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.