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Region tries to come to terms with United Kingdom’s miraa ban

Monday, July 22, 2013

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The declaration by the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, that the UK government will ban khat, popularly known as miraa, has triggered an uproar, especially among those directly involved with the multi-billion shillings business.

Farmers representatives and politicians have vowed to petition the UK in the same way the Mau Mau veterans did a few months ago and won.

This is besides going to court in Kenya to force the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) to stop calling the coveted shrub a drug.

“The implementation of this ban will be an economic death sentence to not only the hundreds of thousands of miraa growers in Meru County but to many more who depend on the industry like sellers, transporters and exporters,” says the National Treasurer and spokesman for Nyambene Miraa Traders Association (NYAMITA), Kimathi M’munjuri.

“It will also crush institutions like schools and churches in Meru that depend on their miraa plantations for economic survival.”

More than 60 tonnes of miraa is exported to the United Kingdom weekly, sustaining millions of livelihoods. If implemented the ban will cost Kenya around Sh2 billion per year.

The Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) conducted a study that established that there was “insufficient evidence” that miraa caused health problems, but the Home Secretary insisted the findings might have overlooked some issues.

If London implements the ban khat, whose scientific name is catha edulis, will be classified as a Class C drug alongside substances like cannabis and ketamine.

Sources who talked to the Standard on condition of anonymity, said the ban could be implemented as early as next Monday.

After Netherlands banned the shrub on grounds that its usage was leading to littering, noise and posing a public nuisance, London became the major hub for miraa exports to Europe.

Other Western countries like the United States and Canada have also banned the substance on health grounds.

The case for  Kenya’s miraa farmers is being complicated by a robust campaign by UK anti-khat activists led by Abukar Awale, a Briton of Somali descent.

“The word qaad (the Somali term for miraa) in itself linguistically means to “take” in that once one consumes it, that individual is therefore “taken” under its influence.

“Awale protested in a personal letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron after the release of the ACMD report. “The reference to the mosque in Cardiff that deems khat to be permissible from an Islamic perspective is laughable and I feel confident enough to claim that you would be hard pressed to find any segment of Somali society prepared to speak for it”.

Unknown to many Kenyans, this is not the first war that Britain has waged against miraa. The colonial government banned the shrub in 1939 before it was reinstated by Jomo Kenyatta in 1974.
But how did miraa become a high earning cash crop for Meru County and the country at large?

“At one point,   the government systematically killed the coffee industry which was the main cash crop in this area. By then miraa was not very commercial,” M’munjuri told the Standard. “The collapse of coffee as a cash crop and the fall of Somalia in 1991 elevated miraa into a high earning export commodity.”

Being Muslims, most Somalis do not consume alcohol, therefore, most of their recreational time is spent chewing miraa. After dictator Siad Barre was deposed, many Somalis were scattered across the world where they have to get their khat, hence the rise in exports.

“Exported miraa is consumed by the Somali Diaspora and other immigrants from the Horn of Africa,” explains the NYAMITA spokesman.

“Native Europeans rarely use the shrub,” says M’munjuri.
The export component has transformed miraa into a “green gold” with farmers in areas like Nyambene growing nothing else but the coveted shrub.

This means they have to purchase their food crops from farmers in the surrounding areas.

With most average farmers in Nyambene having between 20 and 50 trees of khat, the harvesting is done in three-week cycles by which time the shrubs are green-red in colour and of desired chewing quality.

“With such a number of trees the farmer gets around Sh50,000 per harvest after every 21 days,” M’munjuri, a farmer with 50 trees, explains. “The ban will drastically interrupt the earning patterns of these farmers who rely  entirely on the plant for economic survival”.

“Miraa is sometimes bought before maturity by brokers which means crop owners can have their money long before the actual harvest.

It is during the harvesting season that child labour thrives since young miraa trees are not strong enough to withstand adult weights. Children are preferred due to their light weight.

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