Crop substitution challenges in environmentally protected areas in Colombia

María Alejandra Vélez and María Juliana Rubiano-Lizarazo

In 2020, 48% of illicit crops in Colombia were in special management zones (SMZ) or areas that are important for forest and biodiversity conservation: 20% in forest reserves, 4% in national protected areas, 8% in indigenous reserves or resguardos, and 15.5% in Afro-Colombian collective lands (UNODC, 2021).  Although academic literature has shown that coca crops are not the main direct driver of deforestation in Colombia (Erasso & Vélez, 2020; Brombacher, Garzón & Vélez, 2021), coca crops are expanding in strategic environmental and conservation areas. This is problematic for illicit crop substitution efforts. Yet the design and implementation of the government’s National Illicit Crops Substitution Programme (PNIS) has given little consideration to a differential approach, in ethnic or environmental terms.

PNIS implementation started in 2017, as part of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and former guerrilla FARC, but it was not until 2019-2020 that there were guidelines for implementation in national protected areas and forest reserves. These guidelines include recommendations on voluntary and collective conservation or restoration agreements; conservation incentives such as bi-monthly remuneration for agreed restoration and conservation activities; sustainable production systems; and technical assistance for capacity building.

The government has also recently developed guidelines to include ethnic communities in the programme, but these are subject to prior consultation and have not yet been implemented with former programme beneficiaries. As illustrated by our case studies in Putumayo and Guaviare, new guidelines incrementally increased mistrust and conflict as the PNIS did not consider or solve land-use overlap conflicts or land tenure disputes between communities with different ethnic backgrounds before agreements were signed.

Currently, 20% of PNIS households are in SMZ – in national protected areas or forest reserves (7.2%) and Afro-collective territories or indigenous reserves (13.6%). However, in the latter case, these are not necessarily ethnic households, which creates tensions between communities. Beyond environmental concerns, PNIS households are also poor: 56% of households in national protected areas and forest reserves, 51.1% in Afro-collective territories, and 53.4% in indigenous reserves live in multidimensional poverty. Hence, government interventions and PNIS need to consider not only environmental dimensions, but should also include productive alternatives designed to simultaneously conserve sensitive ecosystems and improve quality of life.

To explore these issues, we are studying the challenges of implementing the PNIS in indigenous or forest reserve areas in Putumayo and Guaviare in the south of Colombia (see Map 1), using social cartography workshops and semi-structured interviews.

Map 1. Putumayo and Guaviare – the sites of the research case studies

From this work we have identified three main challenges for the implementation of crop substitution programmes in SMZs.

Challenge #1: Mestizo peasant coca growers living inside indigenous reserves were suspended from PNIS without warning

In some cases, peasants signed crop substitution agreements, eradicated coca crops and received immediate food security payments, but before receiving the subsidy to implement a productive project, they were suspended from the PNIS because their plots of land were located within an indigenous reserve (see maps 2 and 3). In other cases, local indigenous authorities didn’t allow peasants living on their collective land to become involved with the programme. In either case, to remain in the programme and receive benefits, peasants had to rent a plot of land outside the indigenous reserve. Despite the costs of this (an average rent amounts to approximately 40% of a minimum wage) some peasants rented new land, but even so, never received their payments for productive projects.

PNIS did not solve (or plan to solve) old land conflicts and tensions before signing crop substitution agreements, exacerbating both mistrust of the Colombian government and land use conflicts. In some cases, peasants claim that the delimitation of indigenous reserves and forest reserves did not consider the presence of diverse communities and land uses. In other cases, peasants do not recognize the presence of indigenous people in legally constituted indigenous reserves.

Map 2. Social cartography map. Guaviare from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Map 3. Social cartography map. Putumayo from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Challenge # 2:  Unexpected requirements to remain in the programme for peasants living inside Forest Reserves

Years after peasants signed voluntary agreements to become involved with the PNIS, new requirements to solve land use overlaps with conservation areas were developed.  For example, mestizo peasants living in forest reserves, are now required to comply with nature conservation agreements and sign land use rights. However, peasants found this unexpected change in the rules to be unacceptable, claiming that official delimitations of the forest reserve area are not clear (See map 2). With current regulations, peasants in Type A forest reserves (areas with restricted productive uses) must replace their usual activity of cattle ranching with conservation activities, while those living in Type B Forest reserves (areas with more flexible uses) must engage in agro-sustainable cattle ranching. In any other case, peasants need to rent land outside these protected areas. Current regulations also forbid the construction of roads and infrastructure development within forest reserve areas. According to the peasants, in these conditions, cattle ranching is one of the few economic alternatives to coca since no other productive activity is economically profitable with the current roads.

