Niamey (AFP) - Small farmers in southeastern Niger are rejoicing after authorities lifted a two-year ban on the growing of red peppers, imposed in their fight against jihadists.
Boko Haram Islamist rebels from neighbouring Nigeria were suspected of extorting money from the red-pepper trade in the Diffa region to fund their activities, which prompted the government to ban the crop.
"Before the crisis, pepper growing used to bring billions of CFA francs into the region," equivalent to millions of dollars or euros, Bako Mamadou, the mayor of Bosso, told AFP.
"We lifted the ban on growing two weeks ago... The farmers here have heaved a huge sign of relief."
Popularly known as "tatassaye," the Diffa red pepper is dried in the sun and sold as a spice.
It is grown mainly in the valley of the Yobe river, where before the ban it brought in between seven and 10 billion CFA francs annually, providing a livelihood for around 6,000 producers, the Diffa region's chamber of agriculture says on its website.
A source with a humanitarian group said the ban had "probably" been lifted because of its "devastating" impact on the income of small farmers, and because large-scale attacks by Boko Haram in the region were now rare.
Niger, along with Chad and Cameroon, has become a victim of spillover attacks by the hardline Sunni Islamists.
Across the region, the insurgency has led to more than 20,000 deaths while 2.6 million have fled their homes, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes.
More than 300,000 people have taken refuge in the Diffa region, which is already extremely poor. The UN has appealed urgently for more support.
Mamadou said that "even Nigerian refugees" in the region were now being authorised to grow peppers "provided that they file an application for land".
A security source told AFP that "for obvious security reasons," farming in areas that were "too close" to Nigeria's border remained banned.
Boko Haram imposed a "tax" on cross-border commerce in red peppers and also kidnapped traders and held them to ransom, a local official said.
Aid groups say that, in the climate of fear, some farmers had abandoned their fields, terrified they would be either killed by Boko Haram or be taken as accomplices of the militia by the Niger army.