A policy impasse and way forward

A policy impasse

The global War on Drugs has not achieved its stated goal of a ‘drug-free world.’ In fact, there has been an increase in worldwide production and consumption of illegal drugs. Furthermore, the negative impacts of militarised counter-narcotics policies and programmes that focus on supply reduction in the global South have been widely documented.

It is difficult to credibly argue that the War on Drugs has been a success, though some note that the ‘war’ has goals which have very little to do with drugs – such as winning votes, stigmatising marginal communities, accessing resources or strengthening the power of dominant groups. More than ever, it seems that the War on Drugs is in fact a war on people, and in particular those who are on the margins.

In light of the widely acknowledged shortcomings and social costs of the War on Drugs, there have been growing calls for more human-centred drug policies that are aligned with broader efforts to promote wellbeing, including the SDGs.

There is increasing recognition of the need to frame drugs as a development and peacebuilding issue and a phenomenon inherent to human life – rather than a security or criminal issue linked to a powerful moralising discourse.

Drugs continue to be treated primarily as a supply side problem, pertaining to law enforcement agencies. At the same time many development and peacebuilding agencies remain reluctant to engage directly with the issue of drugs.

Yet there remain major barriers to more integrated, conflict-sensitive, and development-oriented policies towards drugs. First, the policy fields of drugs control and development are divided by different – if not opposing – goals, metrics of success, and policy instruments.

Standing on guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Policia Nacional de los colombianos.

Within the drugs control community, drugs continue to be treated primarily as a supply side problem, pertaining to law enforcement agencies. At the same time many development and peacebuilding agencies remain reluctant to engage directly with the issue of drugs.

Competing mandates and funding streams perpetuate knowledge silos and fragmented policies. These divisions are amplified by the different organisational cultures and approaches of drug and development agencies. The former tends to work through state-to-state partnerships and top-down modalities and programmes. The latter, at least rhetorically, stress more bottom up, participatory methodologies involving civil society and the private sector, as well as the state. 

On the ground, in countries affected by illicit economies and struggling to transition from war to peace, there is often a fundamental disconnect between the agencies working on/against drugs, and those working on development and peacebuilding or, for that matter, on human security and welfare. Whilst these labels and mandates carry significance for the agencies themselves, they make no sense for local communities and public officials attempting to grapple with the deeply interconnected challenges of violence, illicit economies, chronic poverty and community welfare. 

Second, there is major lacuna in understanding about how to reconcile drugs, peacebuilding and development policies in practice.  There is very little systematic evidence about ‘what works’ – though there is a great deal of evidence about what doesn’t work in relation to the war on drugs.

This is not only an issue of breaking down knowledge silos and disconnects between drug agencies and peacebuilding and development agencies. It is also about asking ‘difficult questions’ regarding the impacts of drugs and counter-narcotics policies on processes of development and war-to-peace transitions, and confronting the tough trade-offs that often exist between drug policy goals, poverty alleviation, and efforts to reduce levels of large-scale armed violence.  

The relationship between counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace and state building objectives are neither straightforward, nor necessarily complementary.

Indeed, the tensions and trade-offs between conventional counter-narcotics and the mounting push for conflict-sensitive and development-oriented approaches manifest themselves in multiple ways. For example, the criminalisation of farmers who grow coca or poppy clashes with the widely proclaimed Alternative Development (AD) principle of participatory engagement with those involved in illicit crop production. The push for rapid results based on number of hectares eradicated, undermines longer term efforts to support alternative livelihoods. Counter-narcotics policies linked to counterinsurgency objectives may undermine government legitimacy in borderland regions as well as destroy farmers’ livelihoods. 

Attacks on specific drug ‘kingpins’ can destabilise political settlements and make life less secure by generating new forms of contestation, or by splintering more or less coherent organisation of criminal activities into a chaotic competition around drug turfs. Research on Afghanistan and Myanmar shows that informal political arrangements (that can be at odds with drug control objectives) can be particularly important to stabilising violent conflict and state building in areas with longstanding drug economies and where the central government seeks to govern through – potentially uncooperative – regional elites.

These examples show that the relationship between counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace and state building objectives are neither straightforward, nor necessarily complementary.

We do not claim to be able to offer systematic evidence for how to address these tensions within the confines of this report. However, we do offer some signposting to direct policymakers and practitioners towards the kinds of issues and approaches that are important for addressing trade-offs and developing a clearer understanding of the uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of interventions.

Training Afghan farmers in modern farming techniques. Khaneshin, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: SAC Neil

A way forward

In light of this ‘policy impasse,’ new approaches are required to better understand and tackle illicit drug economies, especially in contexts of armed conflict and peacebuilding. Here we outline what we believe to be a way forward, and a set of departure points, for the Drugs & (dis)order project, that aim to address this policy impasse.

Engaging marginalised voices

Drugs are the subject of multiple and contested narratives but certain narratives, mainly those of the powerful associated with national elites and international donors, tend to dominate and drown out other more ‘marginal’ perspectives.

Participants in illicit drug economies (producers, transporters or consumers) across the global South tend to be poorly represented – or not represented at all – in global and national policy debates on drugs, development and peacebuilding. And yet, they are amongst those most affected by the global War on Drugs.

Policies that purport to address drugs, support development and build peace, can only do so if they are more attuned to how drugs shape livelihoods and power structures in borderland regions, and the uneven distribution of risks and opportunities for those who engage in illegal drug economies.

Hence, we believe there is a need to listen and learn from, in a much more serious and sustained way, the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions.

A borderlands lens

Illicit drug economies typically flourish in borderlands. These transnational regions are zones where drugs and armed conflict commonly intertwine and where the legitimacy of central governments is often heavily contested. As a result, they are politically sensitive spaces which are frequently seen as a law and order problem by national elites.

We are critical of the tendency amongst policymakers to view borderlands as marginal, disconnected and ungoverned zones that need to be pacified, incorporated and developed.  This state-centric perspective, which views borderlands as passive receptors of state policies and initiatives, misses the role that the margins play in constituting power at the centre. Indeed, far from being left behind or disconnected, we see borderlands often as places of ingenuity, innovation and transformation.

The Drugs & (dis)order project considers borderlands as a critical (and often overlooked) vantage point to better understand processes of state formation and development. This approach explores how borderland regions can play an important role in shaping what happens in national and global centres.

In doing so, we set out to show how the dynamics of borderland regions – including illicit drug production – are less a consequence of their lack of political and economic integration, than a function of the way these integrative processes are imposed, resisted, and brokered by multiple sets of actors, interests and relations operating across local, national, cross-border and global scales.

Challenging the exceptionality of drugs

There is a tendency amongst drug agencies to treat illicit drugs as though they are exceptional. This drugs fetishism imbues drugs with inherent attributes that automatically engender crime, violent conflict and state fragility.

The fetishism surrounding drugs is also reflected in the tendency to analyse drug-producing regions only through the lens of drugs. And to narrowly fixate on drug metrics, overlooking the broader socio-economic and political dynamics of which the drug trade is but a part.

In terms of research methods, this has often meant asking narrow and direct questions on drugs, rather than exploring local livelihoods and power structures, and how drugs interact with them.

In terms of analysis, it has meant that the reasons why people engage in the drug economy are often reduced to simplistic profit motives. Meanwhile, shifts in drug economies (such as changing levels of production) are often directly attributed to drug policy interventions, rather than to broader political and economic shifts.

The Drugs & (dis)order project seeks to challenge such fetishism and the idea of a fixed relationship between drugs, armed conflict and state fragility. For example, we ask what makes illicit drug economies violent (or not)? And we question the assumption that eradicating drugs will necessarily end violence in the borderland regions we study.

Rethinking the relationship between drugs, development and violence

This fetishizing of drugs means that drug economies are viewed as operating outside of conventional development processes, which are usually defined in terms of state-building, economic growth, poverty reduction, and reducing levels of armed violence.

The framing of drugs as residual to, or undermining of, development processes has encouraged a set of policy narratives that assume greater state presence and economic development – and the subsequent integration of drug-producing regions into national political structures and global markets – will automatically work to dismantle illegal drug economies and enable transition to peace.

Our project challenges these assumptions. Instead, we draw upon an emerging body of research that reveals how drug production has at times been linked with periods of state expansion as well as state breakdown, efforts to stabilise armed conflict as well as financing war economies, and has contributed to forms of welfare provision and economic growth, as well being a function of economic marginalisation.

Through integrating research on drugs, development and war-to-peace transitions, we aim to better understand how drug economies shape – and are shaped by – wider processes of political and economic change, rather than assuming that drugs will be displaced by these processes.

Recognising dilemmas and trade-offs

New approaches must start by recognising that policymakers and individuals in drug affected environments face tough trade-offs.

Households face trade-offs when deciding whether to engage in illicit economies. As illustrated in this report, coca-producing communities in Colombia have obtained significant socio-economic advances, but at the cost of enduring endemic violence. In Myanmar, opium cultivation has long been an essential component to the livelihoods of some of the country’s poorest communities. Yet, rising levels of harmful drug use are now generating new challenges for families and communities.

Governments too confront complex dilemmas when choosing between what are often contradictory policy goals in the areas of counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace- and state-building. For example, a government may satisfy demands for tangible short-term counter-narcotics ‘achievements’, but these actions may disrupt local economies, destabilise local power structures, or renew competition between armed organisations involved in the drug trade.

Conversely, informal arrangements surrounding the drug trade (such as protection, impunity or access to the legal economy) may be an important foundation for ceasefires and political settlements between governments and opposition groups, which in turn allow for a reduction in violent conflict and enable the state to establish a stronger presence in contested areas 

Hence, the narrative of ‘win-win’ solutions is frequently disingenuous, dishonest and even counter-productive. Serious research and honest policy dialogues have to start with recognition of such dilemmas and trade-offs, as well as the context that determines or influences them and their distributional consequences.


Voices from the borderlands 2020 has sought to provide a fine-grained understanding of illicit drug economies by engaging with the everyday lives and local perspectives of borderland communities in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar.

While each country, and each borderland, has a unique history and experience of illicit drug economies, violence and development, to the extent possible, we have drawn out some of the differences and similarities across the cases. Future work will seek to develop a more systematic set of comparative insights.

Below we reflect on some of the key messages that emerge from this engagement with the borderlands and their implications in relation to war-to-peace transitions, illicit economies and processes of development, and the role of drugs in the everyday lives of borderland communities.

1. War-to-peace transitions

There are deeply contextualised relationship between drugs, war, violence and peace. These relationships often manifest themselves very differently in the borderlands than at the national level. But a very strong message coming from the borderlands is that chronic and deadly violence is a daily reality and a huge obstacle to human flourishing. For policymakers, targeting these different forms of violence must be an urgent priority. Otherwise the escape routes out of a reliance on illicit economies will remain blocked for borderland communities.

The violence of peace 

The voices from the borderlands raise troubling questions about what kind of peace is brought about through negotiated settlements and who is peace for? Peace agreements and ceasefires may address one form of violence, but unleash others – especially in borderland regions.