Challenge #3: Differential ethnic approach

Some ethnic communities enrolled in the PNIS have not received any of the benefits due to the absence of a differential ethnic approach. This is the case of Nukak indigenous groups in Guaviare. Forced into new sedentary livelihoods due to displacement by armed conflict and territorial disputes, they have adopted coca harvesting as their main livelihood activity. The implementation of PNIS with a differential approach requires prior consultation with indigenous communities, but it is unclear at what level this prior consultation should occur: settlement, ethnic group or ethnic associations. Other important obstacles – including language barriers, and varying political and social organization within each ethnic group – lead to many unanswered questions. Should substitution agreements be developed collectively or individually? How should technical assistance or productive projects be developed? For example, for Nasa communities in Putumayo, productive projects should be aligned with their own productive calendar and with organic and local seeds, and technical assistance must be provided by trained members of their community.

Future crop substitution programmes in SMZs

These challenges highlight the lack of a structural and comprehensive approach in the design of the PNIS. The initial focus was to eradicate coca and substitute it with another product but without solving underlying land use tensions.

The current substitution programme needs to recover the trust of former beneficiaries by implementing all the promised components. Further, environmental requirements need to be socialized with local communities.  In Putumayo and Guaviare, for example, conservation activities are not embedded in the culture of peasant coca growers. In their case, they signed voluntary agreements thinking that they would receive support for cattle ranching. As one peasant put it: “if we grow coca, it’s bad, and now if we work in cattle ranching, that is bad too.  What are we supposed to do?” The PNIS needs to provide effective technical assistance to shift preferences for more sustainable activities, while also allowing peasants access to new markets. This implies better institutional coordination with other government organizations in the environmental and agricultural sector to implement programmes in each area, and to develop sustainable alternatives for peasants and ethnic communities. Alternative development programmes need to clarify land property rights and solve land use conflicts as a first step, before signing substitution agreements with communities. The requirements for each SMZ should be designed and socialized at the beginning of the programmes. Otherwise, new interventions can bring more tensions, rather than provide tailor-made solutions for each specific context.


Brombacher, D., Garzón, J.C., & Vélez, M.A. (2021). Introduction Special Issue: Environmental Impacts of Illicit Economies. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 3(1).

Erasso, C. & Vélez, M.A. (2020). ¿Los cultivos de coca causan deforestación en Colombia? Documento Temático #5. Centro de Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas (CESED).

Resolución 056 de 2020. [Dirección de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito]. Por medio de la cual se adopta un documento técnico de soporte para el “desarrollo de los componentes de procesos de sustitución voluntaria de cultivos ilícitos y desarrollo alternativo de hogares beneficiarios que estén ubicados en áreas ambientalmente estratégicas o de importancia ecológica”. October 26, 2020.


We thank Lucas Marin and Juan José Quintero for their help in the implementation of the workshops and conducting interviews; and VisoMutop, especially Pedro Arenas, for support on developing the field work of this project.

Credits to Juan José Quintero for all the maps in this blog.

Spatial borderland biography: Afghanistan

A geodatabase, built by Alcis, containing spatial data for Nangarhar, Badakhshan, Nimroz and Helmand: borderland locations, narcotics (opium production), borderland points of interest, drug routes, administrative boundaries, population, security events, transport and road networks, infrastructure, agriculture, crop cycles and hydrology.

Myanmar datasets

Drugs & (dis)order is making as much of its anonymised research data as possible accessible to other researchers and users, via the UK Data Service. Four datasets from the Myanmar research are the first to become available. They are:

Brokered rule: Militias, drugs and borderland governance in the Myanmar-China borderlands

This article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, by Patrick Meehan and Dan Seng Lawn, focuses on the brokerage arrangements that have developed between the Myanmar Army and local militias in the conflict-affected Myanmar-China borderland region of northern Shan State since the late 1980s. It discusses how the illegal drug trade has become integral to these systems of brokered rule.

Common themes and insights

Questions of agency and voice

We have zoomed in on the lives of people whose stories and perspectives are missed or downplayed in most accounts of illicit drug economies. This is, in part, because such people often choose, borrowing from James Scott, to ‘stay outside of the archives’– remaining illegible may be key to making a living, and indeed to staying alive. If they are mentioned, it is in stereotypical terms as passive victims, or unscrupulous opportunists, unmoored from wider community value systems and norms.

Our research tells a different story, in which individuals repeatedly assert their agency, albeit in very circumscribed and contingent ways.

Of course, the spaces and opportunities for asserting agency (individually and collectively) vary significantly across the cases, as well as over the trajectory of an individual’s life. The narratives show extreme variation in terms of the degree to which people feel that they have some control over their lives and their surroundings.

