Last week I attended the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in Vientiane, Laos under the header “People’s Solidarity against Poverty and for Sustainable Development: Challenging Unjust and Unequal Development, Building States of Citizens for Citizens”. The Transnational Institute (TNI) was part of the International Organising Committee and co-organised several workshops at the Forum. One of them was on “Crop substitution programmes in Northern Burma and Laos-lessons learned in Alternative Development”.

At this session my TNI colleague Kevin Woods gave an overview of the programmes carried out in Burma and Laos and the results they have yielded. Mr Khin Zaw Win, Mr. Lashi La and Mr. Sai Lone presented the impact of alternative development programmes in their regions in Burma (Wa and Kachin state). Under the guise of opium substitution programmes the Chinese government is supporting large scale agro businesses in Northern Burma and Laos. These programmes have very little to do with alternative development. In fact they plunder the natural resources at the costs of the local people. The Chinese corporations aside, the only locals that are benefitting are the local power-holders who first were engaged in the drugs trade and now are making their fortune with these agro-businesses. At the same time the local communities lose their fields, their grazing lands, access to water and with it all possibility for a sustainable livelihood.

The failure of these opium substitution programmes clearly shows the risks of monoculture, the importance of viable sustainable alternatives aimed at the local and domestic market and most importantly the need for the participation of the farming communities from the very beginning in the design and implementation of these programmes. Traditional rights and values have to be included and eradication of poppy fields and strict enforcement of opium bans should only take place when sustainable alternatives are in place.

At the UN level the Member States are hoping to agree on a set of voluntary guiding principles on alternative development at the International Conference on Alternative Development (ICAD) in Peru middle of next month. It is important that the Member States seize this opportunity and base the guidelines on the recommendations put together towards the Lima Conference by the outcomes of the Workshop part of ICAD, attended by AD experts and practitioners. AD can work if the local communities are at the centre and their rights respected.

In this respect the final declaration of the AEPF should also be looked upon as a helpful guideline. In Laos there was a strong consensus among the Asian and European citizens gathered at the AEPF that the dominant approach over the last decades - based around deregulation of markets, increasing power of multinational corporations and unaccountable multilateral institutions – had failed to meet the needs and rights of all citizens.

A long term vision focusing on people-centred policies and practices were called for and it is of vital importance for communities in opium cultivating areas that the ICAD guidelines meet these requirements.

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