A recurring narrative from all our borderland research sites is the failure of peace processes to address the needs and aspirations of borderland communities. The everyday realities of ‘peace’ in the borderlands are often chronic insecurity, precarious livelihoods and a distant and often arbitrary state – conditions that push communities into a closer relationship with illicit economies.

Far from experiencing a smooth transition from ‘war’ to ‘peace’, in many places violence and instability increased and illicit activities expanded following ceasefires and/or peace agreements. 

Peace processes and post-war transitions may mutate or displace violence out into the state margins.

New forms of violence

Borderland communities referred to, and experienced, a wide range of forms of individual and collective violence.

These include continued large-scale violence involving government forces and armed rebels in northern Myanmar and Nangarhar province in Afghanistan; the violence associated with counter-narcotics policies and interventions, including the spraying and forced eradication of coca in Colombia; the bombing of drugs labs in Afghanistan, and interdiction efforts on the Nimroz border so that smuggling networks become increasingly militarised; the ‘slow violence’ linked to exploitative labour practices and extensive drug (ab)use in Shan and Kachin States; or the use or threat of coercion in order to close, police and manage borders. 

In many cases, these heterogeneous but intermingled forms of violence are occurring simultaneously, creating forms of insecurity that are unpredictable and make it difficult for borderland communities to plan and invest in their futures. At the same time, those living in the borderlands are ‘agents’ as well as ‘victims’ of violence, taking up arms on behalf of, or to resist the state, to gain a livelihood, to enrich themselves, to seek revenge or to protect their family and community.

Which violence counts

Interviews frequently reveal a disjuncture between international/national and borderland narratives about violence. For example, the former typically focus on anti-state violence as the most salient and existential threat, while the latter often highlight violence linked to counter-narcotics policies meted out by state or para-state forces, or the slow violence linked to drug use.

Although violence is an everyday reality in the borderlands, and violent events are the defining moments and reference points in people’s lives, these do not map neatly onto external or national accounts of the conflict. 

Perhaps surprisingly, some borderland inhabitants in Putumayo and Nangarhar talked about life being more secure during ‘wartime’ when the FARC and the Taliban (respectively) were in control of their borderlands. And subsequently, they reflected on how life had become less secure because there were now more wielders of violence and the rules of the game were far more uncertain. This is a sharp reminder that some forms of violence are more visible than others, and count as being more important because of who or what they threaten.

Mutating violence

Thus, peace processes and post-war transitions may mutate or displace violence out into the state margins. National-level stability, increasing economic integration and state presence can bring new forms of violence and exploitation and dismantle some of the coping mechanisms established during wartime.

Meanwhile, licit economies may be no less violent than illicit activities. For example, jade mining in Kachin state and the oil industry in Putumayo have been associated with very high levels of physical and structural violence.

2. Borderland development

The relationship between illicit drugs and development processes is neither fixed nor straightforward.  It varies at different points in the value chain, as shown by the experiences of those involved in production, trading and consumption. It also shifts over time, as drug economies themselves change and mutate, altering the distribution of costs and benefits for borderland communities.

Notwithstanding the complexities of the drugs-development nexus, the fact that drugs can contribute to processes of development, raises significant questions for development actors who see poverty alleviation and reducing illegal drug production as mutually reinforcing policy goals. Counter-narcotic programmes may perversely lead to ‘policy-induced poverty’. Therefore, there is a need to think more carefully about how to mitigate the harms caused by external interventions and to ensure these harms are not borne by the most vulnerable.

Drugs driving development

While drugs are typically framed as a development ‘problem’ driving armed conflict, the voices in this report present a more complex picture.

We have seen how in Colombia, coca growing, picking and processing have allowed marginalised populations to secure livelihoods and send children to school or university, or to access healthcare. The coca economy has also enabled communities to invest in basic infrastructure, such as roads or schools. that the state is not providing. In frontier boom towns in Afghanistan and Myanmar, drugs have provided the start-up capital for investment in other enterprises, which in turn act as a magnet for inward investment.

Drug economies may stimulate development, as shown above, but they can also be a response to processes of development. Economic development does not always dismantle illicit drug economies

Conversely, the revenue from drugs may flow in the opposite direction, acting as an engine of growth at the centre, fuelling property market booms in capital cities and getting laundered into the banking sector and/or licit businesses.

Rather than being a source of poverty and insecurity, drug economies can often become an important lifeline and safety net for marginalised populations. In effect they are the alternative development (AD).

Development driving drug production and use

This relationship works both ways. Drug economies may stimulate development, as shown above, but they can also be a response to processes of development. Economic development does not always dismantle illicit drug economies; for example, it can generate forms of marginality that push excluded groups into the production, trafficking or consumption of drugs.

We saw this through the voices in northern Myanmar, where increased mobility and connectivity, expanding cross-border trade and improved security all served to enable the extension of drug networks into new areas.

Drug use may often be a coping mechanism for dealing with the rapid political, economic and social change brought about by development. In the Myanmar-China borderlands massive inflows of capital have resulted in the emergence of frontier boom towns. These have been associated with processes of dispossession and displacement; the replacement of subsistence farming with large-scale agro-industry, and the emergence of new forms of employment.

The latter are often arduous jobs such as in mining and logging in remote places away from families. These developments have all been associated with rises in drug consumption. 

The distributive impacts of drug economies

This complex relationship between drugs and development caution against simplistic narratives of drugs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for development and poverty alleviation. Instead, we need to focus our analysis on the distributive impacts of drug economies, asking: Who benefits and who loses? Of course, the answer to this question is highly context- and time-specific. 

3. Drugs and everyday lives

Drug economies are deeply embedded in the everyday lives of the people in borderland regions. Rather than being helpless victims, in many cases, drugs give borderlanders agency and are an important social safety net. Nevertheless, this does have serious trade-offs, increased risk and violence being the most pervasive.

For policymakers this implies bringing a borderland perspective into thinking and practice, and developing approaches that are more granular and work with the grain of local institutions and social structures.

It also means taking seriously the agency and voice of borderland communities; building alliances with groups that represent marginal actors, and supporting participatory processes. And, as a minimum, policymakers need to be aware of the difficult trade-offs that people face and ensure their policies and programmes do not make them even tougher or impossible for borderland communities to manage.

Contextualising drug economies

In the borderlands we study, licit and illicit commodities and substances are entangled with one another and local notions of licit and illicit may differ from state-based definitions. In Colombia for example, cocaleros (‘coca growers’) are adamant about calling themselves campesinos (‘peasant farmers’). This challenges perceptions that they are rich narco criminals. In fact, many are farmers who cultivate several crops, of which coca plants, albeit slightly more profitable are just one.

Similarly, Afghan traders smuggle opium and heroin alongside cigarettes, fuel and other goods across the Afghan-Iran border.

This intermingling of licit and illicit commodities does not involve sharp normative or legal distinctions from the trader’s point of view. This is not to deny that illegality brings specific risks (as well as opportunities). These include for example the potential for violence, sudden loss of income due to crop eradication for the farmer, or the risk of imprisonment or the need to pay large bribes faced by the smuggler. 

Drug economies in these regions also have long histories, involving repeated cycles of ‘war’ and ‘peace’, shifts in the distribution of drug cultivation, trafficking and use within the borderlands, and new innovations and technological change related to drug production and new substances. 

Licit and illicit commodities and substances are entangled with one another and local notions of licit and illicit may differ from state-based definitions.

Given the extended timeframes of armed conflict and drug production (in all three countries, at least three to four decades), we can see significant inter-generational shifts in perceptions around, and engagement with, drug economies.

For example, in Colombia, interviews revealed inter-generational learning in terms of changing patterns of investment of the proceeds of drug economies. Current coca growers talked about how they no longer engaged in conspicuous consumption, as the previous generation had, but instead invested their income carefully in their children’s education, healthcare and household necessities. 

In Myanmar, older generations reflect on the importance of poppy cultivation as a livelihood strategy, and opium use as social and recreational activity. In contrast, younger generations emphasise the destructive force of rising drug use, undermining the human and social capital of the borderlands.

Therefore, understanding today’s drug economies requires being attuned to how they are imbued with different meanings and practices according to the experiences of successive generations of people in the borderlands.

Agency and social mobilisation

Communities involved in drug economies are frequently represented as victims who are forced, through necessity or outright coercion, to participate. Yet our fieldwork shows that farmers, traders and consumers all assert, and in many cases, enhance their agency through their engagement in drug economies.

In Colombia, profits from the coca plant have led to the construction of public goods and communal infrastructure through shared labour. In Afghanistan, traders based in Nimroz, bordering Iran, organised to negotiate tax concessions and security with the Taliban, to ensure trading routes remained open.

Other forms of social mobilisation have taken the form of resistance to drugs bans. For example, tribal networks in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province repeatedly mobilised against international, government and Taliban drug bans. Similarly, cocaleros unions in Colombia’s northern region led collective resistance against bans on drug production. These forms of resistance of otherwise marginal communities is emblematic of the agency of borderland communities who often see drug economies as a way of renegotiating and challenging their marginality.

Yet, local communities, as well as exercising agency in defence of their right to cultivate drug crops, also mobilise in response to drug consumption and the so-called ‘evil of addiction’. Pat Jasan, Myanmar’s best-known anti-drug organisation, is an example of how grassroots mobilisation against drugs can become entangled in broader ethno-nationalist anxieties about the ‘corrupting’ influence of the central state.[i]

Trade-offs and ambiguities

The War on drugs and its operationalisation through counter-narcotics policies and programmes attempts to draw clear ‘battle lines’ and sharp distinctions between the legal and illegal, state and non-state, ‘narcos’ and citizens. Yet the voices from the borderlands reveal the ambiguities, fuzzy boundaries and trade-offs surrounding people’s everyday involvement in illicit drug economies.

A key challenge will be to identify and find ways of addressing these ‘drivers of marginality’ that prevent borderland communities from flourishing and force them into a closer embrace with illicit drug economies

There are many disjunctures between the external, official narratives and the daily lived experiences of borderlanders. Presented from the outside as a war against drugs, for those on the receiving end it is often seen as a ‘war against people’. Drug policies and legal frameworks prioritise punishment and confrontation. But at the same time, drug economies perform the role of a ‘safety net’, substituting for many of the developmental and welfare provision roles that the states are unable or unwilling to perform in borderland regions.

Moral condemnation of drugs as ‘evil’ and the stigmatisation of those involved, sits alongside the reality of drugs as the only mechanism for (modest) empowerment in environments where legal markets can deliver few benefits to those on the margins.

Notwithstanding the numerous welfare and developmental roles that illicit drug economies have come to perform for borderland communities, this does not mean they necessarily   provide an escape route from, or antidote to the ‘pathologies of the margins’.

Engagement with drug economies comes with major risks and trade-offs.  Small-scale farmers and traders particularly, are locked in a Faustian pact. Drugs cultivation and trading can smooth over subsistence crises and provide short-term incomes. But this comes with major risks linked to violence, eradication or interdiction. Those involved lack any legal mechanisms to mediate disputes, make claims on the state or to protect themselves from predatory behaviour. In many respects drug economies enable borderland communities to cope and survive, but not to transform the structures that keep them marginal.