Carmen and Don Tito are older civic leaders, who reflect back on the trials, tribulations and lessons drawn from their lives. They unflinchingly narrate the setbacks, the risks, the constant violence and the personal tragedies that have punctuated their lives. Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín argues elsewhere that this spiral of conflict, abuse and dispossession in Colombia is experienced by those on the margins as one of ‘institutionalised calamity’ – in other words what appear to be random events and misfortunes, can be understood as part of a broader pattern, in which frontier dwellers are systematically exposed to high levels of violence and precarity. But Carmen’s and Don Tito’s stories also powerfully capture the leadership and claim-making roles they have assumed, the lessons they take from these experiences and the small victories that have been won through social mobilisation and organised resistance. Their portrayal of the frontier is far more complex and layered than the common caricature of the margins as zones of illegality, violence and social breakdown – instead we get a picture of drugs being embedded within a wider agrarian and moral economy. Frontier communities, far from being atomised, draw on deep reserves of social capital and repertoires of mobilisation – through for example Community Action Boards – to exercise collective voice and make claims on regulatory authorities. In the words of Carmen, ‘you feel like a leaf flying in the wind, heading nowhere if you’re not doing something’. Her history of activism includes the cocalero mobilisation of 1996, the National Agrarian Strike of 2013 and then participation in the peace process. These claims are frequently unheard, and may come at a personal and collective cost – evidenced by the assassination of social leaders (itself, an attempt to supress particular forms of agency) – but these two stories are infused with what Elizabeth Wood would characterise as a ‘pleasure in agency’ and a sense of redemptive meaning being found in protecting and representing one’s community.

These examples of individual and collective agency run counter to Scott’s idea that frontier dwellers automatically seek to evade and remain illegible to the state; Carmen and Dan Tito are part of wider movements in which people seek to make themselves legible, so they can make claims on the state and assert their rights. Borderland agency may also involve making claims on, and finding ways of influencing non state authorities – such as FARC, the Taliban or the KIA – who provide alternative systems of rule and service provision at the margins.

The life histories from Myanmar appear to be at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of the spaces for individual and collective agency. In many respects the context, in the Kachin and Shan borderlands, is over-determined; linked to the presence of powerful and repressive states on both sides of the border, the specific dynamics of post-ceasefire extractive development and military pacification, and the growth of drug use within the borderland communities. The life stories are infused with a sense of contamination, helplessness, personal misfortune and self-blame. Each story tells a tale of reduced or degraded agency, with drug use being associated with a vicious spiral of impoverishment, stigmatisation and diminished life chances. In the words of Nang Khong, whose two brothers became drug users; ‘No matter how much I earned and how hard I worked, the money was never enough. We felt so embarrassed and humiliated. People would talk badly about our family’.

comic image prison cell
Illustration by Sai Kham Loen

Notwithstanding this common narrative of feeling diminished and entrapped by drugs, the individuals are far from passive victims. Sai Sarm and Nang Khong both find some consolation and solace in Dharma (Buddhist teachings). And concerns about drug use do engender collective responses, for example in the form of Pat Jasan, a community-based attempt to address drug consumption – though not without problematic consequences in terms of the constrained agency and further stigmatisation of drugs users, as we have explored elsewhere. Across the seven frontier/ borderland contexts, there are numerous examples of counter narcotics interventions that limit individual and collective agency and diminish the life chances of borderland populations – including fumigation or poorly implemented drug substitution programmes in Colombia, the impacts of border securitisation on livelihoods dependent on cross border trade in Afghanistan, or the targeting and imprisonment of vulnerable populations by counter-narcotics police in Myanmar.

Frontier dwellers assert their agency, but with major risks and costs attached. For example, Jangul’s two journeys to Moscow, smuggling drugs, are fraught with risk and almost end in personal disaster. His decision to engage in this risky behaviour is less about choice, than the absence of alternative ways to survive and to feed his own, and his sister’s family. Similarly, Aziz Khan got involved in the drugs trade because the closing of the Iranian border shut down other economic opportunities. And gaining a foothold in this business was difficult and risky as shown by the disappearance of his Iranian business partner with his entire inventory.

The life histories show that in contexts of great risk, uncertainty and precarity, borderland dwellers are constantly forced to make ‘Faustian bargains’. The bargaining power of farmers, small-scale traders and drug users is limited, in contexts marked by violence, extreme inequality and the absence of recourse to legal mechanisms to deal with disputes and conflicts. Their engagement in illicit economies provides them with a short-term solution (or form of solace) to an urgent need – including access to land, credit, food, consumer goods, or the drug itself — but it involves discounting the future; it locks them into a set of difficult and irresolvable trade-offs that constrain future prospects.

Finally, it is important to remember that drugs themselves are powerful actants – as a social lubricant, a medicine, a source of credit, a currency, a form of recreation and escape, an instrument of barter or a political bargaining chip.

Drugs shape the narrators’ lives – they change material circumstances as well as social norms, hopes and expectations, they (dis) empower individuals, forge new connections and transform landscapes.

Violence & peace

As noted in the introduction, fragile war to peace transitions in all three countries have either broken down entirely or become more unstable and violent. Each individual recounts multiple instances of violence, and their attempts to navigate chronic and episodic armed conflict – often in contexts where conflict faultlines were constantly changing and it was difficult to determine the sources of threat.

As Don Tito graphically recounts, ‘to live through war is to feel death breathing down one’s neck’. The frontier regions during the narrators’ lifetimes, have rarely experienced peace – they have been and remain disputed zones in which there are multiple wielders of violence. Frontiers and borderlands are frequently zones of confrontation, between guerrillas, paramilitaries, agents of the state, local militias and community defence groups.

There is the danger of getting caught in the crossfire – for example between government, guerrilla or paramilitary forces in Colombia; or, like Jangul’s business partner, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting killed by a suicide bomber; or, like Carmen’s son, being killed by the paramilitaries because of the way he was dressed. There is also the danger of being targeted by one of the armed parties because you have inadvertently stepped on, or over, a boundary, or are perceived to have the ‘wrong’ loyalties – for example Carmen being forced to escape to the Ecuadorian border because of the threat from paramilitaries, or Jangul having to move from Nangarhar to Kabul, as the mujahideen questioned his loyalties, because his father worked for the Sovietbacked government.

One way of dealing with these dangers is to join an armed group as a form of self-protection. For example, Aziz Khan joined one of the mujahideen parties during the Soviet occupation, whilst in Myanmar, Seng Raw recounted how her husband’s position in the KIA helped give her a level of status and protection: ‘as the wife of a KIA soldier, I think I became even more fearless than I was before!’ However, she also refers to the forced recruitment of women into the KIA and being afraid of being taken at a KIA checkpoint for military training.

Mixed up with wartime conflict are other forms of non-war violence, including that associated with illicit economies or attempts to combat them. César Mariño, like the other Colombian respondents, highlights the relationship between coca and violence; ‘coca generates fights and makes people jealous…. where there was coca there were always armed groups’. He goes on to say that this violence was associated with both the marijuana and coca booms; ‘There was violence all around. Everybody was armed. To be in the marimba business you had to have a gun’. And Don Tito bemoans the fact that ‘for us black people, coca has brought more sorrows than joys.’

Counter narcotics policies are themselves a form of violence against people and things.

Don Tito, recounts that ‘coca also brought fumigation to our territory’ and as well as its negative effects on people’s health it ‘killed thousands of hectares of palm’. Carmen also talks about the violence enacted by government and paramilitary forces against the coca growers’ mobilisation in Putumayo in 1996.

In Myanmar, the narrators portray the ‘slow violence’ of drug use, and how apart from violence to the self, it had spillover effects into other areas of life including criminality, domestic abuse, as well as the violence of efforts to counter drugs, by the police or the Pat Jasan movement. Sai Sarm was imprisoned for 12 years on drug offences and had to endure years of forced labour. Seng Raw’s brother died in prison, whilst Nang Khong’s youngest brother was arrested and imprisoned in 2014 and hasn’t been heard from since.

However, there are other vectors of violence besides drugs. Development processes and interventions are often the handmaidens of violence and dispossession. Carmen refers to the oil companies in Putumayo and how they threatened peasant land rights, water sources and local infrastructure. She also tells the disturbing story of how the president of their social organisation was assassinated five days after engaging in talks with the government and an oil company. The jade mines referred to by Seng Raw are associated with land grabbing, exploitative labour conditions and the diffusion of drugs, which are sometimes used as a form of payment for workers. Therefore drug economies are not uniquely violent – other sectors of the economy are shown to be associated with high levels of structural and physical violence.

The violence of the borderlands is also deeply gendered. Begam Jan recounts the violence meted out by the Taliban’s Virtue and Vice police on a woman who lifted her burka in public. Similarly, Seng Raw, whose life has been shaped by multiple forms of physical, symbolic and structural violence talks about an episode when her father attacked and stabbed her mother with a sword. This is one of a litany of different forms of violence she has either witnessed or experienced during her life.

