Around the world millions of farmers and other people living in rural areas are involved in the cultivation of crops used for the illicit production of narcotic drugs. Many of them depend on this illicit economy to reduce food insecurity, to buy essential household goods and to pay for health care and education. In many places, coca, opium poppy and cannabis have also been grown for centuries for traditional medicinal, cultural and ceremonial purposes.

The three UN drug control conventions (1961, 1971 and 1988) and subsequent UN Political Declarations and Action Plans (1998, 2009 and 2016) have established the international legal and policy framework for supply reduction measures directed towards the cultivation of these crops. Frequently, such measures have included forced eradication operations, which have led to violent confrontations with small-scale farmers of coca, cannabis and opium poppy, and to numerous human rights violations.

Alternative development (AD) programmes have been at the core of efforts to find a more humane balance between drug control obligations, supply reduction policy objectives, and the protection of the rights of people dependent on illicit cultivation for basic subsistence. However, the development of AD discourse, its funding support and its relationship with parallel ongoing—and better resourced— law enforcement and eradication operations, have encountered serious challenges. For many, according to Alimi in a recent article in the UN Bulletin on Narcotics, “the difficult balancing between short-term objectives of illicit cultivation reduction and the longer-term approaches based on sustained development efforts has called into question the relevance and even the legitimacy of alternative development policies.