Sunday, March 1, 2015

Quo Vadis Alternative Development?

My answer is – downhill.

Can poverty have borders? Be divided into sectors? So that one sector gets preferred treatment just because it grows illicit crops, and the other that does not grow is ignored?

 Alternative Development’s champions think so. Alternative Development (AD) proposes that finding alternative sources of income for people cultivating illicit narcotic drugs will work. It differentiates between those who cultivate and those who do not- even if both are poor.  It has till now not recognized the reality that many traditional illicit cultivators grow, for instance, opium for their own consumption, and it is impossible to treat them (at least in a free country) for they don’t want to be treated. Income is not the only matter of concern that requires an alternative. Do the crusaders of AD think that usage will vanish once opium cultivation goes? They are wrong if they think so.

Then there are an another lot , who have got rich because of cultivating opium, and are not going to give it up by producing rice or fruit or handicrafts instead. I shall stick with the analogy of opium cultivation only for that is what I have experience with.

Despite employing renowned consultants, analysts, researcher and pots of money AD crusaders have not been able to stop illicit crop cultivation which has been leaping ahead of the hopes of AD dreamers. And the world of illicit crops is ina worst state than before. In Afghanistan 7.5 bln dollars have been spent on enforcement and several hundred millions on AD, which rides on the back of enforcement. Yet, opium poppy cultivation keeps surprising every one by its next year’s increase.

 AD, without any scientific analysis of its past performance, has been pushed, for close to three decades, as the only cure for illicit cultivation of narcotics crops the world over. Yet there is hardly any success that its staunchest supporters – UNODC, GTZ, TNI, US and UK chiefly- have to show. They go on trumpeting about Thailand’s Doi Tung success, which is such a minor project, but with tons of money, that an NGO runs it.

AD’s crusaders want time before they can show success! As if thirty years is not enough. And during this time illicit cultivation has grown everywhere, intruded into new areas and has become commercial.

Its assumptions are faulty. It has not accounted for change. It is assumed that illicit cultivators are poor and will remain poor, and that the regions they live in are backward. Thus the condescending promoters of AD feel that these unfortunate folk have to be shown some other way of life that is somewhat as lucrative, and not illegal according to the UN Conventions. A very big oversight is that they largely ignore the fact that there are many opiate users. And despite treatment for a few, over 70%  of them will relapse.What about these people? If in an ideal state, which can never ever be, there is no opium grown what will happen to these habitual dependents, ,who according to WDR 2014 are supposed to number 16. 37 million?

What about the poor folk next door who do not cultivate illicit crops? No development for them? Can poverty be parceled off into areas that require precedence and those that don’t?

And what about the rich cultivators? Will AD apply to them?

What AD’s campaigners never speak about is that AD depends a lot on eradication for thei imagined and hoped for success. After illicit crops are threatened with eradication they come along with their philosophy- the Shining Path of Alternative Development.

While promoting the virtues of AD its supporters ignore the users. Unless opium, cannabis or coca is provided for the millions of traditional users illicit crops will continue to be cultivated willy nilly. More than 3 million depend on opiates produced from the Afghanistan poppy fields. If by some miracle all these fields vanish, what will happen to these? The sternest of enforcement and the optimism of AD apologists has not worked yet. And never will.

Unless, opium etc is given to the traditional users cultivation will continue, and be used as a cover for commercial excess too. No power on earth, whether AD or Enforcement propelled, has been able to stop it yet.

In a self conscious one sided vindication for AD brought out by the UNODC in 2005 called Alternative Development: A Global Thematic Evaluation- Final Synthesis Report (2005) and financed by the German Government nothing but good things are said about AD. There has been no objective discussion on AD yet. In several countries, especially in India, people are questioning it, or frankly do not beleive in it at all.

AD’s advocates ignore the most important point that has been reiterated by one UN resolution after another. Alternative Development is only meant as a support to eradication. The latest UN Resolution 68/196 that was adopted by the General Assembly on 18th December, 2013 is very clear on this issue. On the very first page of this Resolution is this exhortation largely ignored by AD's votaries: “Bearing in mind the content of article 14 of the 1988 Convention, regarding measures to eradicate illicit cultivation of narcotic plants and cooperation to increase the effectiveness of those efforts.” Such oft repeated injunctions have also been excluded from the UNODC’s own extensive apologia about AD called Alternative Development: A global Thematic Evaluation- Final Synthesis Report- 2005

Consider Thailand, where AD started in 1988, and which has been held up as the example of success of Alternative Development. There never was much of a problem of vast tracts of opium being cultivated in Thailand. It was a minor cultivating country. Thailand was getting its opium from Burma and Laos. Still is. Yet, Thailand is Exhibit A to Z showing success in AD. But see these figures:

In 1986 before AD started in Thailand there were 2408 hectares under illicit cultivation of opium poppy. In 1988 there were 2811. In 1990, two years after the start of AD in Thailand, there were 1782 hectares of illicit opium poppy cultivation.  For the same years 1718, 1740 and 2395 were eradicated. This obviously was the stick that was responsible for the decrease in illicit cultivation. The AD carrot just made a big show. The numbers are highlighted in the UNODC tables below:

Now, please see the next two tables figures from the World Drug Report of 2014. The first one is about the extent of illicit cultivation. 
The second one is about eradication. . : 

From 2003 to 2014 the WDR states “Owing to continuing low cultivation, figures ...Thailand ‘was’ included in the category ‘Other Countries’.” 

This is not the case with eradication, which still continues to figure in the eradication table every year. In 2013 the WDR states that 264 hectares were eradicated. 

