Selling Cannabis Deep in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is heartbreakingly dire: nicknamed the Rape Capital of the World, the nation has seen decades of civil war, ethnic violence, economic instability, poverty, famine and disease. And while survival is a daily struggle in many of the cities and villages, the populations that are suffering the most are the semi-nomadic indigenous communities, the Mbuti, the Baka, and the Batwa. These communities are shunned by other ethnic groups and, in addition, are facing displacement and shocking violence. For these people, harvesting cannabis has gone from being a time-honored tradition to a means of basic economic survival. But now that these communities have been chased from their homes at large rates, they are facing increased risks. They are being forced to harvest on lands that are not their own, including the Virunga National Park.
Marijuana is illegal in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the situation is so dire that the Mbuti, the Baka, and the Batwa are willing to take whatever chances they have to to grow and sell it. The nation has endured more than two decades of civil war, leaving over five million dead. In fact, the Second Congo War, which was officially declared over in 2004, is the deadliest conflict since World War II. Marginalized and chased not only by the government, the non-indigenous population, and even anti-poaching and conservation groups, the indigenous populations live on less than $1 a day. Cannabis is an invaluable resource, providing both medicine and a source of income for these people.
When Virunga National Park was established, it meant that the indigenous populations were no longer permitted to reside, hunt or farm there. The Mbuti, the Baka, and the Batwa no longer use the land for hunting purposes, but they do still use it to grow crops such as cannabis, potatoes, and herbs. The reality is that, outside the forest, there is little to no chance of finding work, which puts these populations in an impossible situation: it’s illegal for them to stay on the land that is their home, but they have no economic prospects elsewhere because they are shunned. So they take their chances and stay put where they are able to, selling cannabis to survive.
Though they’re not supposed to be, the police and military are among some of the indigenous cannabis sellers’ best customers. It’s a nerve-wracking situation for the sellers as they don’t know whether the officer may be on a power trip and arrest them, or simply stock up on some bud. The potential benefits outweigh the risks, however, as selling marijuana can bring a family anywhere from $8 to $100 per week. What isn’t sold is used as medicine. The leaves are brewed into a tea that can help with fever, flu, coughs, fainting, or parasites. Ground cannabis seeds mixed with water is used as a remedy for stomach aches. One 2015 study suggests that the cannabis actually may be helping the communities reduce the prevalence of parasites.
Cannabis is used as a medicine and an economic tool all over the world, even by those deep in the forests of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. If you’d like to help out these fellow members of our international cannabis community, consider making a donation to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs or sharing them on your social media. They are an organization fighting for the rights of indigenous people worldwide, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo.