Poppy field west of Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Paul Chapman via Flickr

This article was first published by Christian Aid on 26 February 2020. Read original article.

In the study of conflict and peacebuilding, one apparently straightforward assumption is often made: that illegality, violence and fragility breed each other. This seems to make sense, especially in countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, which are not only among the world’s most violent places, but also the world’s top producers of two illegal crops – opium and coca.

But it does not always hold true. This week, a planned panel at the World Bank’s Fragility Forum, convened by Christian Aid and the Drugs & (dis)order research project, intended to share evidence from the borderlands of Afghanistan and Colombia. The panel was sadly cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but the evidence still stands to question an assumption that is at the heart of both peacebuilding and counter-narcotics policy.

Illegal crops, violence and fragility in Afghanistan and Colombia: numbers and questions

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2017, Afghanistan produced 87% of the world’s opium and heroin. Its conflict is the world’s most lethal. In the first half of 2019, Afghanistan had almost 14,000 battle-related deaths, outnumbering the combined death toll in Syria and Yemen.

At least seventy percent of the total area under coca bush cultivation in the world is found in Colombia. Colombia’s conflict has been brutal, causing 218,000 deaths over the last 50 years, and internally displacing over 5.7 million people by 2013. Only Syria surpasses Colombia for its number of internally-displaced people.

It is no wonder that areas in both countries where drugs and violence abound have been associated with lawlessness and the absence of local order; of being unruly, disorderly, even less civilised. Yet what cannot be denied is that – despite such disorder and violence – people somehow manage to survive and carry on with life in these dangerous areas.

The questions that need to be examined, therefore, are: what explains the resilience of people coping and surviving in these areas? What structures, norms and adaptations have they used? How should the relationships (or lack of them) between marginalised communities on one hand, and state institutions and markets on the other, be understood? And what should we make of the inevitable relationships that emerge between criminals, rebels and ordinary people under such conditions?

Outcomes from research into these questions appear as counter-intuitive and ironic.

Successful development, more opium cultivation?

A case study commissioned by Christian Aid in 2015 shows that it was fairly successful development project, not violent conflict, that forced the migration of the land-poor out of the Food Zone in Helmand Province.

In their report, David Mansfield and Paul Fishstein showed how the US, UK and Afghan government-led Food Zone initiative delivered better productivity, higher incomes and improved food security for participating farmers. But the consequence of this ‘success’ was that poorer farmhands and sharecroppers were no longer needed by the small land-owning farmers of Helmand. Poorer households not only lost their livelihoods but could also not access government support because they did not qualify as owners of registered property. Left with no choice, they moved to the desert areas north of the Boghra canal where, with generous loans from opium traders, they opened more land to opium cultivation – the most viable crop to grow under such conditions.

Illegal crop revives economy

In Colombia, a key coca-growing area is the southern province of Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador and Peru. Putumayo is characterised by its poor infrastructure, a largely agrarian economy and the high level of activity by the largest rebel group in the conflict, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Though the people of Putumayo – many of them displaced by conflict and agricultural commercialisation from other areas – are typically stigmatized as ‘migrants without roots’ and therefore ‘uncivilized’ and ‘disorderly’, they found ways to survive through growing coca. According to Maria-Clara Torres, who has studied the historical roots of coca cultivation, illegal coca growing accelerated the use of money in ‘peripheral’ and ‘out-of-the-way’ Putumayo. It brought more cash and created small ‘boom’ towns where hotels were set up, transportation expanded, and demand for food crops as well as goods like cars, chainsaws, outboard motors, electricity generators and firearms increased.

Alongside, migrants from across the country streamed and migrated into Putumayo in search of livelihood opportunities or seasonal work on coca farms. Over time, a local financial system consolidated as more and more inviduals deposited their cash in banks. In other words, a moribund and collapsing local economy was revived by an illegal crop.

Inequality, marginalisation and exclusion are the real problems

What these studies show is that the fundamental problems to be solved in the conflict-affected areas of Afghanistan and Colombia are not illicit crop growing or criminality, but marginalisation, exclusion and inequalities – especially the lack of access to land.

The dominant notion that fragility, violence and illegality breed each other not only stigmatises the survivors of these phenomena, but also obscures attention and development aid from being focused on the structures and adaptations for coping and survival amidst violence and conflict.

The failure to see the agency of local people leads to a failure to see the dilemmas faced by those whose only way get protection, land and access to credit is by growing illicit crops.

This blog draws on an Open Access article by Eric Gutierrez, The Paradox of Illicit Economies: Survival, Resilience, and the Limits of Development and Drug Policy Orthodoxy published in Globalizations in February 2020.

To learn more, read a report by Ross Eventon and Eric Gutierrez, Illicit drugs and tough trade-offs in war-to-peace transitions.