Around the world, the state of environmental stress is unprecedented. As research and activism on “environmental justice” points out, the poorest and most marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm. This is particularly true for the populations of the countries of the South. The role of illicit drugs in relation to these environmental stresses is underexplored territory. Yet, as this report will show, drugs, and the policy responses to them, are an environmental problem.
This disconnection between anti-drug policy and environmental policy is largely the result of the institutional compartmentalization of the drug issue in the field of delinquency and repression, with little openness to other spheres related to the environment or sustainable development. . References to the environment in drug policy have remained rare and limited in scope.
It is slowly changing. A resolution on alternative development adopted by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) – the central drug policy-making body within the United Nations system – in March 2022 paid particular attention to the protection of the environment, encouraging “Member States to examine and address, within the framework of alternative development efforts, the harmful impact of the illicit cultivation of plants used for the production of narcotics on the environment, which can lead to deforestation and soil and water pollution, and to seize the opportunities offered by alternative development in terms of the conservation and sustainable use of the environment and the protection of biodiversity”. And for the first time this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2022 includes a special brochure on the link between illicit drugs and the environment.
This report, which draws on TNI’s original research, fieldwork, interviews, and extensive literature review, aims to add to this emerging debate in the following ways:
- By examining the drug-environment nexus in relation to trajectories of agrarian change and the implications for rural workers, particularly in the Global South. This is in recognition of the fact that what are currently considered illicit crops under the international drug control regime often have a long history of traditional cultivation and use by rural communities and indigenous peoples around the world. . In addition to long-standing traditional uses, many others depend on the cultivation of illicit crops for their economic production and social reproduction activities. At the same time, these rural populations are often the most exposed to the risk of poverty, marginalization, discrimination and criminalization, while being the least represented in the policy-making spaces and in the decisions that affect them. Raising the voices and perspectives of these growers of illicit crops (or growers of banned plants) and the communities in which they are embedded is therefore a key objective of this report.
- By critically interrogating both drug policy and development responses in relation to the drug-environment nexus. From toxic eradication campaigns that spray the ground with chemicals, to interdiction efforts that push illicit cultivation into ever more fragile ecosystems, drug control policy has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for a number of number of serious environmental damages. Furthermore, crop substitution programs that ignore the fact that for millions of peasants, small farmers, landless people and migrant labour, drug crops are a development alternative to trade regimes and investment from which they are excluded or negatively integrated will ultimately fail. .
- By bringing knowledge and literature from, among others, the field of political ecology and critical agrarian studies and applying it to the question of drugs and the environment, it is hoped that new exchanges between these two spheres quite distinct until now may be stimulated. . Drugs are an environmental problem. By making this case, it is hoped that policy makers, researchers, civil society organizations and social movements from both fields can be encouraged to engage in a process of mutual learning and knowledge exchange. Through this bridging, new forms of solidarity, academic activism, and policy change can coalesce around, for example, movements for climate justice, agroecology, or peasant and indigenous rights.
Key points and recommendations
- The impacts of so-called “forbidden plants” or illicit drug crops – mainly coca, opium poppy and cannabis – on the environment are a matter of concern. depending on the particular context, they have, to varying degrees, been associated with soil erosion, land degradation, desertification, water depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and waste
- Despite this, drugs are rarely seen as an environmental problem. There is no mention of drugs in any of the recent global agreements on climate or biodiversity and in drug policy circles environmental issues have, until very recently, been debated only on the fringes. This disconnect stems from an institutional sequestration of drugs from crime and law enforcement.
- Greater coordination between UNODC, UNDP, UNEP, as well as a leading role for the task force supporting the implementation of the UN common position on drug policy, can help foster UN system-wide coherence, support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and global commitments to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Greater synergies can be forged by assessing drug policy against a set of cross-cutting climate and environmental indicators, in addition to those developed around human rights, public health, sustainable development, etc human rights governance instruments such as the CFS Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in rural areas
- The development of an environmentally sustainable drug policy must stem from an approach centered on environmental justice: the recognition that the poorest and most marginalized communities, often differentiated along lines of class, gender and breed, are particularly susceptible to environmental damage. This is particularly true for the populations of the countries of the South
- In the realm of drug policy, this means that those who depend on the cultivation of illicit crops for their economic survival and social reproduction must be at the heart of decision-making processes that affect them. It also means that instead of focusing on the persecution/criminalization of people based on particular uses of plants, the underlying political and economic systems of oppression, discrimination and injustice that ultimately result in account of environmental damage must be examined.
- Critically interrogating drug control policies can bring important environmental benefits. All forms of forced eradication – whether by aerial fumigation or manual means – must end. These have proven to be environmentally destructive and ultimately counterproductive, given the well-known “balloon effect” whereby the crop simply moves to other, often more fragile areas on the ecological plan. meanwhile, the logic of the ban may also be called into question from an environmental point of view given the number of hectares of land “wasted” due to the destruction of seized products and the inevitable replanting that results.
- Ultimately, the power of drug trafficking organizations can best be challenged by removing their source of profits from prohibition while strengthening forms of access to and control over community resources to help counter the influence of these non-state actors, with special protections in place. for environmental and human rights defenders.
- In the realm of alternative development, there must be a clear red line drawn that the replacement of illicit crops with industrial monocultures or other large agribusiness complexes should not be considered an AD agenda. Rather, AD programs should actively seek to promote and strengthen sustainable production systems based on agroecology and regenerative practices combined with a comprehensive land reform program that supports territorial markets and more equitable access and control. natural resources (land, water, seeds, forests, etc.).
- While there are opportunities in advertising programs to tap into sources of climate finance, there are also risks associated with market-based conservation mechanisms and natural capital accounting that promote the commodification of nature to the detriment pro-poor outcomes. Public policies should reward models of agrarian environmental justice and community conservation strategies based on the principles of co-creation between man and nature.
- Ongoing drug policy reforms, particularly in relation to cannabis, open up the possibility of developing forward-thinking strategies to address issues of environmental sustainability. The high carbon footprint associated with growing cannabis indoors means that where possible, priority should be given to growing outdoors, especially in traditional growing countries in the South.
- Setting environmental standards through, for example, organic certification (including peer-to-peer forms of certification), eco-labelling, designation systems and fair trade can and should all be taken into account to ensure environmental sustainability in regulated markets. In addition, public agricultural research and seed banks should seek to conserve genetic diversity and local varieties.