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Published on 25 January 2022

Paul Quinn, our Head of From Violence to Peace, outlines arguments from our latest report, which calls for a change in attitude to illicit crops and a refocus on the rights and needs of those who grow them.
Read the report

How the illicit drug trade continues to thrive

When some of the world’s poorest people are denied their basic rights, such as access to education, healthcare, and employment, it is no surprise that in order to survive they turn to growing and harvesting crops that can be turned into illicit drugs.

In the absence of a functioning state, the illicit drug economy can act as a lifeline for people, especially those living in areas plagued by conflict by providing income, employment and even protection from violence.

For some, the illicit drug economy can even step in to fill the gaps left by the absence of the state, such as providing the funds to deliver basic services that many of us take for granted. For example, in Puerto Asís, Colombia, a group of small-scale farmers used the proceeds of the coca they grew and sold to collectively fund a schoolteacher.

Yet despite the functional role the illicit drug economy plays, the global approach to the production of illicit crops has centred around the doomed ‘war on drugs,’ which has harmed the poorest people most of all, whilst failing to make a dent in the global drugs trade.

The impact of the failing 'war on drugs'

Despite decades of failure from this approach, Illicit crop economies are still viewed through a narrow law enforcement lens.

In many instances, counter-narcotics programmes have directly led to increased violence against communities and narrow ‘measures of success’ such as the number of hectares of illicit crops destroyed, which often come at the expense of serious human rights abuses.

In Colombia, between 2016 and 2020, forced destruction of coca crops resulted in nearly 100 documented confrontations between rural communities and state forces.

Over 40% of these took place during the Covid-19 lockdown period between March and July 2020, and 1 in 5 involved the use of firearms.

What needs to happen for the situation to improve?

A renewed focus on the human dimensions of development and peace that address the root causes of poverty is required.

Human rights and access to basic services must be guaranteed if alternative ways of earning a living are to thrive. It is essential that international organisations, such as the EU, measure how much anti-drug policies reduce poverty, respect human rights and reduce violence.

Illicit drug economies often operate on the periphery of society, but the opening up of borderlands to formal markets does not guarantee improvements in the lives of the people who live there, and there are significant financial costs associated with this type of long-term investment in borderlands.

Community participation in decision-making processes must always be a prerequisite to building lasting peace.

Why policies must consider the needs of women and girls

Another essential consideration is that for women, peace is not tied to the end of armed conflict; inequality, discrimination and violence against women and girls existed before and after war.

In Colombia, in some circumstances, women were better off when coca was being harvested than in the crop substitution programme developed through the peace agreement, which reinforced inequalities by ensuring that only one family member - usually a man - received payments.

Policies blind to the needs of women also excluded them from decision-making processes. This undermines women’s rights and creates cycles of inequality, diminishing their role in society.

We must close the gap between policy and practice

Moving from war to peace is never straight forward. It can be difficult to differentiate between violence associated with the illicit drug economy, and violence due to the absence in the rule of law.

Political events such as the military coup in Myanmar, the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan and violence against protestors in Colombia, highlight increasingly challenging conditions in drug-affected border regions.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded these developments, devastating local economies and livelihoods. These events have dramatically increased the fragility of local communities as well as their means to cope and survive.

To date international organisations, such as the EU, have placed security at the centre of their drugs policy. In stark contrast, humanitarian and peace perspectives, have urged policy makers to improve access to public services, as well as address precarious livelihoods and persistent violence. This gap in policy and practice must be addressed by decision makers.

The dominance of the security policy must be balanced by prioritising communities and human rights, peace and development. Policy incoherence remains a significant challenge to achieving this. Indeed, the EU’s own internal evaluation of the EU Strategy 2013-2020 acknowledges the disconnection.

Our new report urges the EU to develop a different approach to drugs, development and peace, which acknowledges that vulnerable communities have little choice but to engage in the illicit economy in order to survive, and to put the rights of the world’s poorest people to the centre.