Individuals navigate violence – its threat and deployment – by exercising a combination of ‘exit’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘voice’; they move to safer terrain, for example Begam Jan and her family migrate to Iran during the Taliban period (Exit); they keep quiet and/ or ally with powerful groups – for instance Samir Jan joins a mujahideen party (Loyalty); or they attempt to challenge their situation and assert their rights – for example Don Tito’s efforts to improve the living conditions of his community in Tumaco, as well as Carmen who ‘made the decision to follow the path of those who fight for the welfare of others. That took me away from the ordinary life of a family women. It has been a good life!’ (Voice).

comic image army carrying body bag
Illustration by Jhonatan Acosta

For everyone, the promise of peace has been a mirage. People look back with nostalgia at certain periods in their lives when there was a level of optimism and a measure of peace – for Carmen it was when she moved to Putumayo in the 1980s, for Aziz Khan it was during the first Taliban regime in the late 1990s (though for Begum Jan this was a time of oppression). But no one expresses optimism about the current situation. In Colombia, the peace process has not delivered on its promises – in the words of Don Tito: ‘peace has been a scam’. Life in the borderlands has become more unstable, not less: ‘We are working towards the substitution of illicit crops … But armed people are back in the territory willing to defend coca … peace is dying in Tumaco… it seems that black communities always lose, both in war and in peace’. And as the later part of this quote, as well as the experience of Begum Jan, suggest, the ‘costs of peace’ fall heaviest on those with the least voice. In Myanmar, similarly the Kachin and Shan populations, even prior to the military coup, did not feel the benefits of ‘peace’ – for them the years following the launching of a formal national peace process in 2011 were associated with more conflict, more extractive development and more drugs. The life histories unsurprisingly do not reveal smooth war to peace transitions, but instead protracted periods of no-war, no-peace, or violent interregnums. At the time of writing there seems to be no end in sight. Our protagonists may be hoping for peace, but they are certainly not planning for it.

Frontier histories; negotiating marginality

The frontier/borderland regions that are the homes to our nine protagonists, are agentic landscapes, places of innovation and experimentation, zones of risk, incertitude, liminality and marginality – as well as being places of opportunity, flux and ‘freedom’. These are defining features of what might be termed a ‘borderland habitus’, in which people seek to both negotiate and leverage their marginality.

These frontiers and borderscapes are ‘disturbed’ and ‘damaged’ landscapes, riven by conflict and competition. At the same time, they are places where cultural resources, social capital and collaboration are key to survival. Carmen, for example talks about the fraternity of frontier settlers ‘you could feel the warmth…. those were the times of fat cows!’

The margins never stand still. They experience cascades of change and transformation, wrought by war, drugs and development.

Development occurs in fits and spurts, boom and bust cycles – the oil and coca economies in Putumayo; in Santa Marta, the coffee, marijuana and coca booms; the new economic developments in Myanmar related to mining and infrastructure; the closing down of opportunities linked to border hardening in Afghanistan.

These moments of rupture mark individual lives in very concrete ways – Begum Jan, after the Iranian border closure, could no longer trade across the border or visit her relatives on the other side: ‘We can’t be part of each other’s happiness and sorrows’. On the other hand, Aziz Khan, was forced to get involved in drug smuggling as other economic niches closed down. In Myanmar members of Nang Khong’s family make the transition into drug use, whilst Sai Sarm manages to exit out of drug dependence.

Frontiers are also spaces of politicisation and radicalisation – as shown in Carmen’s political trajectory; her move from her liberal party background to the communists after moving to Putumayo, laid the foundations for her career in activism including her engagement with community action boards, coca growers’ mobilisation and rallies.

The risks and opportunities inherent to these marginal spaces are unevenly distributed. As noted by Don Tito: ‘Coca isn’t such a good business for small growers. The profit goes to those who trade it or grow more than 10 hectares…. the money ends up going to those who don’t even live here.’

Profits are often spent on consumption – for example, César talking about the marijuana boom says that ‘many peasants were not used to handling so much money, and since everyone believed that the bonanza would never end, they wasted it’. Similarly, Don Tito narrated that ‘coca growers saw those times were good because they could buy three crates of beer… Their dining rooms were full of bottles. But the next day they ran out of money… small coqueros spend all their money on booze. They don’t invest it or save it.’

Illicit economies, like other economic activity, are rooted in mutual obligations that arise when people exchange with each other over the course of time – moral economies emerge out of building up debt and mutual dependencies over time. These moral economies are associated with local conceptions of honour and pride and what it means to be a good person. Trust is absolutely central, since there are no formal legal mechanisms for dealing with disputes – as Aziz Khan found to his cost when his business partner in Iran disappeared.

Borders and boundaries

Frontiers and borderlands are dynamic spaces of intense ‘border work’; these involve territorial borders – between and within states – as well as social, cultural, symbolic and political boundaries.

