Why you should care
Because in a nation known for minerals, a controversial crop is on the rise.
Before he started growing weed, Congolese planter Koti spent his days digging holes and tunnels, mining for morsels of gold. He would smoke weed — or bangi as he calls it — to overcome his fear of the darkness that he faced underground.
As a teen, he saw a tunnel collapse, trapping five fellow miners — only one was rescued. “It’s dangerous,” says Koti, of the illegal minerals trade that many eastern Congolese families depend on. “People were dying.”
The tragedy frightened him, but with no other source of income, he was back at the mine the next day. Then, in 2007, a foreign mining company kicked Koti and the other small-time miners off the land. With no other job, he bought cannabis seeds from a neighbor, planted them and, six months later, harvested a crop of cannabis that measured in the kilos. “I had no other job,” says Koti, who asked that his real name be withheld out of fear of authorities. “So I decided to start growing marijuana.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation by area, is known for nefarious trade in copper, coltan, cobalt, tin and other minerals. But now, tens of thousands of Congolese like Koti are setting their sights on a different sort of illegal resource: cannabis. The United Nations estimates that Africa produces 10,500 metric tons of cannabis — a fourth of all the marijuana in the world. Between 27 million and 53 million Africans use the drug, making up about one-fourth of all weed users worldwide. Congo, some narcotics experts believe, may produce more cannabis than almost any other African nation except South Africa.
It’s like the gold rush in America in the 1800s.
Ann Laudati, visiting professor, UC Berkeley
Marijuana farming is illegal in Congo, where the rarity of record keeping, especially in remote regions like rural South Kivu province, makes it hard to chart the exact moment when the crop’s popularity exploded. But research by University of California, Berkeley visiting professor of geography Ann Laudati suggests 60 percent of famers in parts of eastern Congo’s Kivu — and 90 percent in some locations — grow at least some cannabis. “Everyone but the priests,” is how one Congolese village priest described the prevalence of marijuana farming to Laudati.
“It’s like the gold rush in America in the 1800s,” says Laudati of the excitement of some who have set their hopes on growing cannabis.
The appeal isn’t surprising. A resilient plant, cannabis can yield multiple harvests a year, beginning six months after sowing, says Laudati. And it needs little labor beyond harvesting and drying. It offers men like Koti the chance to stay at home rather than set off to the mines, keeping families together. And unlike minerals, which are hard to come by and in limited supply, cannabis is a renewable resource. “Many people smoke it, because it gives them work strength,” says Koti. “And many more people are using it than in the past.”
But while cannabis farming comes without the physical fears that accompany mining, it carries its own share of risks, wrapped in politics from across the Atlantic. Decades of U.S. and international pressure are a key reason why cannabis cultivation is illegal in Congo. In 1961, the U.S. voted in favor of the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which added marijuana to the list of drugs that were banned internationally. The way to solve America’s drug “problem” was by pinching off the global supply, or so the thinking went.
Farmers can’t receive international aid to grow an illegal crop. It also leaves them vulnerable to harassment from corrupt police officials — a threat Koti knows only too well.
Each morning, Koti treks by foot from his home through lush vegetation to the spots where he grows his cannabis, far from any roads or obvious footpaths. He does what he can to prune the plants and weed around them, but ultimately their growth depends upon the rains.
Twice a year, Koti harvests and sells to traders who come to his fields to collect. If it rains little, he winds up with as few as five 100-kilo sacks of cannabis. But when it rains well, he harvests as many as 20. Each sack goes for 150,000 to 200,000 Congolese francs ($96–$128), earning him more than a thousand dollars a year. “I use that money to pay for the school fees for my children,” says Koti, adding that in his village in South Kivu province, “many children study by means of hemp money.”
Since Koti began farming cannabis, his family no longer lives hand to mouth — they eat twice or three times a day where they only ate once earlier. Whereas artisanal mining often requires startup capital — payments to the men who control the mineral-rich land — with marijuana, cultivators just need seeds. Koti estimates 40 to 50 percent of the families in his village now grow cannabis instead of mining or farming other crops. Once harvested and packaged, the plant is distributed and used medicinally throughout Congo. It is smoked by fishermen and hunters to pass time, by artisanal miners to ease their aches and pains, and by Rastafarians in Congo’s bustling capital, Kinshasa. Congolese men and women barter it for food, clothes, solar panels.
