In Colombia and Myanmar, subsistence farmers say ‘Support. Don’t Punish’

Despite differing local realities, both events had one common message – it is high time to stop criminalising subsistence farmers.

Colombia and Myanmar are as different as it gets in terms of history, culture, politics or economics. And yet, today they both find themselves at a critical juncture: both countries are engaged in complex peace processes in which policies towards illicit drug cultivation play a major role.

The two countries do share a similar history of harsh drug laws which have pushed small-scale farmers of coca, opium and/or cannabis into extreme situations of poverty, marginalisation, forced displacement, violence and abuse. In such a repressive environment, subsistence farmers have been ignored, side-lined or heavily criminalised by the police and the military. As in other parts of the world, this punitive approach has utterly failed to eradicate or even ‘contain’ the illicit drug trade.

Drug policy reform is now on the spotlight as both Colombia and Myanmar are discussing options for legislative reform to achieve a long-lasting peace. For those efforts to be successful, they must reflect and fully incorporate the needs of those most affected. Subsistence farmers of illicit crops are, of course, critical partners in this regard, but their voices continue to be muffled by bureaucracies and a lack of political will.

In 2016, the Global Day of Action provided a key opportunity for subsistence farmers engaged in illicit crop cultivation to have their voice heard, alongside other affected groups and activists that gathered on that year under the Support. Don’t Punish banner. This was the very first time that the campaign’s goals and messaging were expanded to highlight the needs and challenges faced by subsistence farmers.

In Myanmar, two beautifully-dressed women engaged in opium cultivation for subsistence purposes participated in a photo exhibition and gathering organised by the Drug Policy Advocacy Group Myanmar (DPAG) in Kachin State, located in the north of the country. The objective was for NGOs, affected groups, the general public and government officials (including a former member of Parliament and a former senior official of the country’s drug control agency) to discuss drug policy reform. The two women explained their reasons for cultivating opium – unsurprisingly, it was not for wealth and power, but rather for food security, to use as medicine against fever and diarrhoea, and as a means to provide for their children and families.

On the other side of the world, Acción Técnica y Social (ATS) and the Observatorio de Cultivos Declarados Ilícitos (OCDI) held a seminar in Bogota under the Support. Don’t Punish banner to discuss policies and programmes related to the cultivation of coca, opium and cannabis. The event, which gathered more than 200 participants, focused on justice issues faced by small-scale farmers and the challenges posed by the peace process between the government and the FARC. The event was also an opportunity for debate on the possibility of establishing legally regulated markets.

Despite differing local realities, both events had one common message – it is high time to stop criminalising subsistence farmers, and there is an urgent need to end forced crop eradication campaigns, police (and military) intimidation techniques, and other abuses against this highly vulnerable and marginalised segment of society.

There are no silver bullets when it comes to the complex and entrenched challenges related to drug policy. But these events held on the Global Day of Action have created spaces where key stakeholders can pool their experience to think outside the box. Indeed, both events highlighted a few options going forward.. For one thing, drug laws should be amended so that populations in situations of vulnerability – including people who use drugs and subsistence farmers involved in illicit crop cultivation – are no longer subjected to harmful law enforcement efforts, and can benefit instead of programmes that can offer access to employment, education, water, food security, basic infrastructure and access to markets. Decriminalisation – but also the establishment of regulated markets for substances such as coca, cannabis and even cocaine – were also brought to the table as critical policy options to consider.It is our hope that Colombia and Myanmar will take advantage of this critical moment in their political history to fully address the needs of those most in need, with policies grounded in health, human rights and development.