Drugs and (dis)order: transforming drug economies in the aftermath of war

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In 2017, the production of illicit opium in Afghanistan generated about 20-32% of the country’s GDP; being cultivated on about 3,28,000 acres of land.  Reports suggest that over 90% of the heroin consumed in the UK comes from Afghanistan. It is the biggest global producer of opioid drugs; followed by Myanmar that produces 25% of the world’s opium; cultivating close to 150 tonnes and significantly trading through the Golden Triangle. Halfway across the world, Colombia too sees an illicit drug economy, employing people from 67,000 households in coca cultivation, producing 1976 tonnes as per 2017 figures.

These countries have emerged as major players in the transnational drug war in the last three decades. But the similar patterns of illegitimate drug cultivation, production and distribution; along with its impacts are not just a coincidence in these three culturally diverse regions. In several ways, it is the consequence of years of armed conflict and war economy, that is further fuelled by the drug trade to become part of a vicious cycle. As these countries strive to transition into peace-time economies; systemic loopholes and burgeoning inequalities have given rise to thriving black markets and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Afghanistan continues to see a rise in armed conflict even post the destruction brought forth by the Taliban era. This has created institutional weakness and lack of effective reforms to monitor and stop illicit drug production. Anti-narcotic efforts led by the Afghan government and foreign charities too have served counter-productive, given vested interests and the alleged involvement of Afghan officials themselves in the drug trade.  In Myanmar; opium production increased substantially during the ethnic conflicts; funding the armies. The ceasefire did hardly anything to address people’s grievances, subjecting the country’s borderlands to high resource extraction. Colombia too has undergone numerous periods of violence. This, coupled with its low institutional support for farmers, high land-grab cases and agrarian crisis, caused frontier settlers to delve into coca farming that has further helped sustain the armed conflict.

A catapult used for smuggling opium in Nimraz province, Afghanistan. Photograph: OSDR.

The country’s illicit drug economies have had a devastating impact on its civilians that is much more nuanced and complex than just instigating and funding conflict. Drug addiction in locals, especially amongst refugees and other marginalised groups has substantially increased. Moreover, the production is heavily reliant on child-labour. Legitimate and sustainable alternate livelihoods have not been encouraged; impacting the successful transition to peace-time. As a cause and a consequence, these countries rank low on the Human Development Index.

Deeply concerned about the humanitarian issues facing Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia, a path-breaking research project is ‘aiming to help transform debates and practices relating to drugs and development in these conflict-affected states.’ Drugs and (dis)order is a  “four-year Global Challenges Research Fund project working to find policy solutions to transform drug economies into peacetime economies in the aftermath of war.”

It wants to do so by

(a) Generating a robust evidence base on illicit drug economies and their effects on armed conflict, public health and livelihoods;

(b) Identifying new approaches and policy solutions to build more inclusive development and sustainable livelihoods in drugs affected contexts;

(c) Building a global network of researchers and institutions in Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and the UK to continue this work.

Photograph: Drugs and Disorder.

Drugs and (dis)order is a SOAS research initiative within the Department of Development Studies; the project works in collaboration with institutes in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia employing several research and exhibition methods including “in-depth fieldwork, GIS spatial imagery, public health analysis and visual storytelling to map, capture, verify and communicate data.”

The principal investigator and chair of the project is Jonathan Goodhand, Professor in Conflict and Development Studies at SOAS. The rest of the team comprise of other expert research scholars and post-doctoral fellows from SOAS, University of Sussex, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Sciences and other eminent personalities social and academic institutes in the UK. The team also comprises of distinguished researchers from the countries of study such as Francisco Gutierrez-Sanin from Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Orzala Nemat from Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and Dan Seng Lawn from Kachinland Research Centre, Myanmar.

Together the team is leading efforts into policy reform and ‘re-framing debates around illicit drug economies as a development issue’. A key aim of the study is to ‘align drug policies with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and to make them more pro-poor’.

Drugs and (dis)order exhibits their research and data through several multi-media formats: publishing academic reports, participating in conferences, writing blogs on their website and facilitating online and offline events such as ‘Tough trade-offs: integrating drugs, development and peacebuilding’ etc.

A used syringe in Northern Shan State, Myanmar. Photograph: SHAN 2018.

Storytelling is one of the important aspects of their work to highlight the voices of those affected by drug economies on borderlands. “We are working across Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia, working particularly with local artists, building their capacity to tell these stories to lack and international audiences,” says Sara Wong in this video. She is the Programme Manager of PositivesNegatives, an initiative that ‘contextualises and humanises global research through creative storytelling’ and is one of the partners for the project. Their recently produced comic book ‘Jangul: conflict and drug trafficking in Afghanistan’s borderlands’ empathetically follows the story of a man from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan as he cultivates and smuggles opium through Russia and as this blog puts it; “how opium has been a part of Jangul’s life – through conflict and desperation, and relative peace and security.”

Combining on-ground insights of development practitioners with the contextual understanding of academics; Drugs and (dis)order brings forth a new understanding of illicit drug economies in creative yet hard-hitting ways through voices that have often been ignored. This is key to develop a comprehensive understanding of post-conflict states. As Jonathan Goodhand sums up in this video:

One of our starting points for this research is that voices from the Global South:  the drug-producing countries, the consumers of drugs in these countries are often missing from the debates. Our research is aiming to understand better, the practices of producers, consumers and people living in these border regions and amplify the voices of these people because they have important things to say about how we understand these drug economies and how we can play a role in helping transform them.

Find out more about Drugs and (dis)order.

Devyani Nighoskar is a SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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