Back to top


Speaking of drugs, eradication and development


Colombian street scene. Photo credit: Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock.com

Eradication attacks on Colombian drug crops have been hailed by many (including the White House) as a success. Others point out that illicit crops are often just planted elsewhere or that lack of commitment to development before destroying farmers’ income has left many displaced or in poverty. David Young looks at the local cost in Colombia and ponders whether world talks offer any real hope for future change.

From hills in the south-eastern outskirts of the Colombian capital Bogotá, the inhabitants of Ciudad Bolívar, one of the world’s largest mega-slums, look north at the houses of the city’s better-off inhabitants. Maria lives here with a son and several members of her extended family. She is a housekeeper, part of Colombia’s informal economy.

This isn’t where her family comes from. It’s not really where anybody comes from. Like six million Colombians – one-tenth of the nation’s population – Maria and her family were internally displaced by the chaos that has roiled the country: natural disaster, civil war and the effects of the American-led War on Drugs.

Some of the most disconnected, worst-off and unfortunate of the displaced citizens end up here. In a nation where four women are murdered every day, Ciudad Bolívar is one of the least safe places to be.

It’s where a small-scale drug trafficker known as both ‘El Negro’ and ‘El Capo of the South’ was captured last year along with 15 lieutenants. Colombian Police claim Luís Alexánder Arias was making 100 million pesos a week (around NZD$50,000). Maria can only dream of that kind of money; a better-paid job is high on her list of needs.

“I want to be able to provide for my family,” she says. But at the top of that list is security.

“I am scared of something happening to my son or some member of my family. We need many things here, but above all, that there will be security for our children.”

A crop spray with fall-out

There are many entwined, messy reasons for Colombia’s massive internal displacement. Among them is drugs. Cocaine trade-funded violence has forced many from the countryside, and efforts to stamp out drug production have added to farmers’ woes.

Colombia is the only country in the world that has conducted a large-scale aerial spraying to wipe out coca plantations. The pesticide used is glyphosate, better known to New Zealand farmers and gardeners as Roundup.

Until it was recently halted by Colombia over concerns from the World Health Organization that the spray could be linked to cancer, the programme was paid for by the US Government at an estimated cost of around US$2 billion.

At the operation’s peak in 2006, 164,119 hectares were sprayed – an area three times the size of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park.

To the US, this is officially a successful policy. The official White House website cites “several interviews” with former coca growers in Peru and Colombia as evidence that “the single most important factor in motivating them to move to licit crops was the threat of eradication”.

Critics note the flimsiness of the evidence base and argue that this approach has failed.

“In the Andean region, you see continual replanting,” says Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“In general, the problem with US financed programmes is they eradicate first and violate the very principles of what can be successful [in moving farmers away from coca production]”, she says.

WOLA and other NGOs point out that, between 2013 and 2014, even as aerial spraying increased, the amount of Colombian land used to cultivate coca grew by 39 percent.

And, despite years of aerial spraying, the US street price of cocaine (which largely comes from Colombia) has fallen dramatically and fairly consistently since 1981, while purity has improved.

Incentivising coca farmers to change crops

Where once coca was grown on a large scale by relatively wealthy drug traffickers, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that now the average Colombian coca farmer household earns only US$1,220 per person each year. Most have three hectares of land.

“They are the poorest of the poor,” says Youngers.

An obvious strategy is to encourage those farmers to shift to other crops. This approach, labelled “alternative development”, has become part of the toolkit of mainstream drug control.

At the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem in 1998, alternative development was defined as “a process to prevent and eliminate the illicit cultivation … through specifically designed rural development measures”.

UNODC has become a proponent of sustainable alternative development for communities involved in the cultivation of illicit crops.

While arguably better than eradication alone, WOLA believes that, in Colombia and elsewhere, many attempts at alternative development have not worked.

Youngers says, “What the US has done in the so-called War on Drugs is link alternative development to eradication. That has been an abject failure.”

Years of eradication efforts have generated ill will. The aerial sprays are very unpopular in rural Colombia, not just over health and water pollution concerns but also because they kill food crops as well as coca. Farmers are willing to change crops. Youngers says, “When I talk to campesinos [rural dwellers], they will grow whatever alternative is economically viable.”

