Foto: GIZ/ Leslie Searles
Foto: GIZ/ Leslie Searles

Alternative Development for people in drug-crop cultivation areas


An exhibition about prejudices and realities

Smallholder opium poppy and coca farmers are the forgotten link in the drug supply chain. This presentation invites you to question nine myths about the cultivation of drug crops in Asia and Latin America.

Exhibition and venues:

19 November - 18 December 2019, 10 am to 6pm, Monday to Friday

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Tulpenfeld 6, 53113 Bonn, Germany

Free admission

Have a sneak preview of the exhibition.


Contact: Sector Project Sustainable Rural Areas rrldvlpmntgzd

Drug crop cultivation – does that bother me?

Myth 1: "Drug crop cultivation – that does not bother me."


According to UN estimates in 2016, one in twenty people between the ages of 15 and 64, altogether 275 million people worldwide, have consumed illicit drugs at least once. Along with cannabis, cocaine and heroin also number among the most frequently used plant-based drugs.
Cocaine and crack are based on coca plant extracts, while opium derivatives, such as heroin or raw opium, are extracted from the opium poppy. Narcotics are mainly consumed in industrialised and emerging countries, but are cultivated and produced outside the industrialised countries in remote and neglected areas in developing countries.

In 2016, almost 192 million people worldwide consumed cannabis, while 18 million consumed cocaine and nearly 19 million opiates.

Yet drug crop cultivation poses many problems.

Alternative Development

Alternative Development is a development-oriented strategy to address the underlying root causes of illicit drug economies through an integrated approach, combining efforts of

  • rural development
  • alleviation of poverty
  • promoting access to land and land rights
  • protection of the environment and climate change
  • promotion of rule of law, security and good governance in full respect of international human rights obligations and commitment to gender equality.

Projects look at economic alternatives to help smallholder farming families switch from cultivating narcotic crops to legal crops, such as coffee or cocoa.


Myth 2: "Drug crop cultivation makes you rich."


Drug croplands are often situated in economically marginalised regions in which the population is confronted with poverty, insecure land rights, poor infrastructure and often violence. The people living in these regions have barely any access to health care facilities or education.

The cultivation of coca and opium poppy can also cause considerable harm to the environment. Deforestation, soil erosion and water contamination are direct consequences of rural drug economies.

In Germany, cocaine cost about 75 euros per gram in 2016. Only a very small fraction of the high price for cocaine reaches the smallholder farming families growing the drug crops. They are at the bottom of the supply chain and remain poor, while the drug dealers make their profits.


Myth 3: "Drug crop farmers are criminals."

Are drug crop farmers criminals?

In many countries, there is no other income opportunity for smallholder farmers than growing drug crops. Drug crop cultivation is a phenomenon of remote rural regions.

Farmers are often geographically marginalised and live under economic, social and political disadvantages. Criminal drug cartels frequently control the territories.
Because they lack market access for legal agricultural products, many farming families feel compelled to grow and sell drug crops to the cartels. Sometimes, this is the only way to generate any income at all.

Alternative Development programmes provide farmers with incentives to participate in legal economic activities and address the actual root causes of the problems.

Coffee farmer Moly Checya

Coffee farmer Moly Checya

Moly Checya was eight years old when her family moved to the rainforest. In the early 1990s in Peru, she says, there were only two reasons to go to the rainforest: either to join the terrorist organisation, ‘Shining Path’, which carried out bloody massacres throughout the country, or ‘to earn a living’, as her mother puts it: growing coca for the drug mafia.

The income from coca cultivation was higher than what Moly Checya’s father had earned as a miner in the very poor highlands, but the money also brought violence to the region. First came the Shining Path: “The terrorists confiscated everything we had,” recalls Moly Checya. “They kidnapped my sister and held her prisoner for a year.” Every family in the area had victims.

The terror began to abate slowly in the mid-1990s. For lack of alternatives, Moly and her husband, Paul, started to plant coca in the impoverished region. It was profitable, but outlawed by the government. Peruvian police squads, specialised in illicit coca growing, sprayed the coca fields with defoliant and uprooted the plants. After that, there was nothing to live on. “It made no
difference to them that we had nothing left to eat”, recounts
Moly Checya. After their coca plants had been destroyed, the family was ruined.

