SOAS University of London

Policymakers need to listen to the voices of people living in borderlands affected by drugs and conflict, says new report

29 July 2020

A new report by the Drugs & (dis)order research project, led by SOAS University of London, spotlights the need to rethink the relationship between drugs, development and violence in countries transitioning from war-to-peace.

A first step is recognising the tough trade-offs between counter-narcotics, peacebuilding and development efforts. A second is to recognise that borderlands, often regions where illicit drug economies thrive, offer an essential but usually overlooked perspective in policy debates.  

The report ‘Voices from the borderlands 2020’, focuses on the testimonies of people living in seven border areas of Afghanistan, Colombia, and Myanmar, gathered by the Drugs & (dis)order research teams.

“Drug economies cannot be tackled primarily as a crime and security issue; they are a long-term, complex development issue” said Jonathan Goodhand, Professor of Conflict Studies at SOAS.

“Simplistic narratives of drugs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for poverty alleviation are to be cautioned against. Instead, we need to analyse drug economies in different places and times, asking ‘who benefits?’ and ‘who loses?”

The voices in the report challenge the commonly held assumption that development, peacebuilding, and counter-narcotics policies are mutually reinforcing. Testimonies show that illicit drug economies can in fact contribute to development, that development may actually push people into illicit economies, and that counter-narcotics efforts may undermine progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

"After the ceasefire…road construction started, then the logging started in the area. The heroin started coming in when the area became more populated. Then the local youth started using different kinds of drugs."- Elderly man, Kachin State, Myanmar.

“In Myanmar, many interviews talked about the linkages between drug use and extractive industries” says Dan Seng Lawn, Executive Director of the Kachinland Research Centre in Myanmar.

“People from across Kachin and Shan States perceived that drug-related harms have grown in the wake of the ceasefires,” he continued, also warning against assumptions that reductions in armed conflict and investment in borderlands will necessarily provide a way to address drug issues.

Illicit economies flourish in borderlands. And they can become hotspots of persistent conflict and poverty, even after ‘peace.’ The voices of those involved in illicit drug economies are rarely included or heard in policy debates around drugs and war-to-peace transition, despite being those most affected by these policies. 

“In Colombia, coca growers and pickers gave us a really clear message: they are peasant farmers, not wealthy narco-criminals.” Francisco Gutiérrez, Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia told us. “They are organised and active citizens, investing coca profits into building community roads and schools. Many want to participate in the national illicit crop substitution programme that was part of the 2016 peace deal, but they’ve been let down by a government that isn’t listening to them or complying with the agreement."

In a survey with coca farmers in two of Colombia’s borderland regions Tumaco and Puerto Asís, 50% said that coca cultivation was their family’s only economic option, and 95% said they spent their income earned from coca production on their children’s education. 

"The state has abandoned us and we survive with the coca bush because we have to." - Male coca farmer, Santa Marta, Colombia.

Another commonly held assumption is that endemic violence is integral to illicit economies. Yet voices from Afghanistan’s borderlands suggest that violence and coercion are central to all trading networks in the region.

"We don’t know what party to pay money to. It is a bad situation and we don’t know enemy from friend." - Trader, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan

By seeking out and listening to the voices of borderland communities in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, drugs, development and peacebuilding specialists can better understand the relationships between illicit drugs, poverty alleviation, access to services and economic development. This knowledge can lead to more effective strategies for building inclusion and human security, reducing violence and harm, and countering the stigmatisation and stereotypes surrounding borderland communities involved in illicit economies.  

Report launch and panel discussion 29 July 2020 at 2pm (BST)

‘Voices from the borderlands 2020’ will be launched at an online event ‘Tough trade-offs:integrating drugs, development and peacebuilding’. Three experts talk about tensions, tough trade-offs and the way forward to better integrate drugs, development & peacebuilding policy. Register to attend.

Voices from the borderlands 2020 multimedia package
About Drugs & (dis)order

‘Drugs & (dis)order: building sustainable peacetime economies in the aftermath of war’ is a four-year research project, funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, generating new evidence on how to transform illicit drug economies into peace economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. 

Drugs & (dis)order is an international consortium of internationally recognised organisations. Led by SOAS University of London, project partners are: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Alcis, Christian Aid, Kachinland Research Centre (KRC), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Organization for Sustainable Development and Research (OSDR), Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), PositiveNegatives, Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), Universidad de los Andes, and Universidad Nacional de Colombia. www.drugs-and- disorder.org Twitter: @drugs_ disorder 

About Voices from the borderlands 2020

Voices from the borderlands 2020 is Drugs & (dis)order’s flagship publication. It aims to bring to light experiences and perspectives we have been hearing in our fieldwork across seven drug- and conflict-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. It explores the interplay of drugs, livelihoods and violence along the whole value chain – from coca production in Colombia, to illicit drug trade and transport in Afghanistan, and consumption in Myanmar. The testimonies in this report offer valuable insights into how illicit drugs – and drug policies – impact the dynamics of violence and peace, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience. 

Quote bios
  • Jonathan Goodhand is Professor in Conflict and Development Studies at SOAS University of London and is the Principal Investigator for Drugs & (dis)order.
  • Francisco Gutiérrez Sanin is a Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Director of the Observatory on Land Restitution and leads Drugs & (dis)order’s work in Colombia.
  • Dan Seng Lawn is Director of the Kachinland Research Centre and leads the Drugs & (dis)order research in Kachin State, Myanmar.