But the USA and other governments have the order wrong. First come eradication attempts and then efforts to encourage farmers to substitute coca growing with other crops.

“If you eliminate the campesinos’ primary cash source of income and you have not first provided an alternative, it’s no surprise they will simply replace the coca either where they were or in a new area,” says Youngers.

Health Poverty Action (HPA) is another NGO that does not believe the approach has worked. London-based Advocacy Officer Natasha Horsfield says, “Alternative development is pretty much a disaster in the way that it’s done because what you have are policies and programmes that result in crop-growing communities having their entire source of livelihood destroyed.”

The Transnational Institute (TNI) has looked closely at alternative development, exploring what it sees as a “breach between rhetoric and reality”. TNI researched the effects of alternative development in the Upper Huallaga region in Peru, where coca has long been cultivated. Its scathing report argues Alternative Development has done nothing but drive the cocaine industry underground. Cultivation dropped, but this was a result of forced eradication rather than crop substitution. The alternative crops being foisted upon local farmers were not economically viable or even appropriate, and corruption and lack of monitoring had undermined the entire effort.

Dutch anthropologist Mirella Van Dun, who conducted research for TNI, says, “For Alternative Development projects to work, it remains fundamentally important to understand how illegal activities are embedded in the local context and why they continue to be impenetrable to efforts to combat them.”

crop spraying plane

Colombia is the only country in the world that has conducted a large-scale aerial spraying to wipe out coca plantations. Photo credit: insightcrime.org

From Alternative Development to development

More recently, there has been a shift in emphasis to focus less on Alternative Development and more on plain old economic development: building livelihoods, education, healthcare and communities.

While the United States remains committed to an eradication-led effort, German foreign aid agency GTZ believes forced eradication is incompatible with development because it creates distrust between donors, state agencies and recipient communities. Similarly, the European Union considers that “unless alternative livelihoods are available, [forced eradication] could undermine sustainable solutions and thus fail in achieving its goals”.

Both agencies are funding development-driven programmes in communities that have traditionally grown drug crops.

“A lot of practitioners are now saying you need to come at this from a development perspective,” says Horsfield.

“It means you need to understand the causes of why people are growing certain crops. If you just keep destroying them or paying for communities to destroy them without addressing the reasons why, you’re not going to achieve your goal.”

Bolivia is cited by some development advocates as an example of a country that has some aspects of its approach right – and an example that Colombia and Peru should follow. Coca cultivation has dropped by 34 percent since 2010, and WOLA attributes this to Bolivia’s “cooperative coca reduction”. This policy approach is based on economic development, cooperation with coca growing communities and respect for human rights.

The UNODC’s representative in Bolivia, Antonino De Leo, has written, “Bolivia’s achievement over the last four years is well known: reduction of coca cultivation through dialogue, participation of coca growers’ unions, and a policy based on respect for human rights. The results are clear in the eyes of the international community.”

Getting drugs into the Sustainable Development Goals

For anyone involved in any aspect of development, 2015 was a massive year in which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were replaced with the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Where there were eight MDGs, there are 17 SDGs with a whopping 169 different targets. For some advocates in the drug policy world, the SDG process offered an opening to talk more about the links between drug policy and development – and to get away from seeing drugs purely as a question of enforcement and eradication.

Khalid Tinasti, Policy Analyst at the Global Commission on Drug Policy, wrote a letter with several colleagues that was published by medical journal The Lancet arguing that the SDGs would not be achieved without drug policy reform.

“The commitment taken by the UN to ensure that all future policies should operate within the sustainable development framework is crucial,” they wrote.

Using the language of the SDGs – adopted also by other drug policy reform campaigners – they argued that “leaving no one behind also means leaving no drug user behind”. (See sidebar for a list of interactions they cited between development targets and drug policy.)

“At the Global Commission, we realised we needed to have more of an interest in the SDG process,” Tinasti recalls.

