Alternative Development

Alternative Development helps farmers to escape the poverty trap of illegal drug crop cultivation

In the last ten years the illegal cultivation of drug crops such as coca and opium poppy has increased massively worldwide. Many countries are reacting with repressive measures and are destroying the plants. In the short term, cultivation is curbed, but its root causes are often ignored – if not exacerbated. Illegal drug crop cultivation is a symptom: The Alternative Development approach sees the reasons for this in development deficits and addresses them

What is the problem?

In most cases, the root causes for the cultivation of drug crops are development deficits in rural areas. Many small-scale farmers live under conditions that make it difficult for them to distance themselves from the cultivation of drug crops: The often remote regions are characterised by poverty, weak or non-existent state institutions, lack of access to legal markets, armed conflicts, crime and violence. A breeding ground for illegal drug economies. For many people who are involved in drug crop cultivation, it is the only source of income to ensure the livelihood of their families.


For most smallholders, however, the cultivation of drug crops is not economically attractive, but rather risky. In many growing regions, families are exposed not only to state repression and social stigmatization, but also to the arbitrariness of armed groups, who are often the main buyers of their crops. This is the case in some regions of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, for example. The profits made here are only slightly higher, if at all, than those made from legal agricultural products. The enormous increases in profits in the illegal drug trafficking value chain occur only at the end of the value chain, but not in the regions of origin.


Besides, repressive state measures often deprive small-scale farming families of their only livelihood without having any alternatives in sight. The farmers therefore remain part of the poorest segment of the rural population.


In addition to the social and economic consequences of drug crop cultivation, many families in rural areas also experience the negative effects on their environment. In some countries, the cultivation of drug crops is a driving factor of deforestation for the creation of new illegal cultivation areas. Monocultures and the excessive use of fertilizers and chemicals also pollute the soil. The families affected therefore have strong incentives to give up a life of illegality and arbitrariness and to establish legal alternatives. This is where development cooperation comes in.

Alternative Development tackles the problem at the roots

The aim of the German approach to Alternative Development is to reduce the dependence of small-scale farming families on drug crop cultivation in the long term and to improve their living conditions. The assumption is that they no longer depend on the illegal drug economy if they have sustainable economic and legal alternatives to illicit cultivation. Successful examples of Alternative Development from Asia and Latin America show that the economic development of the affected regions goes hand in hand with the reduction of illegal cultivation. In contrast to short-term measures of crop destruction, the Alternative Development approach is sustainable, as the example of Thailand shows.

Thus, Alternative Development stands for a drug policy that prioritises sustainable rural and human development over repression. Instead of targeting only the symptoms, Alternative Development addresses the roots of illicit drug crop cultivation more profoundly. This is done by diversifying agricultural production, developing additional sources of income in the growing regions, and accompanying measures. Germany has been committed to the Alternative Development approach for over 35 years and is one of the largest international donors in this field.

What exactly does Alternative Development look like?

Alternative Development projects train small-scale farming families in the cultivation of sustainable alternatives such as coffee or cocoa that are adapted to local conditions and support them in the commercialisation of their products. However, legal alternatives to illicit drug crop cultivation can also lie outside agriculture, for example in ecotourism. Improving the framework conditions for rural development is also part of the concept. This involves opening or expanding market access for legal products, promoting access to land titles and rural infrastructure, and improving public services for remote cultivation regions.


In addition to socio-economic measures, environmental protection is also increasingly important in Alternative Development projects. For example, environmental-economic models such as payments for ecosystem services are being tested, or self-commitment declarations are being made for the conservation of the rainforest by small-scale farming families.

The GPDPD and Alternative Development:

  • We anchor development-oriented aspects in international drug policy and promote Alternative Development in global forums such as the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) or the Brandenburg Forum (BBF), which we established.
  • We pilot our own Alternative Development measures in partner countries such as Colombia together with other organisations in order to test new models and approaches.
  • We improve the scientific basis for Alternative Development by promoting and disseminating studies and by finally contributing them to the international dialogue. In this way, we want to support drug policies based on facts.