A great deal of coercion, resources and discursive work goes into erecting, maintaining and policing borders. The border may be very sharp and clearly delineated as in the case of the border walls erected by Iran and Pakistan. Or it may be more fuzzy and fluid, for instance the discursive boundary that separates the ‘barbarous’ periphery from the ‘civilised’ centre. Narratives about drugs are entangled with these centre–periphery discourses – for example drugs are portrayed in Myanmar’s borderlands as an external force, deployed by the central state to undermine the ethno-nationalist struggle. At the same time within the borderlands there are multiple boundaries, associated with forms of othering and stigmatisation – for example in relation to the divisions between peasants, indigenous and AfroColombian communities in Colombia’s frontiers; or between drug users and non-drug users in Myanmar.

Individuals are acutely aware of which boundaries to ignore, respect, challenge or transgress. Smugglers like Aziz Khan and Jangul, need to find ways of transgressing boundaries – which involves negotiating with brokers and ‘outwitting’ state agents. People find ingenious ways of circumventing borders – for example Aziz Khan explains how smugglers catapult drugs to their business partners across the Iranian border wall.

Journeys and pathways

Stories are about personal journeys, as each individual navigates and narrates a different pathway through life. Some tend to emphasise their journey of escape, to evade conflict or fumigation efforts (moving across the border to Iran, or from Putumayo to Tumaco), or alternatively journeys in search of better futures and new economic opportunities (Carmen and Begum Jan). Others emphasise journeys of personal learning, involving new political awareness (Carmen and Don Tito) or personal redemption (Sai Sam). Still others recount journeys of impoverishment, despair and downward spirals (Nang Khong & Seng Raw).

Jangul comic image family eating together
Illustration by Kruttika Susarla

Borderland journeys occur though time as well as across space. Stories cover the arc of an individual’s life, or of several lives as most narrators tell intergenerational stories. As already noted, these don’t follow a simple teleology – the journeys wind around, circle back and contain false starts, dead ends and moments of rupture.

These stories are shaped by, and deeply entangled, in their borderland contexts. On the one hand, at certain times, these are dangerous spaces that people try to escape from – often across borders to leave the violence and persecution behind, yet on the other hand, they can be places where people seek refuge and safety. Most journeys, within or outside the borderlands, are fraught with risk. For example, even at the prosaic level of transport connections, the road to Putumayo is known at ‘the trampoline of death’.

At certain times the borderlands may appear to be parochial and disconnected; but in reality, as manifest in the drug economy, they are highly connected to the outside world. They are key hubs in the circulation and flows of resources, substances, people and ideas – which are transformed, reshaped, reconstituted in the course of these journeys across borders. The management and filtering of these flows involves complex logistics and infrastructure, labour regimes, financial packages and risk management. Notwithstanding the ingenuity of these logistics operations, connectivity often works to the disadvantage of borderland communities. In many respects illicit economies represent the unequal ways in which borderland regions are integrated into the global economy and the failure of globalisation’s promise of inclusion.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Our stories are fragmented, discordant (or polyphonic) and sometimes contradictory. They do not lend themselves to clear, generalisable policy implications and lessons. And they do not necessarily reveal much that is new to local people who usually know a great deal about the issues around drugs.

But drawing on Tsing’s ideas about the art of noticing and the art of listening these narratives do provide some questions, provocations and pointers for policy makers (and researchers) regarding how to think about and respond to borderland drug economies and how to engage with communities on the margins.

We suggest that life histories are not simply tales, they are narratives that can help motivate public action and influence policy. They provide, potentially, a vehicle for empowering marginalised voices, encouraging greater empathy, and opening up conversations on challenging and sensitive issues, as touched on below. The case studies reveal in concrete and compelling ways how people’s lives have been affected by war and illicit economies, as well as external efforts to address them.

There is a need to be more open as to what constitutes ‘data’ and ‘evidence’; rather than lionising quantitative knowledge as being rigorous and scientific, and dismissing qualitative data as anecdotal, there is a need to work more seriously with situated knowledge as evidence. This also means that drugs and development policy makers need to place a high premium on, and indeed reward, deep regional expertise within their organisations.

The ‘contextualising disciplines’ – such as history and anthropology – are critical to developing understandings about how illicit economies manifest themselves and become deeply embedded in particular settings, how they change over time, the role of individuals and collectivities within these political economies, and the ways that policies and interventions affect these processes in particular contexts and moments. This knowledge can help ensure that policies, aiming to support more inclusive war to peace transitions, work with the grain of borderland societies. Efforts to develop more humane and rights-based drugs policies, can only be effective if they are based on a fine-grained understanding of the embeddedness of illicit economies in particular contexts.

Whilst the power of mixing of methods is widely recognised in the social sciences, this has been less commonly applied, in a systematic way, to the study of illicit economies. We have tried – though incompletely – to adopt a mixed methods approach in our project, so as to develop a better understanding of drug economies, the actors within them, as well as their wider structural dimensions, and the role of policy.

