The drug trade can help poor communities survive and prosper in some of the world’s most unstable and war-torn countries, a UK government-funded report has found.
Research carried out in three of the world’s largest drug-producing countries – Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, which have all seen intense violence in recent history – showed that illicit drug cultivation and supply has, in some cases, had a positive impact on development and peace-building.
It also found that assistance for people living in these war-torn zones was being stymied by a war on drugs mindset. Counter-narcotics programmes in some territories have undermined progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and pushed people into a closer engagement with the drug trade.
“Simplistic narratives of drugs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for poverty alleviation are to be cautioned against,” said Jonathan Goodhand, Professor of Conflict Studies at SOAS University of London, which led the report, “Voices from the Borderlands 2020”. He described the assumption that the drug trade is always counter to peace, social advancement and survival in these regions as “deeply flawed”.
The report found that, in Colombia, the world’s biggest cocaine producer, some coca growers were organised and active citizens, who have invested coca profits into building community roads and schools. In a survey of coca farmers in two of Colombia’s borderland regions, Tumaco and Puerto Asís, half said that coca cultivation was their family’s only economic option, and almost all said they spent some of their coca income on their children’s education.
The coca growers said they were keen to participate in the government’s 2016 coca crop substitution programme, which was meant to assist them in making money from legal crops, but that the help never came. One grower from Santa Marta said: “The state has abandoned us and we survive with the coca bush because we have to.”
Testimonies from Afghanistan, the hub of global heroin production, showed how illicit trading networks were central to household incomes. Violence and coercion was not integral to the drug economy there, but instead was central to all trading networks in the region, suggesting that tackling illicit economies and extending state control will not necessarily deliver less violent and more secure livelihoods.
One poppy farmer, Jangul, from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, told researchers that after his village was bombed, a package of opium he had buried under his house enabled him to build a new home. Then, when he was jobless, without means to feed his family, a friend’s cousin offered him money to smuggle some heroin from Afghanistan to Moscow. Although risky, it allowed him to open up a small shop in the local bazaar.
In Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states on the country’s borders with China and Thailand, the report found opium production was essential to the livelihoods of many poor households. Yet the report said that drug harms had grown in the wake of ceasefires and economic development. In Kachin state, the ceasefire had brought roads and extraction industries – but also drugs. It said drug use had spiralled in some areas that had previously not had drug problems.
In all three countries, violence was not just limited to drug gangs; it also involved government forces, non-state armed groups, counter-narcotics interventions – including the forced eradication of coca in Colombia and the controversial bombing of drugs labs in Afghanistan – and the “slow violence” linked to exploitative labour practices.
The dynamics are complex. The report detailed how people in these regions had to constantly face trade-offs when deciding whether or not to engage in the drug economy.
Coca-producing communities in Colombia have obtained significant socio-economic advances, but at the cost of drug gang-related violence. “If there were opportunities, no one would work with coca because it’s enslaving,” a coca farmer from Puerto Asís told researchers. Yet the report said that high levels of informal land tenure and deficient transport infrastructure in coca-producing areas make it very difficult for peasant families to participate in legal agricultural markets. In Afghanistan, money from opium cultivation has funded public services, roads and housing. But these boomtowns have bred corruption, land seizures and inequality.
The independent research is part of the Drugs & (dis)order project, funded by the UK government’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund, part of the Foreign Office’s overseas aid budget. It set out to listen to the voices of people living and working in drug economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, in order to create more effective strategies to help them.
“Drugs issues continue to be viewed primarily through a criminality and security lens, and development and peacebuilding agencies have proved reluctant to engage with the ‘taboo’ of drugs,” said the report. “And while those involved in illicit economies are among those most impacted by these policies, they remain poorly – if at all – represented in policy debates.”
The report concluded that the current approach by the UN’s drug agency, and other international authorities dealing with drug economies, was “disingenuous, dishonest and even counter-productive”.
The report said new approaches are needed to tackle embedded, illicit drug economies. It criticised global and national agencies for “fetishising” the subject of drugs in drug-producing regions – by only analysing them through a drug lens, while overlooking the broader socio-economic and political dynamics.
“Drug economies cannot be tackled primarily as a crime and security issue. Many people involved in illicit economies in borderlands affected by drugs and conflict make really tough decisions every day,” wrote Goodhand. “They make Faustian bargains in which short-term survival may come at the cost of long-term health and security. We must avoid policies and programmes that make these trade-offs even more difficult to manage.”