In moving forward on this project, a key challenge will be to identify and find ways of addressing these ‘drivers of marginality’ that prevent borderland communities from flourishing and force them into a closer embrace with illicit drug economies.

Voices from Myanmar

The following three key messages are from our fieldwork in two borderland Myanmar states: Shan State and Kachin State.

1. Rising levels of drug harm is a defining feature of how people have experienced ceasefires and economic development.

Policymakers often suggest that the key to addressing illicit drug economies lies in reducing levels of armed conflict, strengthening the state and integrating economically and politically ‘marginalised’ regions. This policy narrative is based on the idea that peacebuilding, statebuilding, economic development and counter-narcotics strategies are mutually reinforcing. However, the perspectives of borderland populations in Myanmar frequently challenge these assumptions.

Although ceasefire agreements helped to reduce levels of outright armed conflict in many areas, they left populations vulnerable to the ‘slow violence’ of drug misuse. Indeed, people from across Kachin and Shan express concern that drug-related harms have grown in the wake of the ceasefires and associated economic development. This is echoed in the reflections of two elderly men on how their hometown of Chipwi, in northeast Kachin State, changed after the signing of the KIA ceasefire in 1994.

When I settled down in Chipwi in 1973, I heard that there was opium available but I had never seen it with my own eyes. That time, I did not come across drug addicts. I had not heard about heroin and yaba in the area. After the ceasefire, the Asia World Company came into the area, then road construction started, then the logging started in the area. The heroin started coming in when the area became more populated. Then the local youth started using different kinds of drugs. Many young people started shooting heroin. Many young people passed away because of drugs.

Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018

Since the ceasefire period the Chinese came in, people could move around more easily, and drugs started flooding in. Yes, the ceasefire was a good thing but since the ceasefire, drugs became more available. I see it that way. In the past, opium was meant only for elderly people. My uncle on my father’s side used opium for 50 years […] Now young people use drugs in different ways – injecting, inhaling. Just last night a young man died of his drug addiction in this village. I am planning to go to the funeral. He was just 30 years old.

Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018
Wai Maw village, Kanpati Town, on the China border in Kachin State, Myanmar. Most of the villagers work for a daily wage. Photo by KRC 2019.

People across Shan State also made associations between the ceasefires and an apparent growth in illicit drug production and consumption in their area. This is reflected in the account that follows of how the situation changed under the Pa-O ceasefire in southern Shan State.

In the past, there were a few poppy plantations in some of the villages around Taunggyi, in Pinlaung and Hsihseng. However, the ceasefire deals allowed the ceasefire and militia groups to control certain territories […] Since these regions are under their control, poppy plantations and drugs were allowed without any restrictions. Since taxes are imposed on the local farmers for their crops and land, people would grow poppies since they can earn more money more quickly compared to other regular crops. Then the spread of drugs also increased.

Local politician, Taunggyi, Shan State, 2019

Mining (for gold, amber, rare earths and other minerals), logging, and large-scale agribusiness operations expanded across northern Myanmar from the 1990s onwards. The association between these forms of economic development and worsening drug harms was a common theme in many interviews. The reflections of a young man working in the amber mines in Danai – a resource-rich and conflict-affected town in the western part of Kachin State – capture this clearly.

In the amber mines, many miners used drugs. I started using drug since the nature of work in the mine was so tiresome. When I inhaled the drug I became so energetic. I used heroin, yaba and the like. It depended on how much money I made. Over time I saw more and more amber miners become drug addicts. Here many people perished due to drug use. Here it is difficult to get opium. But heroin and yaba can be found easily. Many miners ruined their lives due to the nature of the mining work.

Miner, Danai Township, Kachin State, 2018

The link between drugs and extractive industries is not new: problematic drug use had long existed in the infamous Hpakant jade mines in Kachin State. However, extractive industries expanded significantly in Kachin State over the last few decades due to the stability created by the ceasefires and the country opening up for trade and investment.

Maw Wan jade miners in Phakant, Kachin State, Myanmar. Photo by KRC 2019.

This led to improved road connections, the emergence of various boom towns and a surge in cash circulation, which in turn facilitated and contributed to more widespread drug use. A resident of a village along the Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina Township offered his observations on the links between drugs and development.

In the past there were some drug users in the village. But it became worse when government allowed Chinese businessmen to do gold mining along the riverbank. They spread drugs as they wished to. They employed villagers as daily labourers. At that time, the pay was just 500 kyats per day. Only after working for ten days we could earn 5,000 kyats. It wasn’t much…

But the new gold businesses gave per month 60,000 kyats […] They worked along the riverbank with machines. If they did not use big machines we could still do small-scale gold sluicing. But they just took away whatever they could manage to with their machines. They worked here until 2006 and destroyed everything. They did destroy not just the environment and land; they also destroyed the village community […] So many young people started working, and opium was offered for free.

Local resident, Myitkyina Township, 2018

Whereas people in Kachin State see heroin use as the primary cause of concern, the majority of people interviewed throughout Shan State saw methamphetamines (‘yaba’) as the most pressing drug issue in their communities. People say that yaba gives users more energy and resilience to work long hours in exhausting jobs. Methamphetamine use has consequently become deeply embedded in working culture in manual and low-skilled sectors, as shown by the reflections of one lady interviewed in Hsipaw, northern Shan State.

My husband always uses drugs when he goes to work. The boss said if they [the workers] use drugs they can work really hard. When I’ve gone to sell the oranges, the dealers sell pills like it’s a normal market. Everybody can buy them easily.

Farmer, Hsipaw Township, northern Shan State, 2018
Jade miners injecting heroin at a drug selling site in Phakant, Kachin State. Photo by KRC 2018.

People who sell drugs target wage labourers because they have expendable income. A number of interviewees also stated that business owners in the mining, logging and agricultural plantation sectors encourage and facilitate drug use amongst their employees so that they can work harder and for longer. This is shown by a Christian pastor’s comments that follow about drug use in Kengtung Township, eastern Shan State.

The owners of the plantations hire workers to tend their crops by paying both money and yaba. If this wasn’t happening, there would only be a few workers who would want to work for them, and the workload of tending the crops would not be finished on time. So, what the employers do is they put yaba in the cans of soft drinks and treat their workers with those soft drinks. Now, the workers do not dare take the soft drinks and water from the plantation’s owner, they bring their own water.

Christian pastor, Kengtung Township, eastern Shan State, 2019

Many other testimonies highlight how business owners provide drugs as a way to attract and retain workers in light of growing levels of drug dependency. One worker in Loilem Township, southern Shan State offered his reflections on this practice and its impact on workers’ families in the testimony that follows.

The owner of the mining business gave yaba pills to the stone workers, saying the drugs can make them stronger and healthier. In this way, those workers became addicted to drugs. This is the beginning of drug-related problems amongst the families of those workers. Sometimes they cannot even hire workers if they cannot provide them with drugs…

In the beginning, the workers are provided with one or two pills, but later when they become addicted, they buy the drugs with all the money they make each day, leaving their families unprovided for.

Miner, Loilem Township, southern Shan State, 2018

The link between drugs and the security and authority structures that have accompanied wider economic changes and growing state presence in borderland regions under the ceasefires is also important. This will be dealt with more fully in later outputs from our project.

Army-backed militias (typically called pyithusit which translates as ‘people’s militias’) have been deployed as counter-insurgency forces to police local populations and secure sites for economic development. In return, these militias have unofficial permission to run legal and illegal enterprises. This link between drugs and militias is captured in the following testimony of a man in his sixties reflecting on the changes he witnessed in eastern Shan State over the past 20 years.

Businessmen could produce drugs freely because of ‘pyithusit’ [people’s militias]. They produce in areas under control of ‘pyithusit’, but ‘pyithusit’ is backed by the army […] The militia has its people and their families and they want to develop their area, so they have to earn money. That’s why they cooperated with businessmen. We say that drug traffickers can ‘pass through’ militia. They pay taxes to militia so the militia protects them […] From my point of view, as long as there are militia groups, drugs cannot disappear.

Resident of Tachiliek, eastern Shan State, 2019

A 48-year-old mother also reflected on how drug use has impacted her village in Lashio Township, a militia-controlled area of northern Shan State.

The militia group holds everything in our village. There are plenty of people who become rich because of selling drugs. Some sell amphetamine and construct a big house. I have five sons. Most of them went to China. The one who has bad legs is left at home. Because we fear they will become addicts, my sons and many villagers go to work in China. They will become drug users if they stay in the village. The government never comes to arrest the people who use drugs and the sellers.

Farmer, Lashio Township, northern Shan State, 2018

These brief testimonies provide important insights into people’s everyday experiences of economic ‘development’ and political authority in the 1990s and 2000s under the ceasefires. They demonstrate the need for sensitivity in our understanding of the ways in which ceasefires are perceived at a popular level across Kachin State and Shan State, and how these perceptions shape civil society discussions about potential solutions to the harms caused by drugs and the perceived barriers to realising those changes.

Hugawng land before stepping in Tanai, Kachin State, Myanmar. Photo by KRC 2018.

2. Opium production is essential to the livelihoods of many poor households. But changing patterns of drug use are creating new forms of vulnerability and poverty.

Much of the focus of the international community working on drug issues in Myanmar continues to be on stemming opiate production and trafficking to foreign markets. However, many communities throughout Myanmar’s borderlands view rising rates of harmful heroin and methamphetamine use as a more pressing issue than levels of opium cultivation.

Populations in poppy-growing areas often associate opium with various positive impacts. Opium poppy cultivation provides a reliable source of income and thus improved food security. It also generates cash to pay for services such as education and health. And opium itself is used for the treatment of various ailments. In contrast, populations throughout Kachin State and Shan State view rising heroin and methamphetamine use as having a more dramatic and unmanageable impact on society than opium. This is captured clearly in the reflections of a local administrator from Lashio about how the drug situation has changed from the time of his youth in the 1960s to the present day.

When we were young, opium was very important. The one who used opium was rich at that time. Relatives and friends always asked how much opium do you have? If we had a lot, it meant we were rich. In the past, people who used drugs went to bed late but got up early to get to work and did well […] They could work in the field the whole day without resting, if they got enough opium. To use WY [methamphetamine] is easier than opium…

People used to pay 5,000 kyats for a pill. Only some people used it. But now, 500 kyats gets three pills, so everyone can afford to buy it. There are more drug addicts now. Some drug addicts were sent away to escape from this kind of environment. Some were sent away for more than 10 years but when they got back home, they used it again. Before, drugs were only in downtown but now you can find them in every village and town.

Local administrator, Lashio, northern Shan State, 2018

These sentiments were also common throughout Kachin State, shown in the following testimony from an elderly man in Chipwi.

In the past, though the opium users used opium they still worked, the opium use even helped them to do more work. But now we see drug users injecting drugs. Since needles and syringes are easily available, kids start using drugs […] Different types of drug are flooding into Chipwi area, and in the future, I foresee that the drug addiction problem will be even worse.

Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018

These changing patterns of drug use have become an important, albeit often overlooked, dimension of the poverty and vulnerability experienced by many households across Kachin State and Shan State. Approximately one in three people in these states live below the national poverty line. The material, physical and emotional impacts of harmful drug use have been significant for many families already struggling with poverty, and in ways that often have specific gendered dimensions. These include the extra costs that families incur because of drug use, as discussed by a woman in her thirties from Kengtung in eastern Shan State.

