Agrarian perspectives on illicit drug crop economies - A forum on illicit drug crop economies

Agrarian perspectives on illicit drug crop economies - A forum on illicit drug crop economies Promo Image

By Frances Thomson, Patrick Meehan and Jonathan Goodhand

09 July 2024

Around the world, coca, opium-poppy and cannabis are some of the most important smallholder cash crops alongside coffee and cacao. And yet in the field of agrarian studies they tend to be a blind spot. And at the same time, the land, labour, credit and exchange relations surrounding illicit drug crop (IDC) economies, as well as the materiality of the crops themselves, are often overlooked or oversimplified in publications focused on drug policy, state failure/fragility, armed conflict, and organised crime. Our special forum in the Journal of Peasant Studies addresses this gap by applying agrarian political economy analysis to IDC economies, bringing together research on opium-poppy, coca and cannabis across three different continents.

The forum asks “how has agrarian change contributed to the emergence, resurgence and expansion of IDC economies and how in turn, have these economies impacted upon wider processes of  agrarian change?” (see the forum introduction).

Addressing these questions, the introduction to the forum explores how illicit drug crop economies are an inherent feature of contemporary capitalism. Capitalist development, rather than offering an antidote to illicit drugs, has been the driver of forms of marginalisation and dispossession that push rural populations into drug crop cultivation.

Illicit drugs are important cash crops for impoverished farmers and have become a bulwark for smallholder farming. Indeed, the crisis (an amalgam of different crises) of smallholder agriculture created perfect enabling conditions for the growth of illicit drug crop economies in the mid to late 20th and early 21st centuries, just as global demand for drugs such as heroin and cocaine swelled. Illicit drug crops have flourished amidst the rubble created by capitalist crises.

Illicit drug crop economies have integrated smallholders into global markets and are driving processes of accumulation and commercialisation. But they have done so in ways that provide some protection from the processes of dispossession, displacement and depeasantisation that have marked agrarian change associated with mainstream agriculture.

For this reason, in many parts of the world, illicit drug crops have become the alternative development; a source of relatively well-paid employment in rural areas, and a means to offset the ‘reproduction squeeze’, allowing smallholders to survive and in some cases experience modest advancement.

Illicit crop economies are by no means peasant idylls, and have exposed farmers to heightened risks of violence. But they have allowed significant numbers of people to keep working the land and, in some cases, to invest in improved futures for themselves or their children – within or outside agriculture. These vulnerabilities and opportunities do not affect all producers equally; this depends, in part, on the politics of illicit peasantries, their capacity to organise and mobilise. One of the main dilemmas they face is how to navigate drug control policies that simultaneously undermine and uphold their livelihoods through, for example, forced eradication and the prohibition premium.

The introduction to the forum also raises concerns that the bulwark provided by illicit drug economies is starting to crack. The growth of synthetic drug markets poses a substantial threat to illicit crop cultivators. For some, this threat has already materialised. Illicit opium growers in Mexico have seen prices collapse following the rise in fentanyl use in the United States. Legalisation also poses a threat since illicit drug crop cultivators in low-income and politically fragile countries who depend on the ‘prohibition premium’, as well as many small growers within the Global North, will likely be put out of business if a so-called ‘free-market’ model is pursued.

Ultimately, though, the most pronounced challenges illicit drug crop cultivators face cannot be addressed through standalone crop substitution or alternative development programmes, nor even social justice driven legalisation processes, since - as the introduction and wider forum illustrate - the problem is that a bulwark should be required in the first place

The rest of this blog provides a brief overview of the contributions that make up the special forum, which brings together research on opium-poppy, coca and cannabis from three different continents.

Surviving at the margins: IDCs as a bulwark for smallholder farming

Adam Pain’s contribution examines the specificities of the opium-poppy economy in Badakhshan, which unlike other drug-producing areas, including other provinces of Afghanistan, has not become a ‘narco-frontier’ of turbulent capitalist transformations. In the high-altitude and marginalised spaces of Badakhshan, he argues, non-interest-bearing credit, barter exchange, and payment for labour in-kind, blend with more modern capitalist market institutions, creating uneven processes of agrarian change. The role of opium-poppy in this change is itself uneven but above all, Pain argues, it has allowed smallholders in Badakhshan a means of staying on the land and of surviving amidst a reproduction crisis.

While Pain’s article focuses on how an illicit drug crop (IDC) economy has (or hasn’t) shaped agrarian change, the article by Patrick Meehan and Dan Seng Lawn focuses on how agrarian change can impact upon IDC economies. Their contribution takes us to eastern Kachin State, Myanmar. It shows how extractivist ‘development’ in the region has bolstered both drug use and drug production. Inhabitants started using opium, heroin and other drugs as a means of coping with the destruction and dispossession wrought by large-scale logging and the expansion of banana plantations. Workers also use to manage the hunger, exhaustion, and physical pain they suffer at work. There was a tradition of opium-poppy cultivation in the area, so many smallholders had the know-how to respond to rising demand. The loss of other livelihoods due to land grabbing and environmental destruction augmented the importance of IDC cultivation. People displaced by low-lying banana plantations moved (back) up into the hills to grow opium poppy. As time went on, Chinese investors got involved, establishing large poppy-farms that rely on the waged labour of the dispossessed and exist alongside continued smallholder cultivation. In tracing the ties between extractivist development and the transformation of the opium economy in eastern Kachin, Meehan and Dan debunk the myth that economic integration and growth is the antidote to illegal drugs.

