Why Pygmies Are Dealing Weed to Survive

Article by Nina Strochlic, National Geographic

Indigenous communities in the Congo have harvested marijuana as long as they can remember. Now, with no land to call their own, they turn to selling—with dire consequences.

Nana sleeps on a pillow of marijuana. It’s a trick his grandfather taught him to make the buds more potent; he explains while tending his sparse plot at the edge of a mud hut village. The current offering of a few dozen plants is unimpressive. But his crop was lush, he says, before Congolese army soldiers came and confiscated it. Across this eastern province, the epicentre of the country’s conflicts, many Pygmy communities grow marijuana, eking out a meagre, and dangerous, living.

Marijuana is illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which occupies the bullseye of Africa. But after a brutal colonial regime, decades of dictatorship, and more than 20 years of civil war that left 6 million dead, there are few laws that can’t be bent. (National Geographic is not using full identifications of those involved in the marijuana trade for their protection.)

In one of the poorest countries in the world, a population of around 600,000 indigenous forest people, widely known as Pygmies, occupy the lowest economic rung. They’re marginalised by the non-indigenous Congolese population they call Bantu, and sometimes even kept as slaves. A recent study of the nearly 27,000 Pygmies living in North Kivu found that the majority survive on less than $1 per day (the average Congolese income is only slightly higher, at $2 per day). For them, marijuana can offer a reliable income. Their treatment at the hands of Congolese military and police is less predictable. Sometimes, they say, they are beaten and arrested for growing the plant. Other times, soldiers and police officers are their customers.

A lone marijuana plant marks the muddy path that leads to Nana’s village, an hour’s drive from eastern Congo’s war-torn capital, Goma. Wooden scooters piled with firewood clog the road there, while on the shoulder women roast corn over smoking charcoal. The constant jolt of car wheels dipping into potholes provides what’s wryly called a “Congolese massage.”

Twice a week, a small group of Pygmies rises at 6 a.m. and treks three hours into the forests of Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga. Above them looms the volatile volcano, Nyiragongo. In 1952, when the area was designated as a park, they were evicted, and the hunting and gathering that fed them was outlawed. Their journey into the park is illegal, but they continue to return to their former territory to gather honey, potatoes, and medicinal plants. One of the dozen members of this Bambuti Pygmy community trained to identify the correct flora goes along to seek out an important crop they say their ancestors grew long before them: marijuana. In the forest, the plants grow wild, and the Pygmies harvest plants and seeds when their village stock is low.

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