Researchers, as well as developing more complex and contextualised analysis of illicit economies, need to build more cogent and persuasive stories that challenge mainstream accounts; better evidence is only part of the battle – it is about changing hearts as well as minds – and the role of life stories is key in drawing policymakers into the lifeworlds of borderland populations, to generate both empathy and understanding.

Of course it would be naïve to think that ‘more empathy’ is the key to changing policy – the political economy of policy making means that financial, institutional and political interests will always be preeminent, but it is also clear that individual narratives ‘talk’ to policymakers and wider audiences in more compelling ways than dry and disembodied data. By focusing on particular lives and contexts, we can see how different kinds of policies come together, and intersect at particular moments – from the perspective of borderland communities, on the receiving end of these interventions, the bureaucratic divisions between policies and interventions related to drugs, development or peacebuilding are irrelevant. These institutional siloes dissolve when they hit the ground and shape people’s lives for better or for worse.

Policymakers need to develop a more contextualised and integrated understanding of the world they are attempting to change. And they should be encouraged by researchers to pluralise the evidence that they draw upon, and relatedly the people they talk to and interact with. Otherwise, they will continue to suffer from ‘borderland blindness’ – a bias towards the national order of things and a worldview filtered through the eyes of national level elites.

If there is a common story to emerge from our borderland life histories it is the story of constant improvisation, ingenuity and social energy – people do make history – collectively – though not in contexts of their own choosing, and the history they are making — drawing on James Scott – tends to remain outside of the archives. Where we depart from Scott is the idea that people in the borderlands wish to remain ‘ungoverned’, beyond the state and thus ‘out of the archives’. The voices from the borderlands tell a different story from Scott’s – in which people complain about state absence, neglect or repression. Far from wanting less state, borderland dwellers ask for another kind of state based on a different kind of social contract. As Carmen’s experience shows, those living on the margins often want to be more legible to enable them to collectively make claims on the state and assert their rights.

Borderland communities across the three countries have exercised collective agency – often at great personal cost and with varied effects – to change their situations. These accounts challenge lazy stereotypes that frontier societies are atomised, and that participants in drug economies are free-floating individuals responding solely to price incentives.

Our project has challenged these stereotypes and to the extent possible engaged with, and supported different forms of borderland agency, often by initiating and building upon conversations that have emerged from our research. These conversations may provide a starting point and some clues about how to move towards more humane drug policies in conflictaffected borderlands.

In Colombia for example, our partners have worked with some of the social leaders whose life histories are shared in this report, and with their constituencies. This has involved using information generated from our research to support their legal claims in relation to their rights under the illicit crop substitution element of the 2016 peace accord. We have also developed ongoing conversations with coca farmers, pickers and processers about the health harms linked to processing and fumigation.

In contrast to Colombia, where recourse to a judiciary within a democratic state structure is an option, in Myanmar and Afghanistan this kind of work – using research to support a rights-based political engagement – has been far more challenging, and the spaces for explicitly political forms of engagement and claim making are much more limited. Notwithstanding these constraints, in Myanmar our engagement has relied on developing and deepening longstanding relationships with our research partners in civil society, leading to the research – including life history comics in Shan and Jingphaw – contributing to their ongoing engagement work with local youth groups, drug treatment centres and local authorities. It has also involved, since the coup, engaging with migrant youth across the border in Thailand on drug issues.

We have found that this kind of collaborative, extended engagement work can help marginalised voices – for example women, ethnic minorities, drug users – to be heard in local forums; such voices have been marginalised, not only in wider policy debates, but within the borderlands themselves. In Afghanistan, at the time of writing, high levels of conflict and the humanitarian crisis in borderland regions have radically closed down the space for any form of political agency amongst borderland populations. Therefore, the onus has shifted onto our international researchers to assert agency in ways that are not currently open to our partners – including promoting a grounded understanding of the role of illicit economies at the current juncture, so as to inform unfolding policies particularly in relation to the UK government.

Our experience suggests that grounded and more humane drug policies can only emerge by opening up and pluralising the spaces for such conversations. This means viewing participation less as a prescribed input into a project than as an extended process that aims to support the political agency and voice of borderland individuals and groups. Key to that political agency is the need to (re)constitute state-society relations and inter-dependencies – participation within ‘boutique’ projects will fail to address the wider structural constraints that keep people marginal.