The article by Maritza Paredes and Álvaro Pastor explores both the drivers and the consequences of commercial coca cultivation (for the global cocaine trade) in the Peruvian Amazon, specifically the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro River (VRAEM). It draws on research in four Asháninka indigenous communities, whose incorporation into the illicit drug economy is relatively recent, while also having its roots in processes that began in the mid-twentieth century. The authors trace this gradual process of incorporation back to several State policies and programmes or ‘pressures from above’, which in turn spurred mass migration of Andean peasants to the Amazon region, generating ‘pressure from below’. The loss of their previously large and forested territories to Andean settlers, pushed the Asháninka to adapt their livelihoods strategies. Many began working as wage labourers on settlers’ farms; producing coca and other cash crops such as cacao, coffee, banana themselves; and renting land to settlers. This generated tensions within and between Asháninka communities, for example, between those who see coca incomes as a means of accessing education and consumption goods, and those who see the eradication of coca as necessary for reestablishing traditional indigenous authority and recovering the collective territory from outsiders. Paredes and Pastor leave open the future of these communities and the role of this frictional commodity in that future.

Frances Thomson’s contribution aims to explain why the illicit coca economy has acted as a bulwark for smallholder farming in Colombia. Using evidence from Puerto Asís municipality in the department of Putumayo, she argues that capitalist market imperatives are weak within the commercial coca economy due in part to the characteristics of the illicit industry itself, which are shaped by the counternarcotics policies designed to destroy it, and due to the contexts in which this economy operates in certain parts of Colombia. Though cocaleros live with the constant threat of forced eradication and violence, and though most will never become rich, especially in a context of rising production costs and falling prices, they are less burdened by capitalist market imperatives compared to their counterparts who produce for legal commercial markets. They are not forced to compete by constantly (re-)investing in transforming production, they haven’t lost control over the farming process and their own time, and they do not live under the constant threat of becoming landless labourers. That is why tens of thousands of Colombian households have turned to this illicit economy, to keep farming the land and/or to ensure their children can leave agriculture on better terms.

Responding to IDC economies: crop substitution and legalisation

The article by Francisco Gutiérrez-Sanín, Luis Castillo and Sebastián Cristancho-Bohada shifts attention to the agrarian political economy of drug control policies. It presents two case studies of apparently successful substitution where illicit crop economies were replaced or, more accurately, displaced to other areas of Colombia. The authors argue that these unusual successes can be explained by what they call ‘the long coalitions’ that underpinned them; these projects had local, regional and global backers who ensured the mobilisation of financial, human and other resources required to consolidate mass land-use change. In the case of Santa Marta, for example, right-wing paramilitary leaders, their henchmen, and their allies in government worked to promote and impose coca eradication, while using counternarcotics programmes to consolidate their control over the tourism industry, which they presented an alternative source of income.

Policy analysis is also central to the contribution from Clemence Rusenga, Gernot Klantschnig, Neil Carrier and Simon Howell, which scrutinises partial cannabis legalisation in Zimbabwe. Since 2018, Zimbabwe’s law permits cannabis production for medicinal and industrial, but not recreational, purposes. As the authors explain, cannabis policy reform in Zimbabwe was driven by elite (government and business) interest in attracting foreign investment to the country and ensuring participation in a growing global market. The reforms were not aimed at addressing illicit cannabis consumption, trading and production in the country. Pricey license fees and strict regulations that are costly to implement exclude most small-scale producers. What initially appears as a clear case of ‘corporate capture’ is more complex. Most of Zimbabwe’s new cannabis firms have been unsuccessful. For this reason, and because legalisation was incomplete and focused on industrial/medicinal export markets, domestic production and trading of recreational cannabis have not been taken over by capital-rich investors. The illegal cannabis economy continues to sustain large numbers of small traders and producers.

Towards a comparative research agenda

The contribution from Eric Gutierrez also advances the comparative research agenda, but by studying changes in illicit crop prices, before and after certain events, in Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan. In the process, Gutierrez tells diverse grounded stories about coca and opium-poppy that contradict conventional narratives about these crop economies. For example, he shows how the coca boom in Bolivia helped stabilise the country by generating household incomes, employment and foreign exchange earnings amidst a severe economic crisis. He also shows that illicit crop cultivators do not choose to cultivate illicit crops only because of their prices; even as these drop, farmers may keep growing opium-poppy and coca for other reasons, such as the relative stability of demand and consequently their ability to find buyers or the fact they can be turned into compact and non-perishable produce that can easily be transported from remote areas.

The article by Jonathan Goodhand, Teo Ballvé and Patrick Meehan presents a framework for analysing different types of ‘narco-frontiers’ - a ‘sub-species’ of commodity frontiers. The authors distinguish between frontiers where drug economies act as ‘the pusher’, funding and fomenting the establishment of new peasant settlements, and frontiers where drug economies act ‘as follower’, providing livelihoods for those dispossessed by extractivist development. Production may or may not feature in a third type of narco-frontier, ‘the trafficking frontier’, where drug economies main role is ‘financier’ of ostensibly licit agribusinesses and other ventures. After characterising each of these types of narco-frontiers in more detail, the authors go on to compare the character and role of illicit peasantries and the types of political struggles in different frontiers. They argue, for example, that illicit peasantries are more consolidated in settlement frontiers compared to extractive frontiers where their collective voice and identity are diluted by many other constituencies. They conclude by arguing for a new comparative research agenda that explores the commonalities and differences across ‘narco-frontiers’, illicit peasantries and their political struggles.