Is Nigeria Set to Follow Colombia's Dangerous Example by Fumigating its Cannabis Crops?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) is reportedly set to provide Nigeria with aircraft to destory the country's marijuana crops, a dangerous approach that has had disastrous results in another country that took this path; Colombia.

Nigerian daily The Guardian reported on September 22 that the UNODC would soon provide an aircraft to the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) to detect and destroy Indian hemp -- cannabis -- crops in the country. The news came in the wake of the discovery in southwest Ondo State of what NDLEA agents claim is the largest cannabis farm in the world, measuring 25 square kilometers.

It is currently unclear exactly how much cannabis is grown in Nigeria, though the NDLEA eradicated 563 hectares of marijuana between November 2012 and September 2013. According to the US State Department, most of what is grown is consumed domestically, with the remainder being trafficked through West Africa into Europe. 

The potential for the introduction of aerial destruction of cannabis crops -- presumably carried out through fumigation -- is a radical measure with both questionable efficacy and potentially disastrous consequences. If implemented, it would most likely be in the southwest region of the country where the majority of the marijuana is produced due to the large area of rainforest cover available.

The only other country in the world that currently fumigates illicit crops is Colombia, which has been spraying coca crops with herbicides since 1994, and between 1996 and 2012 fumigated some 1.6 million hectares of rural land in the country, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. The results from the Colombian government's program -- one heavily backed by the United States -- should give Nigeria's government serious pause for thought before embarking on such a campaign.

To start, most of the damage done through aerial eradication has not been to coca crops but to people's health. As a report by Colombia's independent advisory commission on drug policy found last year, spraying coca with glyphosate (otherwise known as Roundup) brought about only a 15-20 percent reduction in the crop for every hectare sprayed. Meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of glyphosate's damage to people's wellbeing, with hormone problems, skin conditions, breathing problems, malformations and miscarriages all being potential outcomes of reckless spraying.

Additionally, people's licit crops and livestock have been severely damaged. Coca is an incredibly resilient plant, while many other crops such as yucca, rice and bananas are not, and spraying these areas with glyphosate has serious implications for people's long-term food security and the fertility of the soil. Some of these problems have been exacerbated by the fact that glyphosate has in certain cases been sprayed at a higher than recommended concentration -- 23.7 liters per hectare, rather than 2.5 liters per hectare -- and from a far greater height than advised; 15 meters instead of the recommended 3-10 meters.

While growing marijuana itself poses ecological threats to Nigeria -- for example, increased deforestation and further endangering of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees -- the effects of randomly spreading glyphosate in a way that’s as uncontrollable as from an aircraft are arguably worse, regardless of whether it could successfully wipe out marijuana crops.

Many who cultivate cannabis in Nigeria do so due to the higher returns it brings over food crops. In a statement to Mongabay, Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, Coordinator and Principal Investigator of The Southwest/Niger Delta Forest Project, noted that profits from marijuana crops can come in within 6-8 months of planting, fetching 2-3 times more money than could be earned from cultivating other food crops.

Given the huge collateral damage seen in Colombia from aerial spraying, the Nigerian government would do well to dismiss this approach and consider addressing the root of why people turn to marijuana cultivation in the first place; economic marginalization and the chance for a modicum of financial stability. If it doesn't, we could well begin to see these excessive harms caused by aggressive drug prohibition arriving in West Africa.