Transforming war economies into peace economies

About Voices from the Borderlands and the research behind it.

Over the past four years, the Drugs & (dis)order consortium has been addressing the question: ‘how can war economies be transformed into peace economies in regions experiencing or recovering from armed conflict?’

We have conducted research in nine drug- and conflict-affected borderland regions of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – three of the world’s biggest illicit drug producers – and all have been shaped by peace processes alongside escalating violence.

We focus on illicit drugs because they are one of the main commodities fuelling war economies, and on borderland regions as they are major hubs in transnational drug economies. Even after the signing of national peace agreements, these regions often remain conflict hotspots, and are thus central to the challenge of transforming drug-fuelled war economies into sustainable peacetime economies.

There has been growing recognition that drug policies should be more pro-poor and aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. But the evidence base to support any such reform is patchy, politicised and contested.

Drugs & (dis)order sought to generate robust empirical data to help build a new evidence base. Of course, better evidence alone will not transform policies. Our research has also placed the policy fields of drugs, development and peacebuilding under the spotlight to better understand the agendas, interests and power struggles that shape policy dynamics and outcomes.

Contested transitions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar

A lot has happened in each of the three countries over the course of these four years. The events that have unfolded show that war-to-peace transitions are rarely linear and that illicit drug economies play a complex role in these processes.

Our research in Afghanistan started more than two years before the Doha talks initiated in September 2020 between the US government and the Taliban, which led to the Doha Agreement in which the US agreed to a staged withdrawal from the country, conditional on Taliban security assurances. This set in train a series of events that emboldened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government, which ultimately led to the collapse of the regime and the Taliban taking over power in August 2021. By the winter of 2021–22, Afghanistan faced a humanitarian catastrophe triggered by financial sanctions, the loss of foreign aid, the effects of COVID-19, and the impact of repeated droughts. As the crisis in Afghanistan worsened, illicit economies became increasingly important; human and drug trafficking and opium poppy production were the only economic sectors still thriving in the country. While illicit economies could not resolve the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, they provided a lifeline for many.

In Colombia, the Duque government, which was elected in 2018 on an anti-peace deal platform, reneged on many of the commitments written into the 2016 peace agreement; one of the key casualties was the illicit crop substitution programme. Violence involving both government forces and a range of armed groups was re-activated in many parts of the country. While war was being reconfigured in Colombia’s rural areas and borderlands, social protests, which often turned into violent battles with the police, erupted across the country. Community organisers and social leaders have been among the main victims in this messy reconfiguration of armed conflict, targeted for different reasons, including their work on the illicit crop substitution programme.

At the start of our research, the early optimism about Myanmar’s democratic transition and peacebuilding efforts had faded. Hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi’s re-election in November 2020 might offer scope to reinvigorate the peace process were destroyed by the military coup in February 2021, which resulted in a devastating and protracted political crisis across the country and a significant, sustained upsurge in violence. The military junta responded with extreme violence against protesters and opponents but struggled to consolidate control in the light of concerted and widespread resistance. Amid worsening armed conflict and the effects of COVID-19, the country’s economy contracted by more than 20{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in 2021. In this context, the drivers of drug production and drug harms in Myanmar – poverty, conflict, poor welfare provision and limited opportunities in the legal economy – remained deeply entrenched.

These trajectories remind us that war-to-peace transitions commonly involve instability and contestation; in retrospect, they may prove to have been only brief pauses in ongoing and mutating conflicts, rather than genuine transitions from war to peace.

Voices from the borderlands

The perspectives of people living in the drug- and conflict-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar have been at the heart of our research.

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 among those most affected by counter-narcotics policies.

Comic image of glyphosate spraying of coca crops

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

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

‘Voices from the borderlands’, intended for a broad audience of researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on issues related to drugs, development and peacebuilding, is one of several Drugs & (dis)order outputs that shed light on the experiences and perspectives of people involved in illicit drug economies.

Our 2020 ‘Voices from the borderlands’ publication presented three key messages from each of the countries we work in. These messages were based on survey data, semi-structured and life-history interviews with those involved in the drug economy, as well as informal conversations and participant observation during ethnographic fieldwork. We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.

This 2022 edition of ‘Voices from the borderlands’ again focuses on marginalised voices, but this time through a collection of nine life stories from Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. Every life story is in some way unique. But we hope that that these stories of the everyday lives of those engaged in drug production, trafficking/trade and use, can illuminate how drug economies and policies shape the dynamics of violence and peace, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience in borderlands.

We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.