FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leoneans are increasingly growing cannabis instead of staple foods such as cassava and rice, a shift that is threatening food production capacity, Vice President Samuel Sumana said on Wednesday.
The statement from a nation still recovering from 11 years of war is the latest stark warning of a trend towards West Africa increasingly becoming a producer of and transit point for drugs bound for Europe or consumed locally.
“In some parts of our country, more and more of our people are developing interest and diverting their energies into the cultivation and trade of cannabis in place of our local staple food,” Sumana said on the sidelines of a meeting on tackling organised crime and drugs trafficking.
“The cultivation of cannabis has a negative effect on our food production capacity ... our government is dismayed at this appalling situation and we are committed to do all we can to mitigate this threat,” he added.
Boosted by high-profile seizures, anti-narcotics experts focused over the last few years on the flow of Latin American cocaine headed to Europe through a string of weak nations.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says known volumes of cocaine passing through the region eased in 2008 to around 20 tonnes, worth some $1 billion, down from previous estimates of around $4 billion.
However, concern is also rising over a spike in local consumption, as well as evidence of increased production and processing of drugs in the region.
The U.N. and regional body ECOWAS are trying to boost local law enforcement as well as improve collaboration and increase intelligence-sharing between nations.
Sierra Leone, recovering from a 1991-2002 civil war, recorded a significant success in 2008, when authorities there seized hundreds of kilos of cocaine.
But UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warned that seizures were still down to luck as much as anything.
“I find it shocking that many of the recent discoveries of large planes and ships smuggling drugs into West Africa have been made by accident,” Costa said.