I’m the first of five siblings and the only woman. The rest are men. The brother after me took many drugs. My second brother injected heroin and became addicted. I asked my friend to send him to Loi Tai Leng [The headquarters of the Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State]. We found out he has HIV and needs to take medicine…

While my brothers were using drugs, my father and I were the only breadwinners. My two younger brothers were still in school. At that time, my two brothers who used drugs often stole property such as motorbikes. I had to pay compensation whenever my brothers stole from others. I only had a small salary. After I paid the compensation sometimes there was nothing to eat at my house.

Civil society organisation worker, Kengtung, eastern Shan State, 2019
A ‘relaxing house’ in a rehab centre in Phakant, Kachin State, Myanmar. Photo by KRC 2018.

Drug use can also cause loss of income as family members become too incapacitated to work, wages are spent on drugs and/or because assets are sold to buy drugs. These issues are clearly illustrated in the following testimony from a woman in Namtu Township in northern Shan State.

Drugs destroyed our family, I really don’t like it, we will never be successful. Even if we have a car or valuable things, there will be nothing left. Even if we have just 1kg or 2kg of rice, he [my husband] exchanges it for drugs. He started [taking drugs] when our first son had just passed away, he was sad. His friends gave him drugs. He told me that if he used it, it could make him better. I told him not to use because we didn’t have money like other people. We have now been married for 14 or 15 years but our lives haven’t improved…

He went to the Loi army [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] to quit for one year. When he came back home, he was heavier and more handsome but after he went out with his friends, he used it again. When he tried to work, he got pains in his stomach, so he came back home and asked me for money for drugs and rested. He even pledged the title deed [for the house] for 60,000 kyats. He did work at the farm for 15 days but only gave 300 kyats [US$ 0.20] for his daughter. I want him to be a good person and work like other people and improve our family, but he doesn’t.

Farmer, Namtu Township, northern Shan State, 2018
Graveyard in Tachiliek on the Thailand border, Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by SHAN 2018.

A Kachin farmer from Mogaung Township also discussed how drug use can erode family relationships and undermine the support networks that are important for households going through tough times, in the following testimony.

It has been 20 years I have been using opium. I was 18 years old that time. I started using heroin four or five years ago. I got married when I was 36 years old. My wife put up with me for some time when she knew that I was a drug addict. I had two children with her. When we were newly married I stopped using for a while. But the situation got worse. I have been to rehab centres in Yangon. I also went to rehab centres in the KIO-controlled area. But my family just splintered…

Since I became a drug addict my wife left for a foreign country. My children are now living with my paternal aunt…So my life became meaningless. After that I started using heroin again. I leased our cow and with the money I used drugs. My siblings also said that as long as I am a drug addict they will no longer accept me. I only have my aunt caring for me. She is the one looking after my children. She is living on government pension. In the past I was quite depressed and would even think of committing suicide.

Farmer, Mogaung Township, Kachin State, 2018

Worsening levels of drug use are also perceived to have undermined community solidarity and mutual support mechanisms that in the past assisted households during times of need or in managing the costs of certain events such as weddings and funerals. A Pa-O civil society organisation leader described this situation in the interview that follows.

All villages have their own rules, you know, rules to follow. In my village all young people must do social service in the community. If you are 16 or finished school you have to automatically become a member of the village social work group. So in that group we have rules, and if you do not follow the rules we won’t help you…

If you get married we are not going to help you, for your wedding, something like that. These rules also try to stop young people using drugs. According to that rule, if you use drugs you have to leave the village […] They try to control the situation like this. But now the situation is very difficult to control. In some villages most of the young people use drugs. We have the rule but the rule is broken.

Civil society organisation leader, Taungyyi Township, southern Shan State, 2018

Harmful drug use had been seen as an issue confined to sectors of the population in certain risk areas, for example, male labourers in mining areas. But people now perceive it as a part of everyday life affecting a wide cross-section of society, including women and children. This was a common narrative in countless interviews. The comments made by a community leader from Mong Pan in southern Shan State illustrate this.

Nowadays, yaba can be found everywhere. Before the price of a pill of yaba here was 1,800 kyats. Now, three or four pills can be bought with 1,000 kyats. Normally, a poor student would have pocket money of between 200 and 500 kyats while those from a wealthy family may have something between 500 and 1,000 kyats. The son of a teacher from 8th grade became addicted and his parents have been so heartbroken because of it. That boy explained that he became a drug addict because he could buy a pill of yaba with just 200 kyats.

Community leader, Mong Pan Township, southern Shan State, 2018

These testimonies offer insights into how drug use has become an important dimension of poverty and vulnerability across Kachin and Shan State. Thus, interventions aimed at alleviating poverty and livelihood insecurity need to pay greater attention to the impact of drug use. This creates challenges and the need for nuanced responses. In many upland regions, opium cultivation remains essential to the livelihood strategies of many poor households. At the same time, rising levels of drug use, especially heroin and methamphetamines, have placed severe pressures on families and communities.

A used syringe in Northern Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by SHAN 2018.

3. Young people have become particularly vulnerable to drug-related harms.

The impact of drug use on young people is a particular concern throughout Shan and Kachin State. Although hard to quantify, there is a strong sense that young people are disproportionately impacted by drugs and that this will have a significant and damaging impact on society for years to come. Drug use amongst children (sometimes as young as eleven or twelve) and young adults is commonly attributed to a combination of naivety, low levels of education and a lack of knowledge about drugs, and absence of family oversight.

This is especially true if children have to travel to school, are studying at university, or if their parents have migrated to work. Moreover, peer pressure (mostly amongst young men) and ‘youth’s nature’ of wanting to explore and try new things plays a big role. All of these factors are present in an environment where drugs are cheap and easy to access. A Burmese man in his twenties from Taunggyi captured some of these issues, echoing the experiences of many other young people we interviewed.

I was 20, and a tenth standard student, when I started using opium. It is youth’s nature to want to try anything. And like cigarettes and alcohol, it was within reach. It has lasted now for eight years. I drank it mixed with cough syrup. It was known as ‘Formula’. At first, it was only once in a while. Later I began to use it every day…

The feeling was strong and made me feel dizzy at first. But it was still pleasant, unlike getting drunk with alcohol. As it went on, it became a burden economically and socially. So I decided to quit. For the first week, I was delirious. When I went to the private clinic the detox medication there wasn’t strong enough. So I went back using. Then I went to a different clinic. Still, I went back to using drugs again.

Resident of Taunggyi Township, southern Shan State, 2018

Many interviews draw attention to the ease with which young people can access drugs, compared to the difficulty of accessing support. This is especially true outside of major cities like Taunggyi, where access to treatment is very limited. Families’ desperation, coupled with the lack of education and services, has exposed young people to further harms. A worker at a drug treatment centre in Tachilek described the situation of some patients arriving from rural areas in the following interview.

Their addiction was so serious that in some of the cases, their parents would tie them up before they could seek […] help from the authorities, whom they have no idea where and how to approach. Finally, they found their way to us and got the patient admitted to our rehabilitation centre. Once they get here, you could even see the infections from the wounds that they got from being tied around wrists and hands.

Drug treatment centre worker, Tachiliek, eastern Shan State, 2019

Schools and universities have become common sites for drug use, which has magnified associated harms among young people in particular. In the following testimony, a man who started using heroin whilst studying at Monyin University described the drug situation on campus.

Drug use in the university campus became so serious around 2005. You would find used syringes and needles scattered around toilets and bushes at the back of the university campus. You see the rear side of the campus…

Heroin is freely available, but not always. Some days you will find a crowd assembled there. The campus has become a favourite spot for drug dealers as well. Some dealers came to sell by motorbike from a far place. They put heroin in a plastic straw. You can get it for 1,000 or 2,000 kyats.

Monyin University alumni, Kachin State, 2018
A rice plantation in Tangyan township, northern Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by SHAN 2018.

Young people from rural areas often travel long distances each day to attend school and university or live in boarding houses during term time. This has become increasingly common since the ceasefires, as declining levels of armed conflict improved mobility. As a result, more young people were able to access education, but also experienced greater exposure to illicit drugs. This is just one of a number of reasons why people express frustration and resentment about the legacy of the ceasefires.

Drug use amongst young people is often attributed to their inability to control themselves, to overcome temptation, or to act responsibly. These narratives commonly have strong religious connotations, and are also often internalised by those who use drugs and blame their addiction on their own perceived weaknesses, or a weakness they believe they have inherited. A Shan man in his twenties offered insights into attitudes surrounding drugs.

I started using ‘Formula’ in 2010. I wasn’t successful in my work, I despaired and wanted to forget everything. Alcohol failed to help me. Then a new friend said, ‘Try this’, and I did. My parents brought a doctor to do a check-up. And he informed them that I had become a ‘junkie’…

So I tried to quit by locking and tying myself up in my room. How many times have I tried to quit, but every time I return to ‘Formula’. You may hate her but you never forget her […] My present work is indoor electric wiring…

When working, I only use a small amount. My employee, looking at my complexion, knows what I am and pays me less than normal. I don’t like it, but I can’t complain. I know I can quit, if I only have the strength. I read a lot of religious books. Still I can’t make myself quit.

Resident of Taunggyi, southern Shan State, 2018

However, people’s testimonies also emphasise the need to understand the wider social, political and economic factors that have created an environment in which young people are particularly vulnerable to drug-related harms. They draw attention, for example, to how young people use drugs – and alcohol – as a coping mechanism, in response to the pressures they face. This is particularly true in a society where opportunities do not match aspirations and expectations. The reflections of a youth worker in Taunggyi are instructive in this regard.

Most of the young people who graduated from university don’t have job opportunities. They just go back home. In my community if you already graduated parents believe that you can get a job with the government, a company or with an NGO. If you continue your education in university the cost is very high. But if you go back and do nothing after you graduated people will pressure you…

They say: ‘You already graduated so why don’t you do something like other people?’ ‘Why did we educate them because after they graduated, they are going to work like us?’ It’s a lot of pressure for young people. And also even if you finished university we don’t have any skill for our lives. Education is not very good […] This is a lot of pressure for young people. So some, they use drugs, some also alcohol.

Youth worker, Taunggyi, southern Shan State, 2019

This view was also echoed in the following testimony of a Kachin pastor from Monyin.

Young people do not have job opportunities. They have fewer opportunities to work outside the Church and even the Church can’t offer many job opportunities. Look at Monyin, there is only one bank. You cannot find Kachin staff working there. And there are no job opportunities for Kachin youth in the government sector…

Therefore, many young Kachin people turn to drugs. Drug use became more serious here after 2013 when the jade mining was accessible for a short period for the general public, and Monyin became a busy town. Young people could work in the mining sector for a short period and with it many young people turned to drugs.

Kachin pastor, Monyin, Kachin State, 2018

The testimonies collected during our research demonstrate that young people face a double vulnerability: they are vulnerable both to the physical and social harms caused by drug use; and they are vulnerable to the harms caused by some of the responses to drugs. These include punishment-based responses and the stigma associated with drug use, both of which often prevent people from seeking help.

