By Eric Gutierrez

In July, the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) organized a forum at its office in Quezon City to discuss how my research findings on illicit opium and coca cultivation in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Colombia, and Bolivia may provide a new lesson or two on rural reconstruction and development.

Since illicit crop cultivation often follows conflicts and crises, the core question is how to rebuild from the ruins of war and rural displacement. Answers may be particularly relevant to many places in rural Philippines, especially in the Muslim south.

The first lesson is about choosing crops or the mix of crops to grow. Peasants affected by conflict and agricultural commercialization will avoid growing regular crops (rice, wheat, cassava, or corn) because the land they hold is not their own or cannot be secured. They live under the constant threat of having to move at a moment’s notice due to fighting and displacement. Therefore, most engage in “guerrilla agriculture” — growing food in abandoned or neglected land and taking risks that harvests may be easily lost or confiscated. Most will not invest in making the land more productive — like building protective trenches, planting hedges, or constructing water systems — because why make the effort that will be wasted anyway?

Under such conditions, the most logical choice is crops that would grow on hillsides, rocky soil, and in dry conditions; that will not easily spoil if not brought to market quickly enough; that are low-mass and low-weight and can be easily transported in a backpack over bad roads or broken bridges; that are of better value than high-value crops such as saffron or avocado; that can easily be processed into intermediate, higher-value and lower-volume products using backyard means; that have relatively stable prices over the short-term; and that have an assurance that it will always be bought, unlike other regular crops. Opium, coca, and cannabis emerge as the most likely crops to grow or mix with other crops. Illicit crop growing forms part of building strategies to survive and have an income.

It is not just about the mix of crops to grow, but also the combination of livelihoods to build that is central to survival. Many households develop a blend of on-farm, off-farm, and non-farm income opportunities — a pattern also prevalent in many places in Mindanao I’ve seen. Some become agricultural workers on other farms or commercial farms while growing on their farm plots or keeping livestock. Others look for new forms of cost reduction — like sharing tools and farm animals, cooperating on water collection, or setting up pools for collective insurance against man-made and natural disasters. Others send their young men to work seasonally in city centers. In rural Philippines, long-term investment is in the education of children and the next generation, who will be expected to bring poverty relief to their elders.

Decisions to balance risk and opportunity, or harms and possibilities, are complex. For example, in the semi-arid regions of southwestern Afghanistan, expert David Mansfield refutes the greed-versus-need assumption that households plant opium because of its much higher prices. He stresses that families decide how much land to allocate to wheat or opium poppy, not because of the prices but based on estimates of water availability. Wheat will be grown if water is expected to be sufficient. But if water is scarce, the land is better allocated to the more drought-resistant opium poppy instead. I wonder how Filipino farmers make crop choices based on the expected frequency and severity of typhoons and storms.

A second lesson is on how illicit crops enable poor households to access life-sustaining credit. These households are typically undocumented — because of extreme poverty and conflict conditions, most do not have birth certificates, tax identification numbers, community tax receipts, much less passports that give them some form of formal identification. They do not have permanent addresses — again, another requirement that is needed to qualify for bank accounts or postal boxes to, among others, receive remittances, income support, or ayuda. As such, they are ineligible to even apply for credit with rural banks or microfinance institutions. They are too poor to be considered.

But if they choose to grow opium or coca, not only drug traffickers but licit entrepreneurs, too, will compete with each other to offer them credit or advance payments for the crops they will produce. Many find it useful to pay their loans not with cash but with kilograms of opium or coca harvests. Illegal crops become their means of survival.

A third lesson is about market access. Illicit crops will always be sold, unlike other crops. We all know about onions and vegetables with no buyers in the Philippines, leaving them to rot. In many areas of Myanmar and Afghanistan, buyers themselves knock on the growers’ doorsteps, saving these households the prohibitive transport costs and allowing them to use their time more productively. In many cases, the buyers even bring essential consumer items — like cooking oil, salt, or farm tools — to trade for illicit crop harvests. Like it or not, illicit crops reconnect economically marginalized and excluded households back to commercial and market circuits.

In other words, the great paradox is that to their growers and despite their illegality, illicit crops can reduce or spread risks and provide more predictability. Growing illicit crops — like rural reconstruction — has become a way to minimise risks, avoid the pitfalls of land insecurity, preserve the value of rural labor, access credit, and prepare for future contingencies. It has become a form of alternative development.

The July PRRM forum was titled Kapit sa Patalim — a Filipino saying that desperate people will grab on even to a knife that cuts them, so they won’t fall off a cliff. In Afghanistan, Myanmar, Colombia, and Bolivia, illicit crop growing has become a principal form of kapit sa patalim.

In the Philippines, many other forms of informal and illicit means of survival are still mostly understudied. I think it is time for rural reconstruction and development practitioners to think about tackling this phenomenon, which I will elaborate on further in future columns.

Eric D U Gutierrez’s book Rethinking Illicit Economies in Opium and Cocaine: Policy Responses to Drug Crops in the Global South is due to be published by Routledge in November.