But the penalization of cannabis in Congo is endorsed by the U.S. at a time when many states are decriminalizing the drug at home. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has funded “alternative livelihood” programs to shift Afghan farmers away from cannabis. And in 2005, the U.S. vetoed an international attempt to “reschedule” cannabis as a less dangerous substance — a move that could have opened the doors to deregulation.
In Africa, the U.S. spends $20 million annually to reduce drug trafficking, and marijuana remains top among its concerns. The State Department’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report referenced cannabis 121 times, reprimanding African countries where cultivation is common. An earlier version of that report singled out Congo in particular, scolding authorities for failing to crack down on the trade. The State Department even warned American travelers about Congo’s cannabis in a 2015 safety report. The losers of America’s drug war in Africa are everyday farmers.
Speaking through a translator over Skype from an internet café 90 kilometers from his village, Koti recounts in his native language, Kifuliiru, how he was “5 or 6 years old” when he first saw someone carrying cannabis leaves. Curiosity piqued, “I asked my parents, ‘What was that leaf?’” says Koti, a fast talker with a smile. “They told me not to have anything to do with it.”
It wasn’t until decades later when he began growing it himself that he understood the trouble cannabis could bring. Because cannabis is illegal, “a lot of the money we get, we use for bribes — soldiers, police,” he says. A few years ago, Koti says police tracked him to the field where he grew his hemp. They raided the small storage shed where he stored his stash. They marched him to a distant police station and jailed him until he paid a 100,000 franc ($96) bribe to get out. They also kept half his harvest, “confiscating” seven sacks. Last year, he says, a similar fate befell his neighbor, who lost his entire crop to Congolese soldiers.
A Greener Future
That could change, argue experts. If Western nations like the U.S. were to reclassify cannabis as a less troublesome narcotic, cultivation could be decriminalized. Marijuana farming in countries like Congo could then thrive like it has in the U.S., where cannabis is manufactured into products ranging from fabrics, purses and bags to shampoos, oils and lotions. Nearly 40 cannabis-growing African nations might similarly benefit. Legalization is already on the horizon in South Africa, where a recent court decision will allow recreational use in private residences beginning in 2019.
“In South Africa, definitely — it’s becoming increasingly normalized,” says Dave Martin, founder of Bulungula Incubator, a rural development organization focused on farming. “It’s no longer taboo.” In South Africa’s eastern Transkei region, thousands of farmers grow cannabis in open fields. For consumers, a 5-liter bucket of cannabis — roughly a kilo — costs nearly $40.
But even in South Africa, cannabis remains illegal on paper, and it is usually middlemen — traders and sellers — who profit. Meanwhile, farmers pay the price.
“There have been issues with guys going in helicopters or planes trying to kill the crops,” says Martin, of the governmental herbicide-spraying programs that wreak havoc on small-time cannabis farmers. “And it’s not the middle-class guys going to prison. It’s the poor people, and they spend weeks or months in jail.”
Martin imagines a future in which Africa might someday supply even Europe and America with weed. Light to transport, cannabis could — if free trade were allowed — transform the lives of many African farmers, he argues. “If you could just put it on a plane and send it, it would be a great source of income for farmers in Africa, who could be growing the crop for 10 times the price they’re getting now,” he says.
If Congo were to legalize pot, Koti says it would reduce the stigma that surrounds the drug, leading more people to use it, increasing demand. Besides, if cannabis were legal, Congo’s government could tax it, helping to diversify Congo’s national budget, which remains dangerously dependent on the price of minerals.
But such a rosy future is not guaranteed. In Congo, legislators have yet to make any serious attempt to legalize the crop, and Congolese authorities who profit from its illegality by confiscating harvests from growers like Koti have every incentive to maintain the status quo. And legalization, if not implemented strategically, could wind up reinforcing existing inequalities. “When it becomes legal, the question is, who’s going to make the money?” says Martin. “Do we just reinforce the existing patterns, or do we use it as a tool to drive commerce to people who really need it?”
Governments ought to legalize weed in phases, says Martin — first granting licenses only to rural, small-time growers like Koti to give them a leg up before larger companies like those that have begun conquering the U.S. weed market in recent years catch up. Otherwise, he warns, the market could become dominated by companies whose owners have capital to invest in big-time production that poor rural farmers can’t match.
In the meantime, Koti says he has no choice but to assume the risks that come with farming weed. “Even if you are being arrested from time to time, growing hemp is good because it makes money,” he says. And unlike mining, he points out, Congo’s green gold “won’t kill you.”