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Consider the arid village of Mkumbi, where about 100 families live in grass-thatched huts with neither electricity nor access to clean water. With little to live on, villagers here grow marijuana, one of few crops that somehow manages to flourish in this dry environment. They are subsistence farmers trying to feed their families. The crop, which is collected by middlemen, is destined for South Africa’s urban markets.
As in most of the world, marijuana is illegal in South Africa. For years, police have taken aggressive measures in communities across Pondoland to dissuade them from cultivating the crop. Mkumbi residents describe how police break down the doors of their homes, make arrests, and beat them. In the last decade, the South Africa Police Service has taken to indiscriminate spraying of the cannabis fields from helicopters using glyphosate – the same substance that Colombia recently banned after a World Health Organization (WHO) report linked it to cancer in humans.
Villagers say that the helicopters not only spray the cannabis fields, but waterways, food crops, animals, and even people. One woman said she saw helicopters chase a man who was fleeing and doused him with glyphosate. Another described how police routinely land helicopters and ransack houses in search of cannabis. Villagers have started fighting back, documenting their experiences in videos, creating a Facebook group, and engaging legal counsel to seek an injunction against spraying.
In response to a letter from a lawyer, the police have defended the practice, saying they refuse to be “derailed” from their mission to eradicate illicit cannabis. The police say their actions are supported by their constitutional mandate to combat crime and approved by environmental experts. They also refuse to warn villagers about upcoming spraying campaigns saying it is “unaware of any situation in the world where the police must pre-warn offenders before law enforcement operations can be conducted.”
South Africa has an obligation to protect the health and living environment of its people, including villagers who grow illegal cannabis crops. Indiscriminately – and even deliberately – spraying villages, non-cannabis crops, water sources, and villagers themselves is clearly inconsistent with this obligation.
For more information on cultivation of illegal crops and the impact of eradication efforts, please visit: Open Source Foundation.