This presents a particular challenge for female drug users who remain a largely ‘hidden population’. This is due to the lack of services for women and the greater stigma attached to female drug use. A woman in her early twenties, interviewed in Taunggyi, offered her reflections on how drug use has impacted her life in the following testimony.

I started using ‘Formula’ when I was 19, in second year of university. My mother died and my father remarried. My stepmother and I were not so much different in age. I quarrelled with [my father] and refused to return home even on the holidays. Then my boyfriend said, ‘Here’s the cure for your blues. Drink it!’, and I did. I became hooked. He was caught one and a half years ago and is in jail…

Then I had to start buying the drug myself. I thought about quitting. But, as a woman, it’s difficult to get treatment at a hospital. And I don’t trust the hospital. One of my friends got treatment and when he went back home was arrested. I tried quitting by myself. I suffered so much I felt like dying, getting almost crazy. People are also avoiding me, especially after the arrest of my boyfriend. Eight months after, I visited my boyfriend. He was sentenced to 15 years. He wept and I wept. His family wasn’t happy with me; they blamed me for their son’s plight.

Taunggyi resident, southern Shan State, 2018
Uru Htoi San rehab centre. Photo by KRC 2018.

A note on methodology

The key messages presented below draw upon the findings from more than 600 interviews conducted by the research team across Kachin State and Shan State in 2018 and 2019. 

Both Shan State and Kachin State are regions of significant ethnic and linguistic diversity. Beyond this territorial definition of ‘Kachin’ and ‘Shan’, however, this project works with organisations who self-identify as being of Kachin and Shan ethnicity (which are themselves complex identity labels). This necessarily creates opportunities, as well as constraints, in relation to how much the research team can carry out research that cuts across the multiple linguistic and ethnic dynamics of these two quite vast areas.

The majority of research conducted by the team has been with Shan-identifying and Kachin-identifying populations. Although some interviews have also been conducted with non-Shan/Kachin and non-Shan/Kachin-speaking populations, it is important to emphasise that the research presented here primarily focuses on revealing the perspectives held by Shan and Kachin-identifying populations within these broad territorial units. In light of how little research has been conducted on these issues from these perspectives, this does, however, represent a significant contribution to knowledge.

The field research has primarily focused on interviewing people who do not self-identify, and who are not identified by others as being political elites, either civil or military. Some respondents may have roles that are clearly politicised or where limited local political authority may be attached to their role. But the research offers in every case a more locally grounded set of critical insights into the kinds of ‘peace’ and ‘development’ that are actually materialising in the country’s borderlands and the ways in which drugs have become entangled in people’s everyday lives.

There is a wide array of important insights emerging from this research which we cannot cover in the space available in this report. Instead, we have focused on highlighting insights that recurred frequently in the interviews, resonated strongly in follow-up workshops with research participants and local audiences, and which the research team view as important in engaging with wider audiences on drug issues in Myanmar.

Voices from Colombia

The following three key messages emerged from our research in three borderland Colombian states, talking to coca growers and pickers in: Puerto Asís in Putumayo, Tumaco in Nariño, and Santa Marta in Magdalena.

1. Many people in Colombia’s borderlands are economically better off because of coca, but this comes at a high cost.

The coca plant has been the economy [where I live] for a long time. There is no other plant that could replace it. Even when prices are low, 200 grams [of coca base or paste] means $300,000 pesos. It provides a livelihood. To make that amount with licit produce is very difficult. Why is it difficult? In my case, I would have to move plantain or yucca from my farm by horse and by the time I arrive at the roadside, with sunshine like today, they would be black. And then to get them from there to the plaza. And who would buy them? Nobody.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

Coca production offers farmers a reliable income, creates jobs and boosts local economy

Coca cultivation offers farmers guaranteed market access. This is in contexts of high transport costs, unreliable demand for legal produce and significant price fluctuations. It enables them to earn regular incomes that are slightly higher than those in other agrarian economies. Thus, many peasants in Colombia’s borderlands perceive(d) coca production as the only economic option.

Coca also generates substantial and comparatively well-paid wage employment opportunities, especially but not only during harvest periods. These coca incomes in turn bolster other sectors by increasing local demand for goods and services. As a result, the coca economy has contributed to significant socio-economic advances.

Coca farmers invest their incomes in things like education, healthcare and land

Farmers and pickers have used their coca incomes to improve their homes, pay for their children’s education and family members’ medical treatment, and acquire land and other assets, such as motorbikes and solar panels. Many would simply not have been able to access these services or assets were it not for the coca economy. In some communities, people also pooled their coca incomes to pay for the construction of schools, footpaths and roads, and even for teacher’s salaries.

During the coca [boom], the first thing I did with the first payment was to put up a roof – over half the house. Afterwards, we started to buy bricks and also, we had to buy inputs for the farm because that [crop] doesn’t grow alone. So, like that, I put up the roof on my house – half of it; afterwards I got the bricks, and then the things for the farm, and then the boys were asking to buy a television.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, February 2019

After I had my first child, I remember we had coca and it was profitable. With just one harvest there was enough money to pay for electricity and a television. The television was the first thing one would buy, to watch the soap opera ‘Marimar’; then after that a little motorboat to move up and down the river.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, May 2018

With money from coca, one has economy: you can buy a horse, improve your house – invest in it, like the roofing and wire fencing. […] Everything we have done [in this village] was with money from coca, between all of us, our sweat and coca money. When we arrived, we paid the schoolteacher for around two years [with our money earned with coca cultivation]. She was a neighbour who said she had studied. Later, we got a public teacher [i.e. designated and paid for by the state].

Male former coca grower and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019

In my case, I am not ungrateful with coca. I have been in difficult situations. I have a handicapped brother, my mother and my little siblings [to look after]. When mum got sick, I had the money to buy a house, [but] I let the doctors take a lot of money off me. [… Interviewer: and the money you paid them came from cultivating coca?] Yes. Why would one deny it?

Female former coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

[Because of the income from coca] we could watch television, buy gasoline, go into town, buy clothes. Our children had new clothes to wear whenever possible – every harvest, they got a new pair of shoes, a new pair of everything. Now [after leaving the coca economy], if you look at my children, they have repaired, patched-up shoes. Because the salary they pay my husband isn’t enough to buy shoes – if anything, maybe in December [with the Christmas bonus]. [… with the money from coca] we also bought that fridge there second-hand, the washing machine, the stove.

Female former coca grower and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2018

Women who work in the coca economy earn more than in other sectors

These socio-economic advances have benefitted both men and women. Women who participate in the coca economy earn considerably more than those who do not and roughly the same amount as their male counterparts – a relative equality not found in many other rural economies.

Here, the men don’t look down on the women as less, nor do us women feel we are less than the men. We [coca] pickers are equal.

Female coca picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019

[During the coca boom] I would sell lots of beer, aguardiente [a type of alcohol made from sugar cane], and those chickens for fattening – I would sell those. There was always money. […] I can say that if the economy was still like that now, I would never want to have a husband because I knew that every single weekend I would sell [a lot] and I would have money in my pocket for necessities, for food.

Female leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, February 2019
A ‘laboratory’ to transform coca leaf into coca paste in Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The risk of violence

Tragically, coca growers and pickers (and the wider regions where they work) have paid dearly for these modest socio-economic advances. Because coca production is illicit, producers are vulnerable to assaults by illegal armed groups and by the state itself and have little or no access to institutional recourse. Graph 2 shows how the vast majority of survey respondents associate coca production in their regions with increases in violence. Nevertheless, nearly half of people surveyed evaluate their experience of participating in the coca economy as having both positive and negative sides.

It was in 1998 that coca started to arrive, when they [the government] removed the coca growers from Caquetá, they all came directly here […] But it was also a strategy of the FARC, they brought some people and they started to plant coca. We had in that territory of Zone 3, more or less 9,000 hectares to leave as reserve, as forest. And so, the colonisation of our territory, controlled by the FARC, began…

The FARC told our peasants, people from the Community Council: ‘Plant or leave because you are narks’. […] Those plots [of land] were collective. That’s when the disaster began and not just in our Community Council, it extended across the municipality of Tumaco.

Male leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, September 2019

The news of deaths, [at the hands of those] groups, we used to see that on television. When narco-trafficking coca started to arrive here in Tumaco, then we started to see this personally, this death, that disappearance – all of that which was once so far away.

Leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, February 2019

The need for viable alternatives that safeguard socio-economic advances

Living daily life in a context of illegality is not easy and, for that reason, most coca producers would prefer to work in viable legal economies. The biggest challenge, then, is to design and implement policies that enable peasants to work in sustainable and licit agricultural economies, which safeguard the socio-economic advances brought by coca production but without all the associated risks and costs.

Working with coca brings problems. […] There’s been a lot of death here because of the coca cultivations. […] There are young lads who start to work for the narco-traffickers, and they kill them over any old slip-up.

Female coca farmer, Puerto Asís, June 2019

The state has abandoned us and we survive with the coca bush because we have to. Many of us have become more aware, with so many deaths [of the problems coca brings …] If there were [other] opportunities, no one would work with coca because it’s enslaving.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

[During the coca boom] … that was another thing, because money kept coming in and when, well there were so many hectares, so when you finished picking in one [farm] you would return to another that was ready for picking again. So, there was never a moment that the picking stopped and that brought a lot of money, that stimulated the economy in the area a lot. But it was also too much violence and [brought a] lack of respect.

Female former coca farmer and picker, Santa Marta, March 2019
A coffee house, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo by Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2019.

2. Colombia’s coca growers are peasant farmers and do not lead the lives of narco criminals.

A peasant coca farmer, a normal farm owner, just like with any other crop, gets up, [makes sure] everyone has breakfast, organises the pickers: ’From this side to this plant, you pick; from this plant to over there, you …’, and so on and so forth. The pickers collect [the leaves], harvest. The leaves are weighed – the pickers work until four or five [o’clock] in the afternoon – because the payment is by kilo.

Female former coca farmer, Santa Marta, March 2019

Coca growers in Colombia are predominantly peasant farmers who depend on working the land for their livelihoods. Indeed, the vast majority of participants in the PNIS self-identify as campesinos.

Coca growing is not a particularly fast and easy way to make money

The coca production process involves preparing the land, planting, weeding, fertilising and harvesting with family and hired labour – just like with any other crop. In this sense, coca production is not an especially fast and easy way of making money (as is sometimes suggested) and families who cultivate coca are no different from other peasant families. The major difference between the cultivation of coca and other crops is that the former offers higher earnings than the latter.

I established a [coca] farm in alliance with a family member and that’s how I looked after my partner before the birth [of our child]. With an uncle, we went into sharecropping together; he had the land and we planted half each. But I was very attached to [coca] picking. It was hard for me to establish a coca farm because, well, it is hard work. You have to plant the coca, remove all the weeds around the bush by hand – but then you see the plant all leafy and lush, well looked-after, properly fumigated, and you feel proud.

