Land formalization – The new magic bullet in counternarcotics? A case study of coca cultivation and tenure (in)formality from Colombia

By Frances Thomson, Monica Parada-Herandez and Camilo Acero

Published in World Development Volume 149, January 2022

Both policymakers and scholars have suggested that informal land tenure contributes to the perpetuation of illicit drug crop cultivation and, conversely, that land formalisation programmes serve counternarcotics aims. This article examines some of the key causal mechanisms said to underlie the posited relationship between land tenure (in)formality and the cultivation of crops used for illicit drug production.

Our analysis is grounded in the context of Puerto Asís, Colombia – one of the most important coca-producing municipalities in a country that produces the majority of the world’s cocaine. The case study is based on extensive fieldwork in Puerto Asís, including in-depth interviews with peasants who cultivate(d) coca, community leaders and local officials.

We found: (i) that informal and semiformal institutions provide a basic level of land tenure security for both those with and without state-recognized property titles; (ii) that peasants invest considerable amounts of money and labour in their farms and community infrastructures, despite lacking formal land titles; (iii) that coca cultivation itself is a comparatively costly investment, with 18 months minimum before payback; (iv) that peasants’ access to credit is not conditioned on them having a formal land title; (v) that bank loans do not make people less dependent on coca cultivation; and that (vi) farmers find it difficult to survive with legal livelihoods and thus permanently exit the coca economy for a long list of reasons, which are not addressed via land titling and registration programs. These findings are contrary to popular policy narratives.

We conclude that formal titles are an important tool for Colombian peasant farmers to defend their land against powerful external actors but will not necessarily serve the purposes commonly presented in the literature on illicit drugs.

Afghanistan: what the conflict means for the global heroin trade

This article was first published by The Conversation on 12 August 2021. Read original article.

The long war in Afghanistan reached a potential watershed on August 6 when Taliban fighters took over Zaranj, a dusty frontier town with a population of some 63,000 on the Afghan-Iranian border. Though geographically and politically marginal, Zaranj was the first provincial centre to fall during a month of rapid advances.

In the preceding weeks, the Taliban’s advances had been largely confined to the countryside, taking control of more than half of the country’s 421 districts. But emboldened by these successes and the plummeting morale of the Afghan armed forces, the Taliban turned to major population centres. Since their breakthrough in Zaranj, they have taken over nearby Farah and seven other provincial capitals in the north.

The speed and success of this offensive has taken many by surprise, but the balance of power has shifted since the 2020 agreement between the US and the Taliban, which committed the US to withdraw its troops from the country. This has been aided by Pakistani support for the Taliban, as well as the Afghan government’s release of 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters, a condition of the US-Taliban agreement. Subsequent peace talks, supported by international and regional powers, have failed to stem the recent violence or come up with a credible peace plan.

But while most commentary has focused on this ailing peace process and the military dimension, far less has been said about how economic factors are shaping unfolding events, including the trade in opium and heroin.

History repeats itself

This takes us back to Zaranj. It is not coincidental that the Taliban has focused on border towns, since these have huge importance economically, which translates into military and political advantage. The Taliban now control some ten international crossing points. In addition to Zaranj, they have Spin Baldak, a gateway to Pakistan; Islam Qala, the main crossing point to Iran; and Kunduz, which confers control of the routes north to Tajikistan.

The importance of these trading cities has been demonstrated by recent history. When the warring factions in Afghanistan stopped receiving military and financial aid mainly from the Russians and Americans after the Russians withdrew in the late 1980s, control of trade became very important. This included the drug economy, which expanded massively from the early 1990s.

This is playing out again. In the 1990s, for example, Zaranj was a wild west kind of place that grew as an illicit trading hub, drawing on longstanding cross-border connections between Baluch tribes who specialised in smuggling fuel, drugs and people. Similar activities continue there today: opium and heroin, derived from the poppy fields of Farah and Helmand provinces, are smuggled across the border, alongside the booming business in human trafficking.

Yet Zaranj has also become a gateway town for legitimate trade, including in fuel, construction materials, consumer goods and foodstuffs. Located on a key corridor connecting Kabul to the Iranian port of Chabahar, the Afghan government has invested in roads and border infrastructure as part of a wider effort to cement relations with Iran and decrease its dependence on trade with Pakistan. This mix of licit and illicit trade has unlocked inward investment and attracted a growing population from surrounding areas, as well as being an important source of tax.

Across the country, import duties account for around half of the Afghan government’s domestic revenue. Islam Qala alone generates more than US$20 million (£14 million) per month. So taking control of these key crossing points fills the Taliban coffers while denying the government an important source of revenue, at a time when external funding from international donors is declining.

The Taliban now control many of the key parts of the economy – the main poppy growing regions, as well as markets and trading routes to Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan – enabling them to systematically tax different points along commodity chains.