This is not simply about extending the footprint of the state and rolling out development efforts, as an alternative to drugs, into the margins. These efforts, as we have seen, have often been associated with more exclusion and conflict, not less. There is a need to reset the terms of the conversation, and as a starting point this means recognising and promoting an understanding of violence as one of the most important constraints on the agency and voice of borderland communities – this reinforces the need for stabilisation and development policies that focus on violence reduction and management, a key message from both ‘Voices from the borderlands’ reports.

In conclusion, life histories do not, of course, provide easy answers or policy prescriptions to the challenge of addressing illicit drugs and building a sustainable peacetime economy; instead, they encourage a mind set and approach amongst both policy makers and researchers that is more contextualised and human centred.

Why life stories?

The use of life stories in research and policy engagement is challenging but comes with a number of advantages that are difficult to replicate with other approaches. These are outlined below, after first explaining what life (hi)story research is.

There are different types of life-history or life-story research. As such, there is no standard definition of this methodology and what it entails, although our approach broadly subscribes to Watson and Watson-Franke’s definition of a life history as ‘any retrospective account by the individual of his [or her] life in whole or part, in written or oral form, that has been elicited or prompted by another person’. Life stories are distinguishable from other forms of oral history and narrative research by their focus on individuals’ experiences and emotions. For example, they may be contrasted to oral testimonies, which can be highly personal but are ultimately focused upon pre-identified issues or events. Life stories typically touch upon multiple ‘bigger’ issues and events but, unlike oral testimonies, centre upon the narrator and their life.

Moreover, most forms of life-(hi)story research share a ‘common goal […] to help overlooked or disenfranchised individuals make their stories known’. In doing so, life-history projects often challenge and destabilise hegemonic discourses.

Thus, the tradition of life-story research aligns with the overall objective of our ‘Voices from the borderlands’ publications: to provide an opportunity to listen to and learn from the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions – voices and experiences that are too often unheard and unknown.

Interview fragments, narrative ethnographies and fieldwork photographs certainly help humanise and ground analysis, but life stories take this to another more profound level. Our brains process stories differently from ‘facts’. Reading or listening to life stories can be deeply transformative. Particularly compelling stories can transport the reader/listener to other places and times and also help them identify with the narrator or main character(s) and to understand the places in which they live. They have the power to elicit empathy and a form of understanding based on human connection that other forms of engagement cannot.

Stories also reveal important contradictions, nuances and ambiguities. For example, a single narrator’s experiences and perceptions of an insurgent armed group are sometimes extremely mixed, suggesting that they cannot be easily sorted into categories like ‘sympathisers’ or ‘detractors’. The same can be said about illicit drug economies, which in the borderlands where we work permeate people’s lives in positive, negative and ambivalent ways.

These stories provide a sense of the everyday lives of people affected by drug economies and the particular borderland environments of risk and opportunity that they navigate.

As such, they are both personal and spatial biographies; they unveil the complex interplay between structure and agency that shapes people’s life trajectories and wider processes of change in borderland regions. Life stories remind us that ‘it is ordinary people who make human society and that they are not merely passive subjects of abstract structures or powerful individuals.’ They draw attention to the incredible resilience, adaptability and innovation of people living in challenging environments and the role that illegal drug economies play in empowering and eroding these forms of agency.

Comic image of family in Putumayo
Illustration by Sebástian Narváez

Life stories also offer insights into the role that people play in shaping the drug environments in which they live, and go beyond portrayals of marginalised communities as ‘passive victims’ of systemic forces that dominate their lives. They offer ways to better understand how people engage with drugs as part of their efforts to exercise agency in shaping their own social worlds, and to try to navigate the multiple risks they confront. Yet, at the same time, life stories also reveal how these everyday activities and survival strategies – including engagement with drugs – often articulate and reinforce prevailing structures of power and inequality rather than empowering them or providing the impetus for change.

Working with life stories is not about separating out the study of ‘little’ politics from ‘Big’ politics, of people’s history from elite history, or of the subjective, cultural and emotional realm from material, structural and institutional forces. Rather, it offers a way to explore the entanglements and relationships between structural forces and everyday practices and how these shape people and places.

Importantly, stories help us to think about the people who participate in drug economies as real people with names, with family members they love but also quarrel with, with stories of suffering but also of kindness and perseverance.

The type of understanding that stories can provide is vital for developing truly ‘people-centred’ and ‘context-sensitive’ drug policies.

Finally, so far, we have focused on the importance of life stories for ‘outsider’ readers or listeners. But research participants can also find that narrating their own stories a powerful and meaningful experience, which helps clarify and create new understandings of events around their lives. The importance and power of constructing life stories is demonstrated by their use in settings of intense disruption and dislocation to recover lost or repressed community histories. Life histories can help people give meaning to difficult experiences or to gain a sense of control over them. The construction of meaning through personal narrative is what makes us human and represents a deep-seated need in developing individual and collective identities.