With the help of an Alternative Development project ran by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and financed by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the family was given fresh economic prospects. The project helped Moly and Paul set up a coffee plantation and trained them in proper management. They turned their backs on drug trade and today no longer depend on coca cultivation.

UNODC Project PERU87, Sustainable agricultural development for poverty reduction through ecologic sustainability and female empowerment in Peru and Bolivia, 2011-2017, funded by the BMZ


Myth 4: "Drug crop cultivation areas – out of sight, out of mind."

Drug crop cultivation areas – out of sight, out of mind

One major reason for illicit cultivation in most drug croplands is the absence of governmental structures. Support from the government, like services or public investments, does not usually reach these rural areas. Basic infrastructure is frequently lacking.

Hence, the population in these regions does often not have paved roads, health facilities, schools, markets or other fundamental structures. Farmers are particularly isolated from legal markets, leaving them with very limited opportunities other than cultivating illicit drug crops.

More and more countries are taking measures

Germany co-operates with a number of countries in the area of Alternative Development. Through their co-operation with Germany, Ecuador and Myanmar have integrated Alternative Development in their national drug strategies and action plans.

Colombia has realigned its alternative development strategy and added a stronger environmental focus.

Colombia and Peru spend substantial amounts of public funding in addition to international development funds to promote coffee and cocoa cultivation in remote regions. At present, 87,000 Colombian families engaged in coca growing are taking part in a government programme for alternative development. The programme was instated as a measure as part of the peace deal after the end of the civil war in 2016. More than 32,000 families have to date received technical support to help them move from coca cultivation by creating alternative, legal sources of income.


Myth 5: "Women do not cultivate drug crops."


Women play a major role in cultivating opium poppy and coca.

They are closely involved in the process - from sowing to harvesting, in addition to taking care of the household, children and family. Therefore, women bear multiple responsibilities.

Despite this, in drug growing regions, they have significantly less access to resources and goods than men, such as land rights and income.They are also often disadvantaged in terms of decision-making in their families and communities.
Women are the ones in charge of food security for their families, and they possess valuable knowledge about natural resources.

For the Alternative Development approach, women are undoubtedly key to sustainable rural development.

Successful empowerment: women are mobilising in La Asunta

La Asunta municipality is located in the Yungas region in Bolivia. In this area, families grow coca plants legally for traditional coca leaf use. Women here are disadvantaged in various ways as a result of traditional roles.

For four years on behalf of the BMZ, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bolivia has promoted the participation of women in all activities from decision-making in agricultural production to the marketing of coffee and regional tropical fruits through an Alternative Development project.

Today, the chairwoman of the women’s association in La Asunta advances the interests of women. She advocates more rights for women and girls through better training opportunities, greater participation in economic activities, involvement in decision-making processes and their adoption of leadership roles.


Myth 6: "Alternative Development - a waste of money and time."

Alternative Development – a waste of time and money?

Alternative Development addresses the root causes of illicit drug crop cultivation. This sustainable approach has the potential to transform marginalised drug growing areas in the long term and improve the living conditions for the population. Success depends on a number of factors, in particular the political will to support the regions and promote economic alternatives.

Contrary to widespread assumptions, smallholder farmers show great interest in developing legal alternatives to generate income. Coca and opium poppy farmers often take high financial and personal risks when they cultivate illicit crops.

The eradication of crops, violence, displacement and loss of income are daily threats. At the same time, drug crop farmers often earn less than families that grow legal crops. Alternative Development leverages the will and drive for long-term change,thus, contributing to the sustainable reduction of the illegal drug economy.

As part of integral rural development, Alternative Development:

  • Improves living conditions of smallholder farming families
  • Offers economic alternatives to drug crop cultivation
  • Empowers women
  • Establishes farmer organisations and access to legal markets
  • Secures food and provides access to basic services
  • Makes sustainable use of soils and forests
  • Strengthens local administrative capacities and involves the population
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