Male coca farmer and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019
Coca farmer, Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

Many coca farmers also cultivate other crops

Furthermore, many coca growers also cultivate other crops and keep animals (such as pigs, chickens and cows), specifically for household consumption and sometimes for sale on local markets, when/where possible. Indeed, farmers often invest their coca incomes in other agricultural activities. This is part of a diversification strategy that helps them to reduce the risks associated with monocropping.

Those who cultivated coca also had plantain, yucca, ñame – all those things for subsistence.

Female former coca grower, Santa Marta, March 2019

[In addition to coca] we also have plantain, yucca, maize, chickens, pigs – just for our subsistence though, not for commerce.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

The coca economy allows for modest social advancements

While coca growers typically earn more than other peasant farmers that do not cultivate coca, their consumption patterns are essentially similar to those of other rural middle-class families. Contrary to popular images of ostentatious ‘narcos’, coca farmers spend most of their earnings on their children’s education, land, cars/motorbikes and homes.

The coca economy allows peasant families to access services and acquire assets that might otherwise be out of reach but it in no way makes them rich. The wealth generated by the cocaine industry is accumulated by traffickers, not coca farmers.

I haven’t seen people making these [huge] profits [from coca] because they have stuck with, as they say, the dynamic of planting just a little, just the essential. […] There wasn’t this mentality of becoming rich, simply of living comfortably.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

There are a lot of people [who grow coca] here, but I haven’t met anyone who’s got money, who’s got wealth. It’s the traders who get rich, not those who cultivate. With coca, you plant a few bushes, fertilise twice or three times, and then harvest – and you end up with 200 or 300 grams, which is enough to buy some rice.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

Coca provides enough just for food and education […] It’s not like the government says, that we get rich with coca.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019
A typical rural farmhouse in Putumayo, Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/ Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The Colombian state treats coca peasant farmers as criminals

Nevertheless, despite the fact that coca growers are simply peasant family farmers, the Colombian state treats them like criminals. Counter-narcotics policy in Colombia is still tied to War on drugs narratives. These are used to justify a war on the peasantry that cultivate coca.

Over the decades, this war has involved aerial spraying of coca crops with a chemical cocktail (including but not limited to glyphosate) and militarised manual forced eradication. This has had devastating consequences for the health (in the case of the former) and livelihoods of coca-growing families and surrounding communities. So far, the Colombian government has not offered these peasant families viable economic alternatives to coca cultivation.

They didn’t just pursue big narco-traffickers. There was a time they would take everyone they found working. The got me once, as I was leaving. […] They stopped me, caught me with [coca] paste and gave me home-jail time.

Female coca farmer, Puerto Asís, June 2019

When the forced eradication came, we said, ‘Let’s plant chocolate’. Some associations, entities, arrived to collaborate and we planted with technical assistance. But as time passed, [the cacao crops], they didn’t work, they didn’t provide enough for a person, for the family, to subsist. […] A lot of people ended up in debt […] It’s not like the government says – sometimes they speak badly of the peasant, say that we are the creators of the war, [but] we are obligated to plant [coca] because there is no other option, we don’t have support.

Female coca farmer, Tumaco, April 2019

They would fumigate sometimes every 15 days in our village. […] We had a hectare and a half of plantain and chiro – or as it’s sometimes called, ‘bocadillo’. But the fumigations finished off our food – the maize, the yucca, everything! There was nothing left. We were left without food and the only thing we had left were a few corners of coca.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

What else can a peasant farmer do? The fear is that we will be prosecuted again. We are peasants and we are coca growers. […] On TV everything looks great, but in reality we can’t even support our children. We are not knee-deep in money, but coca has maintained us.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

3. Despite facing social, economic and political exclusion, Colombia’s coca producers are organised and active citizens.

We organise ‘mingas’ [or collective labour initiatives, through the Community Action Committee] at the end of every month. Here we still lay logs of wood down to prevent them from getting too muddy. Participation is good. We built the school with a minga. […] Since we only have the river [for transport], coca is the only option; if the government keeps its promises and builds roads then there could be change [away] from coca…

Here there are solar power systems that people purchased with whatever little bit of money they had left over. The oil company arrived in other communities and gave away solar panels, which they [the beneficiaries] sold cheaply […Otherwise,] there is no electricity; there are no public services. We wash with water that we get from wells using motorised pumps [we also purchased ourselves]. We use well water because the river is polluted due to the [oil] company and it’s more practical than going to the river.

Male coca grower, Puerto Asís, September 2019

Social, economic and political exclusion

Colombia’s coca growers and pickers face multiple forms of exclusion. One of the clearest manifestations of this exclusion – that also affects rural communities in the borderlands more generally – is lack of access to basic public services. Most families who work in the coca economy do not have running water, a sanitation/sewerage system, natural gas or internet in their homes (see Graph 6). And while the graph below indicates that most do have electricity, the figures include that which is self-provisioned via diesel generators and solar panels.

Other manifestations of exclusion include the high levels of informal land tenure and the deficiency of transport infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, in coca-producing areas. This makes it very difficult for peasant families in Colombia’s borderlands to participate in licit agricultural markets.

There are no roads [in my area], nothing has changed since the 1970s or 1950s, since we started saying [we need roads … We have to travel by boat], an hour and a half to get to La Libertad. We don’t have to go the long way around anymore, like we used to, that would take about three days; now we go through La Libertad [… from there its] another hour and a half [to Puerto Asís…] by motorbike or car, mostly we use motorbikes [but if you] bring things with you, then you have to travel by ‘chiva’ [a type of rural bus… And within our sub-district] we have paths for [… moving about] on horse and by foot.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

In many cases, it’s possession [people have possession rather than full property rights over their land]. In fact, even today most peasants suffer [because of this]. We go to present a project and they won’t recognise our use of the soil because we don’t have legal documents for the land, but instead deeds or [certificates] of possession or tradition – these are useless…

So, people live between legality and illegality. And they don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay anything because there is no legal document. And if you want to go get your papers, well they ask you for this life and the next. You have to bring a surveyor, someone from the IGAC [the Augustin Codazzi Geographical Institute, which is in charge of the cadastre], you have to do this, that and the other. And not everyone has the money to go and do all those things. So, very few peasants in the Sierra have legal land titles.

Female former coca farmer, Santa Marta, March 2019

Coca farmers and pickers have also been excluded from public debates (including on counter-narcotics policies), as many government functionaries and sectors of civil society do not recognise them as valid interlocutors.

Many farms and villages can only be accessed by boat in Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

Strong agency

Nevertheless, peasant families involved in the coca economy have demonstrated significant agency, in particular through local organisations such as the Community Action Committees (which have high levels of membership, as indicated in Graph 7) and Afro Community Councils.

We have proposed alternatives, projects for food security, health, income. We are tired of knocking on doors, to ask for loans, because they ignore us. We are conscious of the social problems caused by drugs. It’s possible and we want to put our efforts into organic production, reforestation, ‘clean’ [or green] food. The forest is a rough diamond that can provide without the need to destroy it. We got disillusioned with [the idea of] carbon credits…

They say it’s prohibited to cut down the forest, they impose repressive laws but they don’t give any incentives. Conserving the native forest is a [potential] alternative, but where are the funds? […] I have always been committed to the organisation of the community. The JAC [Community Action Committee] was formally established on the 7th of May 1997. We’ve done everything ‘with our own hands’, without any help, ‘working with our backs and our beasts’.

Male coca grower and community leader, Puerto Asís, September 2019

At the moment, we have a Whatsapp group, just in case there is a project or something, and to organise meetings and all that. The 32 rural sub-districts are communicating constantly – daily it’s ‘this happened’, ‘there is this meeting or that meeting’…

We are just now amidst dialogues with the Mayor’s Office because they have us stigmatised too – they said we were paramilitaries, they never stopped saying that […] just because we lived here – they always said this was a paramilitary zone, and they categorised us as paramilitaries.

Inhabitant of a former coca-producing area, Santa Marta, May 2019

Many community members speak proudly about constructing their own schools and roads via collective labour initiatives (often called mingas) and using their own funds, as well as the protests and strikes they have organised that forced government functionaries to take note and sit down at the negotiating table.

With coca we have done everything, with coca we have guaranteed for ourselves, as best we can, the fundamental rights that the state hasn’t given us. [… For example,] the issue of roads, we built our own roads. […] In 1997, after the strike in 1996, we extended the road to our sub-district […] all the peasants in our sub-district started to contribute. We always had to organise ‘mingas’ to go out and work…

And that’s how it was, all the roads have been constructed in this way, with the support of [our] coca [incomes] – we all chipped in. For example, in our sub-district, my dad contributed 800,000 pesos at that time, plus the work we did on the road – every peasant had to give an amount of money […] We asked the Mayor’s Office to help us but most of all it has been through our own efforts, more than through what we got from [the] Mayor’s Office.

Male community leader, Puerto Asís, September 2018
The ‘Bocagrande’ beach, Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Diana Machuca/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The state is not delivering many promised reforms and programmes aimed at addressing exclusion

The National Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS), and the 2016 peace agreement of which it is part, were designed to counter the (social, economic and political) exclusion of peasant families, and of coca cultivators and pickers in particular. For example, the PNIS includes various spaces for participation that have permitted direct interaction between government functionaries and delegates of coca-producing rural sub-districts during the planning and implementation phases of the programme.

The PNIS is also supposed to be tied to local and regional development plans aimed at improving rural infrastructure and ensuring access to public services in the targeted areas. However, so far the government has done little to advance these aspects of the PNIS. The government has also stalled promised legal reforms, which were supposed to temporarily exempt small-scale coca farmers from criminal prosecution.

Participants in the programme have expressed frustration with the government, which they claim has not kept its end of the agreements, despite coca growers and pickers keeping theirs (see Graph 8). These very agreements are yet another manifestation of the exclusion that coca growers and pickers have been subjected to: in open violation of the basic principles of citizenship, the vast majority of families who are participating in the crop substitution programme have not been given a copy of the contract they signed with the state.

When they came here, [they said] we have to eradicate the coca. What did we do? We eradicated and that was it, because to this day, they haven’t given me one single [support] payment. We finished off with coca and we planted chocolate, but that chocolate isn’t generating any income yet. Sometimes we eat two meals [a day], sometimes one.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, February 2019

The government says it is keeping its promises but that’s a lie. […] Both sides signed an agreement, but the government sent eradicators – they want us to live from nothing. […] It’s not that people are happy with coca, but we are humans [with basic needs], and we haven’t seen change.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

A note on methodology

Our key messages are drawn from three main sources. First, we have throughout this research project been in permanent dialogue with leaders of organisations that unite farmers from across the country cultivating crops used in illicit drugs. During these conversations, we identified a number of recurring themes reflected in the views of these leaders about the world of coca production, in particular.

Second, the key messages are based on over 150 semi-structured and unstructured interviews with coca farmers and pickers from the three different borderlands in Colombia (Puerto Asís, Tumaco and Santa Marta). These were conducted by our research team during various fieldwork trips made between 2018 and 2019.

Third and finally, the messages reflect opinions and experiences expressed in a survey (applied June 2019) of peasants who are registered in the national illicit crop substitution programme in two of the country’s most important coca-producing municipalities: Tumaco and Puerto Asís.

