"For many communities in Myanmar who grow opium, for them opium is not the problem, it is the solution to their problems," said local project consultant, Tom Kramer, from the Transnational Institute. And therein lies one of the greatest challenges for policy makers in the fight to eradicate the scourge of drug crops in developing countries.
Farmers in Myanmar use opium as a cash crop, “because they cannot grow enough food to feed their families for the whole year”, Mr Kramer said. It is also used socially as a gift for wedding guests, to help access basic services such as education and health, and as a medicine itself against diarrhoea and for pain relief.
Speaking at the recent European Development Days in Brussels during a session on Exploring the land-drugs nexus, Mr Kramer outlined how two new land laws in 2012 have recast the conception of land in Myanmar. Those laws mean that land is now a commodity, and any land not registered with the government can be sold to companies. For the first time fences are appearing, as locals seek to assert their rights – a process which can often set off new conflicts.
"Land is also very important for the peace process,” Mr Kramer said. “Most opium is being grown in conflict areas. Many of those ethnic groups demand their ethnic land rights. They want their communal rights recognised. So clearly there are big links between them."
Another country struggling with the relationship between farmers and drug traffickers is Afghanistan, estimated to supply 90 percent of the world’s opium.
A senior specialist with The World Bank said efforts to switch crops benefitted some land owners, "but they were working I think with sharecroppers who were losing out, because they were no longer needed for the new crops”.
“And then what did they do? They went to other areas, public land where no one was there, and there you saw opium cultivation expanding in a kind of desert land... So yes it worked for one group, but others were excluded and they still needed that livelihood so you need a much broader picture."
A representative of the Afghan Ministry of Finance told capacity4dev that no crop can compete with the poppy as an income-generating cash crop, where traffickers pay farmers up front and farmers do not need to worry about storage.
"Most of the programmes were focused on introducing alternative crops, providing capacity building to the farmers, also a lot of public awareness media campaigns to inform them about the negative impact of growing drugs on the society, on security and so on. But to be honest, if you are poor and you are hungry those are secondary considerations. The first consideration is to put food on the table."
The representative of the Afghan Ministry of Finance highlighted that all the value chains have to be considered, including trade possibilities on the global market. But Afghanistan was unable to subsidise exportation of legal crops in its agricultural sector, because of the emphasis of development cooperation on nurturing a free-market economy:
"The local markets do not have the capacities to add that value. And if we look at the trade regime in food and agriculture products in most of the developed economies like in Europe, the US and others, there are certain restrictions, on what you can import and what you cannot import. But also In Afghanistan, you don't have the infrastructure in place to transit these produces to global markets. So you need a very holistic approach, not just training to the farmers to be able to address it." A transition period is necessary to switch from a subsidised economy to an economy without subsidies.
"What worries me about Afghanistan is not the political or the security transition, but it is the economic transition. So my request to the international community is that in order for this last transition to be completed, we want your continued and sustained presence there. Help us establish these key structures in place so that Afghanistan can move towards a more sustainable country. "
Latest EU support to Bolivia (June 2015)
Over the last 20 years, Bolivia has received more than half a billion euros in development cooperation from the EU, making them the largest recipient in Latin America. Last month, the EU unveiled several new programmes including one to fight illegal drugs. Totalling 60 million euros, it supports the implementation of the Action Plan against drug trafficking and the reduction of coca cultivation.
What can we learn from this?
In all three countries political governance is weak, expressed by inefficient legislation or insufficient application and adherence to law. Moreover, legislation established by government without sufficient consultation and implication of stakeholders – as shown in the case of Myanmar – might be counterproductive and adding to the already existing problems.
Therefore it is important to improve the legal framework and ensure that local stakeholders take an active part in the formulation process. Further to this public institutions must be capacitated in order to guarantee respectful application of the legislative framework, while civil society should have the ability to launch complaints.
As regards land governance the "Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT)" – adopted by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2012 – provide comprehensive guiding principles on how to improve land governance. The VGGT are of universal importance, but adaptable to local circumstances. The EU is a strong supporter and has established a special support programme to implement the VGGT in 18 countries to date.
Learn more in the Food & Nutrition Security and Sustainable Agriculture - ROSA group.
Teaser image of an Opium poppy field in Gostan valley, Nimruz Province, Afghanistan.