Chiang Mai (Thailand), 2 December 2011 - Farmers cultivating illicit drug crops are usually among the most marginalized in society. Providing alternatives for them has been a major challenge for drug control efforts in South East Asia over the past four decades. One of the most successful approaches to this problem has been what some specialists call "alternative development" whose aim is simple: decrease poverty by providing legal and sustainable livelihood opportunities to farmers.
Promoted strongly by UNODC and governments of the handful of countries which still grow illicit poppy and coca leaf, this approach also aims at creating favourable conditions in terms of environment, policy and law.
However, history shows that unless the best practices and evidence from what has been learnt in Asia and Latin America are captured and reinvested into the broad community of specialists, such hard-won lessons are often lost. It was for this reason that Thailand, a country which has successfully faced down the threat of illicit poppy cultivation, recently hosted one such event.
Held in mid-November in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand - once the heart of the Kingdom's opium poppy cultivation - the "International Seminar Workshop on Sustainable Alternative Development" gathered over 100 international experts and government representatives from 28 countries to speak with and learn from hill-tribe village communities - and each other.
Organized by the Government of Thailand, the workshop programme included field visits to alternative development sites to meet citizens from the hill tribes in the Thai provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Mrs. Penee Mala is a member of the ethnic Tai Yai hill tribe from Huay Nam Koon Village in northern Thailand. She is one of many who participated in the Pang Mahan Reforestation Project. Asked about her experience in shifting away from poppy with the support of the project, she told visitors how the alternative development project, which included agricultural assistance, market access support and infrastructure enhancement, gave her family a stable income and her children the chance to attend school and plan for higher education.
"My life is stable and secure now and I see a positive future for my children", said Mrs. Mala, explaining that her current situation is completely the opposite to when she was growing poppy. In those days, her children helped with drug crop farming and had no access to education. Her family was also involved in the arms trade, counting and packaging bullets for sale, often forced to hide in the forest when police came searching for drug crop farmers.
Penee Mala's positive story is reasonably typical of what happened during the transformation in this part of the Golden Triangle over the past several decades. Brought about by the far-sighted engagement of the Government of Thailand - including support from the very highest political levels - with formerly poppy-growing communities in the Golden Triangle highlands, it has resulted in the virtual eradication of opium poppy cultivation in the Kingdom.
Although there has been a worrying upward trend since 2006 in Myanmar and Lao PDR, alternative development has brought about a significant decline in poppy cultivation in Thailand, which now accounts for only a negligible portion of total global opium cultivation, according to UNODC figures.
Worldwide, almost 4 million people depend on illicit drug crop cultivation. This typically takes place in rural areas with limited economic options, poor infrastructure and high levels of insecurity. Because the need is so great, and funds limited, many illicit drug growers have not been able to benefit from alternative development assistance.
The international seminar was an initiative of the Governments of Thailand and Peru to raise awareness of the need to increase alternative development assistance to small farmer households engaged in illicit crop cultivation . It was based on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs resolutions 53/6 and 54/4 and is the first of a two-part international meeting whose conference portion will take place in Lima, Peru in 2012.
People-centred and long-term
Additional success stories were presented during the seminar by the Doi Tung Development Project of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the Angkhang Royal Agricultural Station of the Royal Project Foundation.
Overall, the seminar's findings provided evidence that alternative development - when carried out within a people-centered approach and viewed as long-term - can solve both the causes of - and problems related to - the illicit cultivation of crops used for the production of narcotic drugs.
The objective of the seminar was to build consensus on the critical components that make alternative development projects sustainable and that prevent affected communities from relapse and to develop basic elements to guide countries in creating alternative development programmes. One of the concrete outcomes of the Seminar Workshop was the development of inputs to international guiding principles on alternative development.
"By contributing to the guidelines I can support improvements in the social, economic and political environment of small farmers, such as myself," said Mrs. Ruth Rodriguez Salvatierra, the president of the Cacao Producers Association from Pichari in Peru. "Now we have to continue utilizing the theory for further action on the ground," another participant added.
Consenting and dissenting views
Topics discussed included, "conditionality" - which is shorthand for carrot versus stick approaches -- and the proper sequencing of development assistance, the promotion and protection of human rights, security, governance and the rule of law and international cooperation, coordination and funding. Participants discussed decades of experiences and best practices from different regions, especially Latin America and South-East Asia, but also from Africa.
The seminar came to consensus around the need for a common understanding that alternative development interventions should address both poverty and the inadequate enforcement of the rule of law. These twin issues are the main causes of illicit cultivation. Participants agreed that alternative development should be included as part of the broader national development strategy. It also agreed that both the quantitative and qualitative impact of alternative development could be measured through the use of human development indicators reflecting the Millennium Development Goals.
Environmental conservation, the promotion of national resource management and the protection of flora and fauna and biodiversity as well as a sense of ownership and community participation were identified as key when planning and implementing alternative development interventions and strategies.
Although a common perspective was found on most issues, participants could not agree on all points, such as the extension of alternative development programmes to cover individuals that are engaged in small drug trafficking due to poverty. Another point of divergence was the exploration of the potential for an increase in licit uses of illegally cultivated crops.