Voices from Afghanistan

The following three key messages are from our research in two borderland Afghanistan provinces: Nangarhar and Nimroz.

1. Illicit trading networks are central to household incomes and survival in Afghanistan’s borderlands.

Afghanistan is not only a major producer of opium and heroin; it is also an important regional trading hub and corridor for both licit and illicit commodities. Just as there are many farmers that depend on growing opium poppy to survive, many transporters and traders also rely on incomes from illicit drugs for financial security. Such incomes help safeguard families and communities against economic hardship in a country that is affected by protracted armed conflict.

Illicit trading has helped many families survive protracted crises

Our research in Nangarhar and Nimroz – on the east and west borderlands of Afghanistan respectively – points to the centrality of illicit trade in securing incomes of families living in extremely violent and risky environments.

One farmer from Nangarhar recalled how money from the opium trade provided his family with a lifeline after being bombed during the Soviet-Afghan war:

During the communist regime, our village was bombed killing nine people; one of my cousins was also wounded. During that bombardment, our house was destroyed and 15 of our cattle were killed. All the pots, rugs and other items were destroyed. When the planes finished their bombardment and left the area, every person was looking for their belongings, which were buried under the soil…

My father had saved 54 seers of opium along with 80,000 Afghanis, which also went under the debris. While looking for our household goods, my mother found the box with 54 seers of opium and the cash. Our house was destroyed, but with this money we built a new house for ourselves.

Farmer, Khugyani District, Nangarhar, 2018

As this experience shows, not everyone who participates in the drugs business is a wealthy narco-trafficker. People often become involved as small-scale transporters because they have few other choices. In Nangarhar, following the Soviet withdrawal and descent into civil war, transporting illicit drugs across international borders provided vital income for poor families living in dire economic circumstances.

In 1993, one of my friends from Achin […] used to be a lieutenant in the Ministry of Defense but was also jobless at the time. This lieutenant had a cousin who was trading heroin in Abdulkhel, and [my friend] was taking the heroin to [northern city] Mazar-e-Sharif through one trader, and another trader helped transfer him to Moscow through Uzbekistan…

The lieutenant came to me and offered me a job helping him transport the heroin from Mazar-e-Sharif to Moscow […] As I was living in very tough circumstances I didn’t have any other option. To make matters worse, my widowed sister and her children were also living with me and I already faced losses in my shop and I didn’t have any means to provide for my family. When the lieutenant offered me [the job], I agreed.

Former shopkeeper and drug transporter, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

Read this comic about Jangul’s life in Nangarhar province, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From helping his father in the poppy fields as a child, to smuggling heroin all the way to Moscow as an adult, opium has been a part of Jangul’s story – through conflict and desperation, and relative peace and security.

The risks and benefits of participation in the drug trade are distributed unevenly

The distribution of risks and benefits for those involved in the drug trade is strongly linked to their economic and social status. Transporters who are hired to move the drugs (as opposed to traders who buy and sell them) face particularly serious risks – something that is not always reflected in their pay.

For example, the above informant crossed multiple borders before arriving in Moscow and received a relatively small sum of money in return. Still, some transporters may accumulate enough to modestly improve their economic situation, as in the case of the following transporter interviewed on the Iranian side of the Nimroz borderlands.

With the first car that I rented I quickly wanted to make money. The first opportunity that I had I trafficked 3kg between Chabahar and Sarbaz. I was paid 6,000 tomans per month to do the legal transportation work, bringing freight from Sistan and Baluchistan here…

The owner did not know I was also trafficking opium on the side. These 3kg became my wealth. I came home, delivered the drugs, and went back as quickly as I could. This time I went for 6kg, then 12kg, then 24kg etc. My wealth continued accumulating. I built a house, I bought land. My economy started getting better. I bought a car – I bought a truck and trailer after three years.

Drug trafficker, Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran, 2019

In contrast to transporters, large-scale traders with access to more capital and political networks can, to an extent, insulate themselves from enforcement risks through layers of brokerage relations and pay-offs to top officials. These actors often use profits from drugs to invest in new enterprises or housing and trading portfolios in Jalalabad, Kabul, Tehran or Dubai.

There are these powerful mafia families in some of the cities around Tehran. For example, in [village X], they import large quantities of opium and heroin, up to one tonne at a time. You can easily conceal this on the lorries or pick-up trucks that come from Sistan and Baluchistan. Once it arrives there, they distribute to smaller dealers, a couple of kg here and there…

Meanwhile, they sit safe at home and take none of the risk – the risk is instead spread to the traffickers and to those who distribute on a smaller scale. They buy it from Baluchis often. They drop off the goods, and collect payment at a later date. This is how it usually works.

Drug trader, Tehran, Iran, 2019

Illicit and licit trading networks are connected

Many traders and transporters mix and alternate between a variety of licit and illicit goods. In Nangarhar, for instance, tea, cement and fertiliser can be transported along the same trading corridors and through the same networks as hashish and opium. Traders build up diverse portfolios to manage risks and seize new opportunities as prices, regulatory systems and conflict dynamics shift.

Downturns in licit activities may spur greater participation in drug economies. For example, in Nimroz individuals turned to drug trafficking during periods of severe drought, which affected agricultural production.

Conversely, restrictions on talc extraction and trading in the Asadkhel region of Nangarhar had unforeseen knock-on effects, including an uptick in cannabis cultivation. Reports that insurgent forces were benefiting from the talc industry led to the government crackdown, which negatively impacted many others, as described in this next testimony from a man from Achin district.

Currently, the business of talc at Asadkhel is stopped, and the reason is that contracts have not been made with the traders […] people of Asadkhel say that special force officials do not allow talc to be transported to Shadal bazaar. They asked for a contract with the Ministry of Mines, but the contracts have been stopped by the government…

This autumn, 80% of harvesting plants [in Asadkhel] were cannabis. People also cultivated it in their houses. Most of the youth are unemployed. Some among them have joined the national army or left for Pakistan in search of work because the talc business, which provided employment opportunities to people, has stopped.

Key informant, Achin district, Nangarhar, 2018
Border DakMashkel way, Charbrujak district, Helmand river, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

2. Licit and illicit trade routes continually shift in response to changes in regulation.

The borderlands of Nangarhar and Nimroz have always been ‘outward-facing’, with deep historical, social and economic ties to neighbouring countries and regions. However, the hardness and porosity of borders have constantly changed due to conflict dynamics, the regulatory power of state and non-state authorities, and the construction of infrastructure, including fences, customs posts and border markets.

These changes have had significant impacts on illicit flows of legal and illegal goods, with knock-on effects on the economic and social wellbeing of borderland communities. For example, hardening the border may increase price differences and the security premium on goods crossing the border, boosting incentives for smuggling. Changing border controls also creates more opportunities for powerful elites to profit by imposing informal taxes on illicit flows.

Border regulation, security and livelihoods

There are significant trade-offs between border security and borderland livelihoods. Iran and Pakistan have tightened their respective borders with Afghanistan, with Pakistan building a fence along its border with Nangarhar and Iran building a wall and ditch across the Iranian-Nimroz border. This has had significant consequences for local economies based on cross-border trade and connections. One ex-militia commander from Nimroz who had lived on both sides of the border described the negative impact of the wall on the livelihoods of young people in Nimroz, prompting many to turn to drug trafficking.

It has been eight years since the Iranians built a wall along the border and closed it. When this border was open, young people were busy trading and transporting business goods, but currently there are no work opportunities and youths can’t go for work to Iran as the Iranian government demands a passport and a valid visa to enter their country. So, they risk their lives to provide for their families and smuggle drugs in the night, which is their only source of income. The border police force young people to pay them money and the police search their houses and arrest them if they refuse to pay.

Ex-militia commander, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

In Nangarhar, a former customs officer talked about the changing regulatory arrangements at the Torkham border crossing and the different kinds of trade going on, captured in the next testimony.

In the past, the Torkham gate was sometimes open and sometimes closed for trade goods to be transferred across the border on both sides […] Currently it is closed for all of the tax-exempted goods that were traded over it in the past. Some of the transporters carry small bags of trade goods in their hands or on their backs to transfer them over the Torkham border…There are some children who used to carry these goods in their hands to Pakistan.

Former customs official, Torkham, Nangarhar, 2018
Catapult used for smuggling opium in Nimroz province, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

Traders and transporters often adapt to border closures in creative and dynamic ways. Restrictions in formal crossings and the establishment of walls and fences have prompted the development of informal crossings in remote areas in both Nangarhar and Nimroz.

The Sasobi border crossing in Dur Baba district of Nangarhar is a prime example of a small-scale route that has grown more prominent as other major crossing points have become more restricted. Difficult to traverse by car, most goods are carried by mules or camels, which transport tax-exempted goods, narcotics, and other items over the border into Pakistan. In Nimroz, some small-scale drug traffickers have opted for a rather different method to export their product: catapulting it over the Iranian border wall.

I have an Iranian business partner and my cousins and other relatives are living in [X] village located on the other side of the border. It is so hard to do this business unless you have a business partner in Iran as I can’t go to Iran myself. We have contact numbers of the Iranian police who are guarding in the border and my business partner in Iran contacts the border police guarding in the check posts and border on the Iran side to set the perfect time with them for smuggling out opium…

The police call my partner to tell him the time, my partner calls me and I take the opium to the border where the Iranian border police open the gates built in the wall and I cross the border wall to hand over the opium to my business partner on the other side of the wall/border. Sometimes, we use a ladder to climb the wall and hand over the opium to my partner on the other side of the wall without letting the Iranian border police know about it…

The youths from our villages are cooperating with me while I am transporting the opium from the village to the border point. Smugglers also cooperate with each other and don’t take money for it.

Transporter, Zaranj City, Nimroz 2019
Car station preparing for transportation by camel and mule in Sasobai, Nimroz province, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

Trust, brokerage and violence

Borderlands are ‘trading spaces’ in which social relations, local institutions and regulatory arrangements have adapted to the management and movement of flows. This has involved developing a complex infrastructure of logistics, transportation and warehousing; sophisticated systems for monitoring and responding to market information; organisations for managing and regulating labour; and financial systems that enable the flows of credit and capital.

All of these arrangements have been ‘stress tested’ and adapted to operating in a high-risk (and high opportunity) environment in which there are multiple sources of ‘friction’ linked to a fragmented geographical, political and social landscape.

In order for Afghanistan’s borderland trading systems to function, three things are key – trust, brokerage and violence. Trust underpins and ties together the networks that are necessary to move commodities through space and across borders.

Brokers are required to straddle the synapses and boundaries that divide social, political and economic systems and that create friction impeding the free flow of trade. These figures may mediate between government officials and the Taliban, or between Iranian and Afghan customs officers, or between human trafficking networks in Kabul and the provinces. They are both the connective tissue and the point of friction in trading systems.

During the last years of communist regime, my uncle with whom I was doing opium trade got killed in a mine explosion in Bahar village along with 12 other men when he was travelling to Pakistan to participate in a Jirga […] My uncle had a lot of experience in opium trade and he had lots of contacts with people but I had not enough assets myself. Moreover, I could not continue in the opium trade without the reference of my uncle, therefore, I left the opium trade.