After 26 years of AD in Thailand, which did not have much cultivation to begin with, eradication is still a policy that is rigorously followed, and which is still not successful- for illicit cultivation continues! And opium also continues to be smuggled from Burma and Laos, AND addicts have moved to synthetics in alarming percentages, which continue to rise. 

Addiction in Thailand has worsened. Not for opium. Its use has undoubtedly declined, not because of the success of AD or eradication, but because they have switched to more lethal synthetics. Some die hard adherents continue to get opium from Burma or Laos. Why risk listening to speeches or enforcement when they can more easily get the substance from next door!

India, which is my country, has not made any distinction between illicit growing areas and contiguous or distant poor ones. 

Development was uniform albeit slow but it is getting to the remotest corners of the country. In what used to be an extremely remote place- Anjaw and Lohit Districts of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Burma and China, development has made life better for many people. Education has covered all. Young men and women are in all kinds of jobs aviation, academics, bureaucratic, business, engineering, entreprenurial, armed forces, politics, scientists, trade and technical. That means in all walks of life. Yet, the families of some of the very people who have benefited from development, have become large scale commercial level illicit opium poppy cultivators. Bang goes the theory of alternative development as a panacea.

There are many poor cultivators still in India's many traditonal illicit opium cultivating regions. Infact most of them are poor. But they produce mainly for their own use and barter the surplus for cereals or clothes or utensils. And the area under cultivation is immense. More than 16000 hectares in just two of the 16 districts that are beleived to be producing illicit opium poppy. These two district- Lohit and Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh exceed the total size of the 27 villages in the Doi Tung AD Project area, where less than 1500 hectares were claimed to have been cultivated before the start of improvement in that area in 1988.

Unless, the need of the users is taken into account illicit crops cultivation will continue. If it is stopped in one place it will emerge in another.

In November 2014 I challenged this idea of AD at a training meeting in Jodhpur India. The speaker before me was Ms. Ramrada Ninnad of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation- the NGO that was and is responsible for Doi Tung. After I had said that the Thai project was too minor to be a guiding light for other nations she came up with an improbable statistic saying that at the beginning of the project Thailand had 16000 hectares under illicit opium poppy cultivation! The UNODC had put it at precisely 240.8 hectares in 1986 as can be seen from the first table above.  And these figures are what the Thai Government had supplied to UNODC.

 If one has to cook figures to justify a project it only means that there is something drastically wrong with the project and its justification.   
And from the Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014 a surprising detail is noticed. On pg. 11 the average dry opium yield for Thailand is shown to be 15.6 kgs per hectare. As against 6 kgs per hectare in 1988 when the Thai AD Project started in Doi Tung. (WDR 1999 pg. 21) !!  This only indicates that cultivating techniques have vastly improved. Such inconvenient statistics and information are deliberately ignored.

In UNODC’s apologia “Alternative Development: A Global Thematic Evaluation- Final Synthesis report- 2005” it is claimed that the average wage increased seven times. But, in the Doi Tung table, reproduced below from the 2005 report, it is seen that their professions remain almost the same, and they remained wherever they were. Incidentally, Doi Tung is the only AD linked project that the AD brigade talks about. It had one another advantage. The Royal Guest House is there. It must have been embarrassing to have visitors noticing poppy fields in the vicinity. Thus, to make virtue out of necessity, Patronage poured in money.

Quite different from India’s experience.  All round development  for many of the  people in the illicit cultivating areas meant that they left their homes for all kinds of non manual professions all over the country and their incomes increased just as much, and yet their families continued to produce opium- some of them on a commercial scale. In this evaluation no contrary opinion was asked for or given. It is a production of yes men and women, though in the end (pg. 16) they do acknowledge briefly that enforcement is necessary: “Interdiction should play a key support role in illicit crop reduction by: Extending the rule of law.  Creating an environment for economic and political development.  Lowering farm-gate prices for illicit crops to make alternatives more attractive.” The last one has been impossible till now despite billions having been spent in Afghanistan alone!

A frank discussion on all aspects of AD is overdue. I do not suppose it will be ever held, so deeply entrenched is the reluctance of the votaries of AD to join a debate. Maybe, just maybe, during UNGASS 2016 on Narcotics this could be possible. 

Transparency is lacking. Many questions about the couple of well known AD projects need to be answered before it can be universally accepted. Such as:

How much was the size of the opium cultivation in the Doi Tung project area before the start of the AD plan there in 1988? 

How many hectares of illict opium poppy were being cultivated in Thailand in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s? Are these figures different from those published by UNODC and its predecessor UNDP?

How many opium addicts were there in Doi Tung?

How many of them were subjected to their right month treatment? 

Was this treatment voluntary?

How many relapsed?

How many are addicted now, and to what substances?

How much money has been spent on the entire project by the government and the NGO looking after it? 

Every year the addiction figures increase, as the UNODC released World Drug Reports, based on statistics sent by member countries, show. 

Yet, no one seems to be worried to really question why every attempt to curtail drug use is going awry. 

I conclude with a quotation from Professor Julia Buxton’s resoundingly persuasive paper The Great Disconnect questioning the whole concept of AD. Accusing the UNODC and others on the same side as it of “profound institutional sclerosis” she asks how can alternative development be successful if the end goal is prohibition. She says that drug policy and the drug policy reform pay too much attention to raw opium poppy and coca leaf rather than synthetics such as MDMA and ATS that are manufactured in the Global North. This underlines the bias in the international drug control model and the risk of further problematic interventions that exacerbate rather that alleviate poverty, and insecurity traditional drug cultivating regions. Why not have AD for synthetic producers too?

Illegal opium poppy cultivation in Sainj Valley, Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh, India>