In 2024, we published a Forum on Illicit Drug Crop Economies in the Journal of Peasant Studies consisting of nine articles. The articles address challenges surrounding illicit drug crop cultivation and offer new insights into the problems posed by these prohibited crops, why past policies failed, and what potential solutions might offer. 

The Forum was organised and guest-edited by Drugs & (dis)order (now CIVAD) team members, and many contributions to the collection draw on research data generated by Drugs & (dis)order. Indeed, organisation of this Forum began in 2020, as part of the Drugs & (dis)order project. The process strengthened relationships between a small but growing group of scholars working on illicit drug crop economies. For example, we organised an online workshop in late 2021 that brought together researchers from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, the US, the Philippines, South Africa, Germany and the UK, which allowed for discussions of the relationships between drug crops and development.

The political economy of illicit drug crops: forum introduction (2024)

By Frances Thomson, Patrick Meehan & Jonathan Goodhand

This article and the forum it introduces examines illicit drug crop (IDC) economies from agrarian perspectives. Examining IDCs as a group implies analysing how prohibition distinguishes them from other (licit) crops. We identify seven mechanisms through which prohibition shapes the agrarian political economy of IDCs and explore how these mechanisms and their effects generate distinctive patterns of development and political action amongst ‘illicit peasantries’. We also examine connections between illicit and licit crops, including how licit crop crises and illicit crop booms intertwine. We argue that IDC economies provide a bulwark for smallholders but are by no means peasant idylls.

“Drugs, frontier capitalism and illicit peasantries: towards a comparative research agenda”(2023)

By Jonathan Goodhand, Teo Ballvé & Patrick Meehan

A defining character of drugs-affected frontier regions is their dynamic instability and their boom-and-bust cycles. These are violent and disturbed landscapes, in which illicit drug economies play a transformative role. But not all frontiers are the same, and nor are the ‘illicit peasantries’ who inhabit the ‘narco-frontier’. In this article we explore the complex dialectical relations between frontiers, drug economies, illicit peasantries and peasant politics. In doing so we develop a new comparative framework, that provides a heuristic for studying the commonalities and differences across narco-frontiers and the mechanisms behind these differences.

“Drugs and extractivism: opium cultivation and drug use in the Myanmar-China borderlands” (2023)

Photo via KRC

By Patrick Meehan & Seng Lawn Dan

This paper explores the intersections between two phenomena that have shaped eastern Kachin State in Myanmar’s northern borderlands with China since the late 1980s: the transformation of once-remote spaces into resource frontiers shaped by overlapping and cumulative forms of export-oriented resource extraction, and the upsurge of opium cultivation and drug use. Through the analytic of extractivism, we examine how the modalities surrounding logging and plantations in the Myanmar-China borderlands offer critical insights into how drugs have become entrenched in the region’s political economy and the everyday lives of people ‘living with’ the destruction, violence and insecurity wrought by extractive development.

“Escaping capitalist market imperatives: commercial coca cultivation in the Colombian Amazon” (2023)

Photo ©Diego Lagos

By Frances Thomson

The illicit coca economy has become a bulwark for smallholder farming in Colombia. This article helps explain why. Analysis of the social relations surrounding coca production in one of the country’s most important coca-producing municipalities shows that capitalist market imperatives are weak within this economy. Pressures to increase productivity are muted by fluid access to land, non-interest-bearing debts, and the lack of price competition between producers. Coca-growers are ‘improving’ production, but they mostly respond to opportunities rather than imperatives. In the context of multiple agrarian crises, the coca economy allows even less well-off producers to survive.

“A political economy perspective on alternative development coalitions: the case of paramilitary territories in Colombia” (2023)

By Francisco Gutiérrez-Sanín, Luis Castillo & Sebastián Cristancho-Bohada

This article analyzes alternative development coalitions, their contradictions and complexities, and how they promoted a steeply unequal agrarian change through illicit crop substitution. We zoom into two paramilitary-controlled territories in Colombia. We show that those programs counted with significant support from, and were actually driven by, long coalitions that included regional and national politicians, sectors of the rural rich, paramilitary leaders, Colombian government and United States agencies.

“Between necessity and compulsion: opium poppy cultivation and the exigencies of survival in Badakhshan, Afghanistan” (2023)

By Adam Pain

Drawing on long-term fieldwork in Badakhshan, a borderland province in the northeast of Afghanistan, the paper explores the role that opium poppy cultivation has played in a marginal high-altitude economy. Framed by the analytic of ‘narco-frontiers’ and the puzzle of the persistence of small farmers in uneven agrarian transitions, the paper investigates the diversity of market and non-market institutions that operate across the means of production of opium. Rather than seeing opium poppy production as the vanguard of an agrarian transition, it is suggested that it is more of a rearguard action to ensure survival.

“Precarity, illicit markets, and the ‘mystery’ of prices” (2023)

By Eric D. U. Gutierrez

Stand-alone price analysis of illicit opium and coca does not explain why smallholders turn to illicit crops for coping and survival. Under conditions of precarity, illicit crop markets can stimulate productivity. They generate returns that can tame crises and relieve pressures. To smallholders facing marginalisation, violence, and climate change – growing opium and coca, despite their illegality, can reduce or spread risks and provide more predictability. Thus, rather than fix on the ‘invisible hand’ of price theory, the focus should be on the ‘visible hand’ of political entrepreneurship, interdependent relationships, and the metrics of precarity. To do this, this paper retrospectively compares illicit crop prices before and after certain historical moments in Bolivia, Myanmar, Colombia, and Afghanistan.

“Illicit crops in the frontier margins: Amazonian indigenous livelihoods and the expansion of coca in Peru” (2023)

Photo © Kristi Denby/Archivo Centro Takiwasi, CC-BY-SA-4.0

By Maritza Paredes & Alvaro Pastor

This paper explores illegal coca crop expansion in indigenous Amazonian communities in Peru. The ethnographic study sheds light on the historical development of these areas as frontier spaces, where the growth of illicit crops intertwines with socio-ecological transformations and gives rise to conflicts over new forms of land control, opportunities for capital accumulation, and political power dynamics. The paper argues that this expansion is shaped by dual processes: from ‘below,’ involving small-scale migrant farmers from the Andes, and from ‘above,’ primarily driven by state-led agrarian interventions. Consequently, communities experience significant tensions, as they adapt to the forces of market expansion to secure their livelihoods, while simultaneously facing risks of violence and insecurity.

Business as usual? Cannabis legalisation and agrarian change in Zimbabwe (2024)

By Clemence Rusenga, Gernot Klantschnig, Neil Carrier & Simon Howell 

This article examines the emerging legal cannabis sector in Zimbabwe since 2018, which focuses on medicinal and industrial cannabis with unlicenced uses remaining criminalised, as well as its implications for agrarian change. It shows that the formal sector is set up in a way that prioritises those with substantial resources – marginalising small-scale farmers and illicit cultivators. While this presents the risk of corporate capture, various factors combine to undermine agribusiness production. However, the prohibition of recreational cannabis and the formal sector’s focus on export markets combine to preserve illicit cannabis markets and allow continuation of illicit livelihoods.