anthropocene, or Capitalocene, itself in part a result of the deployment of chemicals into the natural world. The second painting hangs in the center of a small house in the middle of the selva. The image is by a young Colombian artist, Yesica Florez Arroyo. It depicts the act and consequences of aerial fumigation with the herbicide glyphosate in her forested homeland in San Miguel, Putumayo.

The two pieces have many parallels. The divided world is a theme that emerges through the composition of each. In Sargent’s painting the division is vertical. The composition follows a kind of geological layering of air, body, and earth which all permeate through each other in the image’s monochrome. The air is the element that dictates this monochrome: the air is the gas, which hovers still on the horizon, obscuring the sinking sun. The gas/air merges with the bodies of the soldiers, whose bodies also take the position of the earth, which is barely visible. The bodies in fact comprise two layers: those standing and those who have already fallen—all blinded, the dying and the dead. Unable to see for themselves, the soldiers’ bodies, and their blindness under the weight of the toxic sky serve as a kind of testimony to the violence of gas warfare.