Control of borders also enables the Taliban to impose economic restrictions on imported goods such as petrol and gas, providing them with further leverage over Kabul. Disruption to the flow of imports and exports has already affected the prices of fuel and foodstuffs. Housing rents in Kabul have gone up in recent days, with many of those displaced by the recent fighting seeking accommodation in the capital. At the same time, property prices have plummeted as desperate Kabulis seek to sell up and leave the country.

Heroin and opium

In 2020 according to the latest survey from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there was a 37% increase in the amount of land allocated to poppy cultivation. This was linked to a range of factors including political instability and conflict, devastating droughts, high seasonal floods, the declining international funding and employment opportunities. This is likely to continue as the structural drivers of the opium economy – armed conflict, poor governance and widespread poverty – are all moving in a negative direction.

In both the countryside and the border towns, the opium economy provides an important lifeline for Afghans, many of whom were already living through a humanitarian crisis. The uptick in conflict comes as the severe drought has driven up food prices, while there has also been a surge in the delta variant, and some 360,000 people have been displaced since the start of the year in response to all the trouble in the country.

Whichever scenario plays out – a Taliban victory, a civil war or a negotiated settlement – there is unlikely to be a transformation of Afghanistan’s illicit drug economy any time soon. Both the Taliban and government make pronouncements about addressing illicit drugs, but the underlying drivers remain too strong.

The drug trade is simply too deeply embedded in the accumulation and survival strategies of the Taliban, the state, the militias currently being stood up to fight the Taliban, and the wider population. This will unfortunately drive the global heroin market, as well as feeding the growing drug problem within Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.

Militias, drugs and borderland governance

In all three Drugs & (dis)order research countries – Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – militias and paramilitaries are influential in shaping systems of rule in contested borderland regions. These militias demonstrate significant variation in terms of their size, autonomy, leadership, internal structures, financing and functions, and their relationships to the state, local populations and international actors. They are involved in counter-insurgency activities, local policing, and various (licit and illicit) economic activities. They have played important roles in strengthening the territorial reach of the state into conflict-affected spaces, and in forms of violent dispossession and securitisation that have facilitated resource extraction, attracted capital and expanded global trade.

This review provides an overview of how the current literature on militias addresses the
following two overarching research questions:

  1. How do the character and functions of paramilitaries/militias, and their relationship with the illegal economies, vary within and between countries? What accounts for these variations?
  2. What is the relationship between paramilitaries/militias and processes of state formation and economic development?

Fumigación: daños a la salud democrática

El informe tiene como objetivo central identificar las afectaciones que el programa de aspersiones aéreas con glifosato (PECIG) ha ocasiones sobre aspectos y dimensiones básicas de la democracia colombiana. En estos términos, el informe resalta la manera cómo el diseño institucional del programa, donde las tomas de decisiones han estado centralizadas y concentradas en el poder ejecutivo y en la policía nacional afecta sustancialmente las siguientes dimensiones y aspectos democráticos. Primero, transgrede el derechos a la participación ciudadana, en esta política se excluyen importantes sectores de la población civil. Comunidades étnicas y campesinas no participan ni intervienen de manera decisiva en las orientaciones del programa. Segundo, el programa de aspersiones es una política que excluye a las autoridades locales. Alcaldes y gobernados no cuentan con voz ni voto en el direccionamiento del programa. Tercero, es una política que afecta la democracia porque está asociada con fenómenos violentos, particularmente con incrementos en las cifras de desplazamiento forzado y homicidios. Por último, es una política que agrede la democracia porque incumple los compromisos del Acuerdo Final de Paz relacionados con la implementación del Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de cultivos de uso ilícito (PNIS).

Pathways to opposing centralised and exclusionary drugs policy in Colombia

By Diana Machuca, Camilo Acero, Bryan Triana, Francisco Gutiérrez and Celia Dávila

Colombia is in its fourth week of a National Strike, in protest against a proposed tax reform. The reform was subsequently dropped but protests continue with widespread reports of police violence and abuse. The strike committee has proposed a long list of demands. Among these is the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement by the government – including its illicit crop substitution programme – and the halting of a return to aerial spraying of glyphosate to kill coca crops. Meanwhile, the Colombian government has tried to shift focus to violence against the police and property, and the alleged infiltration in the protests by criminal armed groups involved in the drug trade.

The links between drug trafficking, the war on drugs, and the political system in Colombia are thick and complex. A new working paper outlines the regulations, narratives and actors that have designed and implemented drugs policy in Colombia. Here we summarise six defining characteristics of the evolution of Colombia’s drugs policy, and conclude with two possible entry points for using research to counter the increasingly hard-line tendencies of current policy.

1. The war on drugs in Colombia has been closely linked to the counter-insurgency war.

This is perhaps most clearly epitomised by Plan Colombia, the US-funded initiative which focused on strengthening the military capacity of public forces and on aligning the purposes of the counter-insurgency war with those of the counter-narcotics struggle.