“There were two targets mentioning drugs at the beginning of the process. One was under Goal 16 [relating to crime and justice,] which was just terrible. That was what started people from drug policy to look into it.”

Tinasti and the Global Commission argued that “the SDGs should include a set of specific commitments to respond to the drugs issue”. That didn’t happen, and in the end, drugs were mentioned only under the heading of ‘Health’, with the target reading: “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol.”

For HPA’s Natasha Horsfield, this is a sign that the linkages between development and drug policy are just starting to be recognised.

“Putting drugs under Health [in the SDGs] reduces it to much smaller of an issue than it is. It’s quite well understood in the health sector already – those organisations have been working on this for quite some time. Now we’re trying to get the development sector to see all those areas where drugs impact on development objectives.”

A broader discussion on drugs

There are signs that is starting to happen, albeit slowly. A 2015 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was startling in how far it went, stating that drug control efforts “have had harmful collateral consequences: creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence, and instability; threatening public health and safety; generating large-scale human rights abuses, including abusive and inhumane punishments; and discrimination and marginalisation of people who use drugs, indigenous peoples, women, and youth”.

While WOLA’s Coletta Youngers believes that “the primary obstacle continues to be the UN international drug control system and in particular UNODC”, in July 2013, UNODC Chief Yury Fedotov called for drug issues to be aligned with the post-2015 agenda. It remains to be seen whether the organisation’s actions match this rhetoric.

Some advocates believe the time is ripe for a broader conversation about the linkages between development and drugs.

“We’ve seen for many years that development organisations like UNDP, international organisations and NGOs have not wanted to get involved in drugs issues, with the primary reason being that you can’t do good development if you’re treating the primary recipients as criminals,” Youngers says.

Horsfield adds that some development organisations have avoided the issue because of reputational risks.

A sign that this situation is changing came with the November 2015 publication by Christian Aid of a landmark report, Drugs and Illicit Practices.

The report by the massive NGO blasts counter-narcotics efforts as “one dimensional” and says development agencies have their “heads in the sand”.

Eric Gutierrez, Christian Aid’s Senior Adviser Accountable Governance, says, “The old strategies such as the War on Drugs are simply not working. This report suggests that the commerce in illicit drugs can no longer be treated as something apart, akin to a malignant tumour that can be isolated and surgically removed from a healthy body.”

Drugs and development: where to from here?

For many, this year’s UNGASS on the world drug problem is an opportunity to at least advance the conversation about drugs and development.

“In the run-up, we’re trying to make sure it’s on the table,” says Horsfield. “This is kind of the springboard starting point it’s all going to go on from – and that is particularly true of development.”

WOLA’s Youngers says there has already been some success.

“What is significant is that, around UNGASS, we’ve already had these discussions bringing development and human rights organisations into the debate and different countries, particularly from Latin America, arguing that it can’t just be business as usual.”

David W Young is a former New Zealand journalist who lives in Washington, DC.

Photo credits: Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock.com

David Young
A former New Zealand journalist who lives in Washington, DC

Check these out: See more articles

GCDP op ed Clark Dreifuss thumbnail

The War on Drugs is killing Kiwis - we must choose a different approach

New Zealand’s recent deaths from synthetic cannabinoids are deeply tragic and should never have happened. A report released yesterday by the......

Read More
GCDP public talk thumbnail

Taking the lead on drug regulation

Ruth Dreifuss and Helen Clark of the Global Commission on Drug Policy speak about the responsible control of drugs...

Read More
NCDP talk thumbnail

Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs - public talk

Learn about recommendations from the Global Commission on Drug Policy in it's new report "Regulation: the responsible control opf drugs"...

Read More
MoS Nov 2018 thumbnail synthetics

Getting real about synthetics

Naomi Arnold takes another look at our alarming death rate from synthetic cannabinoids and at some real-world responses from people working ......

Read More
Share:
e substance newsletter promotional thumbnail
Subscribe to email updates

Get regular news, analysis and commentary on drugs issues in New Zealand. Free.

Sign up now!

DF WebAd DrugHelp 4
DrugHelp

Online support resource if you or someone you care about is struggling with drug use

Visit DrugHelp