The crops which form the plant base for the production of opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine are predominantly cultivated by subsistence farmers in some of the most under-developed areas of the planet. These regions are usually the sites of ongoing armed conflicts and political instability. Traditional attempts to stem the flow of drugs from such zones have concentrated on the forced eradication of drug crops such as opium poppy and the coca plant. This has led to displacement effects: in response to repressive measures, the growers have simply moved their crops into new and more remote areas, often resulting in environmental damage. Great hardship has resulted from this, including forced migration, poverty, starvation, and an exacerbation of armed conflicts. Meanwhile, the crops have continued to be cultivated.

An alternative to this repressive approach involves encouraging the farmers to grow other crops. Originally conceived as simple crop substitution programmes (farmers were encouraged or compelled to grow a licit crop instead of poppy or coca), experience has shown that a broader conception is necessary if the process is to be effective and sustainable. This approach is usually referred to as “alternative development.” Over the past decade, there has been considerable progress in understanding the impact and lessons learned through rural development in opium poppy and coca growing areas. Experience has shown that alternative development can address the needs of targeted rural communities, and can contribute to a reduction in illicit crops.

Effective alternative development involves integrating drug control imperatives into the mainstream development agenda, which adheres to the principle of system wide coherence. The process must also be properly sequenced. This means that to enable farmers and their dependants to end their reliance on cultivating illicit drug crops, a number of provisions must be put in place first: for example, credit and finance, security and protection, road and transport systems to allow goods to be taken to market, and so on (It will be noted that many of these are the services that traffickers provide to small farmers: armed protection, supplies of seeds, credit facilities). In those regions where the presence of the state is confined to crop destruction or the payment of ‘taxes’ to avoid it, alternative development measures have tended to fail. Good governance, social, health and educational support services are necessary for alternative development to work.

IDPC advocates to make development assistance unconditional on reductions in illicit crops, ensure that no eradication is carried out unless small-farmer households have adopted viable and sustainable livelihoods, and interventions are properly sequenced. Producers' organisations should be recognised, should take part in debates and decision making at all levels, with their own governments, donors and the United Nations. Interventions should comply with the aims of human rights protection, conflict resolution, poverty alleviation, human security and respect for traditional culture and values.