2. The Colombian political system is largely democratic and competitive, but anti-drug policymaking is not.

Colombian drug policies have been centralised and opaque. The war on drugs generated two long-standing contrasts within the political system. On one hand, drugs policies have taken a very punitive approach that criminalises coca growers and excludes them from taking part in any decision-making. On the other hand, people higher up in the narco-trafficking value chain have been able to permeate the very same political system that remains closed to coca-growers. In addition, all anti-drugs policy decisions are centralised, while the rural regions that are most affected by illicit drugs and drugs policies have no say.

3. The US government has played a major role in establishing drugs policy standards and rationales.

The undemocratic and centralised nature of drug policymaking in Colombia has been exacerbated by the US influence, which has consistently pushed for forced eradication. The US government has also played a role in orienting agencies, such as the Colombian police, in implementing anti-drugs policy.

4. The 1991 Constitution is rights-based, which means that the judicial system has the duty to uphold citizen rights.

Thus, the Constitution opened the door to judicial decisions in defence of ethnic and peasant populations’ rights that have placed some limits on hard-line policies. For example, the Constitutional Court affirmed that indigenous and Afro communities must be consulted if the government is going to fumigate their territories.

5. The 2016 Peace Accord between the FARC-EP and the Santos government introduced important changes to drug policy.

The tensions outlined above led to the inclusion of point four of the 2016 Peace Accord, which advocates for a development-oriented and participatory approach to drug control, and for voluntary coca eradication through a crop substitution programme. Nonetheless, the Peace Accord also maintained elements of the historic, war-like approach to counter-narcotics, allowing the state to reintroduce arial fumigations as a last resort if voluntary substitution is not possible or does not work.

6. The implementation of the new aspects of drug policy included in the Peace Accord has encountered many obstacles.

The President and coalition elected in 2018 has failed to implement the illicit crop substitution programme (PNIS). The failure of PNIS is well documented, by, among others, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, with huge delays, poor communication with farmers and subsidies that never arrived. The current government is on the brink of re-activating aerial fumigations.

As noted above, two processes that have allowed for changes to the closed decision-making around drug policy (that is isolated from the preferences and needs of Colombian citizens) are the 1991 constitution and the 2016 peace agreement.

In terms of political incidence, legal strategies have been fundamental – in particular the judicial activism undertaken by different human rights organisations to denounce the abuses of forced eradication. As part of the Drugs & (dis)order project, the National University research team in Bogota has been applying a series of legal actions in order to protect the rights of the users of the PNIS; this is being undertaken with peasant, afro and indigenous organisations such as COCCAM. Similarly, we have participated in some actions that currently seek to stop manual forced eradication.

Thus, we propose that reinforcing judicial strategies and continued documentation of and advocacy for the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord constitute two open windows for research-based engagement in opposition to the centralised and exclusionary nature of public policy on drugs.

This blog has been adapted from the working paper An analysis of Colombia’s drug policy and actors, with input and editorial support from Frances Thomson, Karen Brock and Louise Ball.

An analysis of Colombia’s drug policy and actors

By Diana Machuca, Camilo Acero, Bryan Triana, Francisco Gutiérrez and Celia Dávila

This working paper is an analysis of anti-drug policies in Colombia, considering its regulatory framework, the participation of different actors, and the different policies and strategies that have been used to address the phenomenon of illicit crops. It maps the international and Colombian policies for the War on Drugs and drug control, and identifies the main actors who influence and intervene in this regulatory framework.

Understanding the drugs policy landscape in Myanmar

In Myanmar’s conflict-affected borderlands, there is one constant that links almost all stakeholders in some way – illicit drugs and the economies derived from them. This working paper, researched and written before the military coup of 1st February 2021, explores Myanmar’s drugs policy landscape through an analysis of the stakeholders engaged in: national and legal policy frameworks around the production, trafficking and use of drugs; drugs and health; drugs, rural livelihoods and alternative development; and drugs and peacebuilding.

Five considerations for international actors trying to engage with drugs policy in Myanmar

By Nicholas Thomson and Patrick Meehan

In Myanmar’s conflict-affected borderlands, there is one constant that links almost all stakeholders in some way: illicit drugs and the revenues derived from them.

When it comes to narratives around drugs in Myanmar, however, there is often a tension between the ‘theatre’ of drugs interventions, and the lived experiences of people caught up with or connected to drugs issues.

A new working paper, written before the military coup of February 2021, explores these narratives in depth by analysing the stakeholders engaged in: national and legal policy frameworks around the production, trafficking and use of drugs; drugs and health; drugs, rural livelihoods and alternative development; and drugs and peacebuilding.

Here we present five considerations that emerge from this stakeholder analysis for international actors trying to engage with drugs issues in Myanmar.

