Development First: A More Humane and Promising Approach to Reducing Cultivation of Crops for Illicit Markets

Development First

In March 2009, U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, described the opium poppy eradication effort in Afghanistan as “the most wasteful and ineffective program that I have seen in 40 years.” At a June 2009 conference of the G-8 countries, Holbrooke elaborated: 

“The poppy farmer is not our enemy, the Taliban are, and to destroy the crops is not an effective policy. And the U.S. has wasted hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on this program and that is going to end. We are not going to support crop eradication.”

For many observers, Holbrooke was simply stating the obvious — poppy or coca crop eradication without viable economic alternatives already in place for the affected farmers is a recipe for replanting. But his declarations marked a departure from the long-standing U.S. policy in support of aggressive forced crop eradication as a central element of international drug control.

Forced eradication is a deeply entrenched aspect of U.S. international drug control policy. It has the appeal of seeming “tough” and straightforward — if we wipe out drugs at the “source,” they won’t make it to our shores — and it has attained enormous political and bureaucratic inertia. But after nearly three decades, the effort to eliminate drugs at the point of production, chiefly through forced crop eradication, has failed. At the same time, a growing body of research and experience provide evidence that more promising options are available. Rather than remain locked into a drug control strategy that has proven to be costly and ineffective, U.S. policymakers would do well to take advantage of the new moment in the debate to consider more realistic options to forced eradication.

This report lays out a more promising approach to reducing the cultivation of coca and poppy crops used in the production of cocaine and heroin. It is based on improving the welfare of poor farmers via comprehensive development strategies that include improving local governance and citizen security, combined with voluntary reductions in cultivation of crops deviated to the illicit market. Implemented in tandem with effective demand reduction strategies to contain and eventually shrink the global cocaine and heroin markets, the “development first” approach has the potential to gradually achieve sustainable reductions in coca and opium poppy cultivation by reducing poor farmers’ reliance on such crops.