Trader, Nangarhar, 2018

Violence is central to the regulation of both licit and illicit trade, given the absence of credible legal mechanisms to enforce contracts and mediate disputes. Endemic and unpredictable violence shifts incentives towards high-value, easily transportable and concealed commodities such as drugs. Geographically concentrated violence leads to a shift in the direction of trade flows.

Violence may be linked to the control of trade routes and the renegotiation of political settlements among local elites around the distribution of the proceeds of trade. Voices from Afghanistan’s borderlands challenge the commonly held idea that the drugs trade is exceptionally violent – they indicate that all trading networks function in the shadow of violence; coercion or the threat of coercion are central to the functioning and regulation of trade.

Vehicles which carry goods belonging to warlords cannot be stopped by anyone at any point. Whatever goods they carry, whether illegal or legal, no one can stop them. Also no one can search them as all of the security forces know about it in advance. Most often, such vehicles carry illegal goods or banned goods to transfer across the border to Pakistan. The anti-narcotics officers in the district don’t have the ability to stop it.

Civil servant, Nangarhar, 2018

Trading networks are subject to informal revenue collection at ‘choke points’, often dominated by state and/or non-state elites and violent armed groups. Evidence from Nangarhar and Nimroz suggests that these choke points exist along international border crossings, as well as along informal borders that exist between government and opposition-controlled territories. Local government employees, particularly army officers and customs officials, were frequently identified as key brokers in illicit trading networks, imposing informal taxes on the trading of illicit goods in exchange for facilitating trade.

Small-scale traders and transporters are vulnerable to exploitation and violence at the hands of government and opposition forces alike. This was particularly the case for transporters moving goods between Nangarhar and Pakistan, where traders reported being threatened and abused by local authorities, and even being coerced into transporting illicit goods.

Two years ago I unloaded the truck in the Ring Road area of Peshawar and then parked the truck to get loaded with cement. Two Pakistani police came to me and told me that their boss wanted to talk to me. They took me to their boss and made me sit on a chair. Their boss asked me why I was doing hashish business…

I said that I don’t know anything about hashish. They imprisoned me and made a case against me that I had 6kg of hashish. I spent four months in the prison and then I paid Rs. 50,000 to get released. I lost Rs. 200,000 during these four months and I still owe people Rs. 150,000. The Pakistani government was very cruel.

Cement transporter, Sherzad district, Nangarhar, 2018

Opposition forces also act as important trade brokers in both provinces. Although the Taliban taxes traders and transporters informally, they often play a helpful role in providing additional security for transporters operating in remote areas.

I drive to Dak once or twice a week and I see Taliban there, but they don’t cause trouble to ordinary people and they help the public by preventing thieves and providing security.

Transporter and people smuggler, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

However, many traders in Nangarhar described a culture of fear precipitated by the Taliban and other non-government armed groups operating in their areas. In Ghani Khel district of Nangahar, traders reported being harassed by three different armed groups operating in the area, often threatening them with murder and kidnapping if they refused payment:

I receive calls from different phone numbers asking me for money, but I don’t know if they are Taliban or thieves. I haven’t paid them any money yet, but I am scared to get killed by the Taliban…local police are sometimes coming to my shop as well and they are asking for food and money, and I give them Rs. 3,000-4,000. I don’t know whom to complain to as government employees and Taliban are both thieves […] security is at its worst, every trader has armed guards for keeping himself and his property safe.

Trader, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

We don’t know what party to pay money to. It is a bad situation and we don’t know enemy from friend. We go home early in the evening, we are not even safe in our houses and we guard our homes during the night.

Trader, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

3. Increased trade flows have had positive and negative impacts for people living in frontier boom towns.

Frontier boom towns emerge in border regions where trade flows converge. These places become magnets for traders, migrants, state officials and speculators, with the promise of new opportunities, windfall profits and tax revenues.

The fortunes of these towns wax and wane according to a number of factors, including shifts in regional geopolitical contexts, changes in the prices and availability of commodities, attempts to regulate trade, and conflict.

Boom towns are often linked with a ‘twin’ settlement across the border, which develop a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship: for example, Jalalabad-Peshawar on the Afghan-Pakistan border in Nangarhar, and Zaranj-Charbarhar straddling the Iranian-Afghan border in Nimroz.

Boom towns are places of opportunity, investment and rapid growth

Ziranj, the capital of Nimroz province, emerged as one such boom town following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Over the past two decades, processes of rapid accumulation linked to licit and illicit trade have been accompanied by significant investments in housing and public services in the city.

The wider province has also benefited from increased trade links between India, Iran and Afghanistan, which has led to more domestic and international investment in roads and other infrastructure in the region.

Many positive changes have been made to the lives of people and they have become more educated [since 2001]. My life has also changed, my daughter is a teacher and she is getting paid, I have a salary as well […] We currently have access to facilities such as telephone, internet and televisions, we always use them and update ourselves about what is happening in the world and it is a positive change in our lives.

Education manager, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

As regional trade links in Nimroz have deepened, revenues from illicit drugs in the post-2001 era have also contributed to private investment, resulting in the expansion of economic and social opportunities.

The residents of Zaranj city have become wealthier as some are involved in narcotics, some have opened shops in the city, and some have jobs in government […] During the Karzai regime, my sales went higher as there were more development programmes, construction, and people were buying more electrical materials from my shop. I was making a good profit that made my life better and I extended my business and investment.

Electrician and trader, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

The growth of frontier boom towns comes with costs and trade-offs

The rapid expansion of these towns has been accompanied by considerable trade-offs for people living in the area and for the wider economy. Boom towns may be unruly and insecure places, where control of trade depends on access to the means of violence. In Nimroz, a new class of elites profiting from trade flows have gradually grown in power, associated with large-scale corruption, land seizures and rising inequality.

The wealthy people in Nimroz province are living in Zaranj city and the majority of these people are Jihadi commanders, government officials, landlords and drug traders.

Education manager, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

The value of land in Zaranj city has risen as the city has been mapped and government officials who usurped land have sold it at high costs […] Drug traders and government officials involved in this business have also become wealthy but the poor people are getting poorer by the day.

Ex-militia commander, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

While Nimroz has been a hub for the trafficking of drugs (into neighbouring Iran) cultivated in other southern Afghanistan provinces for decades, people-smuggling has grown in prominence over the last decade, attracting new types of smuggling networks from outside of the province.

In Nangarhar, Torkham has been a significant frontier town for decades, with its fortunes closely tied to the economy of neighbouring Peshawar. Trade has been the lifeblood of the local economy – boosting government revenues, providing a source of investment and supporting the livelihoods and welfare of the borderland population.

But the benefits are not equally distributed. Just as a small elite have gained from the trading boom in Nimroz, in Nangarhar a handful of well-positioned political players have profited from contracts linked to the military logistic pipeline supplying NATO forces that crosses through Torkham. Furthermore, small-scale licit and illicit trades are associated with high levels of violence, poor working conditions and exploitative working practices.

While the emergence of frontier boom towns may provide economic benefits to inhabitants, the wealth accumulated through trade is often transitory and ephemeral, with many elites investing profits in capital cities or outside of the country.

Additionally, the trade-offs associated with life in frontier boom towns may prove costly in the long run by damaging public legitimacy, prompting greater support for opposition forces. In Nimroz, borderland communities tended to be satisfied with the increase in investment and infrastructure from the central government. However, they had little to say that was positive about what they perceived to be corrupt elites, as well as rapidly growing inequality at the provincial level.

Our expectations from the central government have changed…Since he [Pres. Ghani] planned to build Kamal Khan Dam, the residents of Nimroz are very happy […]We don’t expect much from the provincial government as they are all corrupted and their priority is their own benefit.

Trader, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

One reason for the growing Taliban insurgency is corruption in the government…they are involved in bribery and they interfere in everything […] that dissatisfies the poor people and caused the Taliban insurgency to grow.

Transporter and people smuggler, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

A note on methodology

The key messages for Afghanistan were drawn primarily from fieldwork conducted in seven districts of Nangarhar in autumn 2018 and in three districts of Nimroz in spring 2019.

In total, over 600 interviews with traders, transporters, customs officials and other key officials were collected in the two provinces. Fieldworkers interviewed traders and transporters associated with a wide variety of licit and illicit commodities, including opium, hashish, talc, fuel, fertilizer, cement, spare parts, and transit goods. The team also interviewed members of people-smuggling networks in Nimroz.

In addition to the interviews, ten life histories per province were conducted with individuals over 50 years old who could recall long-term changes in security, development and economic conditions of their respective borderlands. The field teams also made use of GIS imagery to identify research sites near the border prior to starting the fieldwork, and again during guided debriefing sessions after each round of fieldwork was completed.

Erradicación forzada: una política que mata

English version coming soon!

Erradicación forzada: una política que mata es un especial multimedia en el que mostramos los incidentes (enfrentamientos o altercados) entre la fuerza pública y poblaciones rurales en medio de las labores de erradicación forzada manual. Desde el Observatorio de Restitución y Regulación de Derechos de Propiedad Agraria construimos una base de datos que registra este tipo de eventos desde el año 2016 hasta la actualidad, y que continuaremos alimentando a medida que se registren nuevos eventos. 

Este especial es un ejercicio por visibilizar las implicaciones de la política de erradicación forzada en territorios que esperan los recursos y proyectos que proponían los puntos 1 y 4 del Acuerdo Final de Paz . Los incidentes que aquí reseñamos constituyen una de las dificultades de los territorios afectados por cultivos de uso ilícito para lograr una efectiva transición de la guerra a la paz.

Las Guardias Cimarronas y su rol en el control territorial del norte del Cauca

La Guardia Cimarrona juega un papel fundamental en la gobernanza y protección del territorio del pueblo negro del norte de Cauca. Nuestra directora Maria Alejandra Vélez, entrevistó a Victor Hugo Moreno Mina, uno de los líderes de estas guardias.

Moreno Mina es economista y Magister en gobierno de la Universidad Icesi. Representante legal del Consejo Comuntario Pandao, conformado por 8 comunidades que se encuentran en los territorios de Caloto, Guachené y Santander de Quilichao. Es defensor de los derechos étnico territoriales de los pueblos negros en Colombia y amante de la vida y del territorio.

Mules, pick-ups and container traffic

Mules, pick-ups and container traffic: cross-border production and trade, and the shaping of the political economy of Nangarhar

Nangarhar province is known for its production of illicit drugs. It is rich in mineral deposits and in close proximity to the Pakistan border, rendering it a key gateway for the dramatic expansion in the duty free ‘transit trade’ to Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. Here the opportunities for rent extraction are huge.

Large numbers of container trucks cross the Torkham border in Nangarhar each day. And large numbers of people, pack animals and an assortment of different vehicles cross numerous unofficial border crossings. With such large volumes of people and commodities moving through the province, it’s possible to direct and channel trade through preferred ‘chokepoints’ for political and economic favour.

Understanding where these chokepoints are, who they are controlled by, what commodities are transported through them, and the rules that govern the amount of rent paid, is critical to understanding the interests that underpin the political economy of the province, particularly as the country tries to move towards peace.