1. There are significant tensions between drug production and drug use.

Drug production is central to the livelihoods of the rural poor in Myanmar’s borderlands. For some, drug cultivation is driven by long-standing marginalisation. For others, it is driven by new forms of livelihood insecurity and precarity that have emerged as a result of borderland development schemes.

At the same time, drug use is driving new forms of risk, vulnerability, public health crises and social conflict, creating a complex set of challenges.

2. Domestic drugs policy and practice is rife with disconnects and contradictions.

The drug economy has a long history in Myanmar’s borderlands and is deeply embedded in rural power structures. All conflict parties are in some way involved. Drugs have been rooted in efforts to finance armed conflict and counter-insurgency, as well as to shore up informal political arrangements aimed at stabilising conflict.

The deep integration of drugs in borderland economies makes it very difficult to disentangle legal and illegal economies at both sub-national and national level.

Drugs have been central to flourishing cross-border economies and are also important sources of investment in the national economy. Drug commodities involve the same actors and move though the same trade networks as legal commodities. As a result, illegal drug revenues have also become an important source of capital in the formal economy.

Against this background, a wide range of stakeholders – international, national and sub-national – engage with drug issues, giving rise to a complex set of narratives that are often at odds with each other.

3. Drugs are a low political priority for government in the borderlands, but not for local populations, who view drugs as a major issue.

Tackling drugs in the country’s borderlands has been a lower concern for the Myanmar military – the de facto authority throughout the country’s contested borderlands – than state-building, counter-insurgency, resource extraction and trade.

Drugs have often been integrated into these wider agendas. For example, through tolerance of illegal revenue flows into both the national economy and under-funded local administrations, and to the off-budget revenue of army-backed militias.

At a sub-national level, there are major concerns about the rise of harmful drug use, which for several decades have been a major driver of the country’s HIV epidemic.

There is also strong resentment towards the impunity afforded to politically connected major players in the drug trade, while policing on drug issues tends to target small-scale users and sellers – leading to people serving long prison sentences for minor offences.

Drug narratives are also suffused with wider grievance narratives around the neglect and exploitation of non-Bamar ethnic nationality populations, to the point that worsening levels of drug harms among these populations are viewed in some popular narratives as an intentional military strategy.

A case in point is the spread of drug use under the 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State, where such popular narratives are embedded in the rise of local anti-drug activities, especially the Church-based Pat Jasan movement. This significant development in the drug landscape in Myanmar has been highly controversial – critical as it is of both national and international responses to drug issues.

4. The most influential actors shaping the drug economy are the hardest for international actors to interact with and influence.

At the national level, Myanmar military elites – concerned with preserving national sovereignty – have long been determined to resist external engagement on issues that they see as domestic.

Other stakeholders – such as Western governments and international NGOs – are much easier to engage, but they themselves are grappling with the challenges of how to have an influence on drug issues.

Aid and diplomacy are also relatively weak levers for external influence. Aid dependency is low and the government has rigidly resisted external involvement in the country’s peace process.

These factors have limited the policy space for external engagement on sensitive domestic issues like drugs. Government narratives about external actors wishing to engage with the country’s drug challenges have often focused on curbing demand for drugs and the supply of precursor chemicals.

5. Fragmented political authority shapes the possibilities for health-based approaches to drugs.

International focus on drug issues in Myanmar has shifted in recent decades as a result of the fact that few of Myanmar’s drugs now reach US and western markets, with the majority going east to China, Southeast Asia and Australasia. China is now the dominant actor in terms of international pressures on drugs production, trafficking and conflict.

However, there has been increased engagement by multilateral agencies and international non-governmental organisations in response to the health implications of drug use in Myanmar. For example, multilaterals fund national harm reduction programmes, which are predominantly implemented by international NGOs.

There was also space for external engagement in the process of the national government revising its drugs legislation, resulting in an amended National Narcotics Law and a National Drugs Policy in 2018. Although international influence shaped an intent to foreground individual and public health as central pillars of a new approach to drugs, the new law fell short of abolishing harsh penalties for drug possession, which in turn rendered much of the language in the new drug policy rhetorical in implementation.

Final reflections

There is a huge local need for more education on the issues surrounding drugs issues, to address stigma and drug-related harms, and inform more inclusive and effective responses.

At the same time, for locally supported solutions to emerge, there is a need for external programmes to engage more deeply with local narratives, attitudes and beliefs around drugs.

Despite hopes that the peace process would open up space to address drugs, there was an absence of discussions around narcotics in the negotiations. Particularly against the backdrop of the February 2021 coup, space to include drugs in a negotiated peace may now be closed.

This blog has been adapted from the executive summary of the working paper Understanding the drugs policy landscape in Myanmar. The executive summary was drafted by Karen Brock and the blog was edited by Louise Ball.