Faced with agricultural crisis and an irrepressible and growing marijuana farming sector, the southern African kingdom of Swaziland is now considering the production of another form of cannabis -- hemp. "Swazi Gold," as the locally produced pot is known, is a valuable commodity, fetching up to $5,000 a pound in the European market, and with growers of traditional crops such as cotton and sugar seeing tough times because of falling prices, generations-old, small-scale, traditional marijuana cultivation is being transformed into a major cash crop in the economically staggering nation.
Known in the local parlance as "dagga," Swaziland marijuana is consumed locally and exported to neighboring countries in southern Africa, as well as Europe. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), marijuana production in southern Africa generated about 10% of the $142 billion annual global marijuana trade. The UNODC's 2006 annual drug report calls Swaziland one of the major producers in the region. The other major regional marijuana producers are identified as Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and Tanzania.
"People here will get around R80 [roughly US$11] for a 10kg bag of maize when they sell it at the market, but they will get R3,000 [about $405] for a 10kg bag of cannabis if they can sell it to someone who is going to take it outside of Swaziland," local informants told the UN's IRIN News Service. "A person can grow 30 10kg bags in a year up in the hills here, and they use the money to buy cows, furniture, send their children to school. We are in a good situation because our fathers grew dagga, so we could afford to go to school, have clothes and other benefits."
According to South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the Swazi pot crop is being integrated into existing regional and global criminal networks. "Of the cannabis that is harvested, the best quality is earmarked for compression into one- or two-kilogram blocks that are smuggled via South Africa and Mozambique to Europe and the UK [United Kingdom]," said a recent ISS report on Swaziland's cannabis trade. "Nigerian criminal networks have moved into the dominant position in the Swazi cannabis trade during the past few years, and the proceeds of their sales in Europe are used to pay for cocaine purchased in South America, which is then smuggled to South Africa and elsewhere."
Swazi police attempt to eradicate the crops, but without much success. While the Swazi government gets limited anti-drug aid from the US, more important support from South Africa has ended because Swaziland can't afford to pay its share.
An IRIN reporter accompanied the head of Swaziland's anti-drug unit, Supt. Albert Mkhatshwa, on one search-and-destroy operation where a plantation was burned. "This is just dagga being grown by some of the villagers close by," Mkhatshwa explained. "We will spray it with weed killer and the plants will be dead in a day or so, but if we come back in a month's time it is likely more will be growing in the same spot. The people know we don't have the necessary resources to cover the whole area, so they will take a chance that we will not come back soon. People have been growing herbal cannabis for a long time in Swaziland, long before it was illegal," he said.
And if some local entrepreneurs and government officials have their way, people may be growing hemp as well. According to IRIN, the Swazi government is set to allow small-scale production of hemp to see if it has the potential to become an economically viable crop.
"In hemp we have an alternative to cotton, which has let us down badly over the last few years. It has been because of marijuana that we have found it difficult to talk about hemp, but that is changing, and we are beginning to shape public opinion to its benefits," said Lufto Dlamini, the Swazi Minister for Enterprise and Employment. "The government is considering a proposal to grow hemp, and a decision will be reached by the end of this month. But I expect it will be given the go-ahead to grow for research purposes, and if that proves successful then we will see," he told IRIN.
Dr Ben Dlamini, 70, a former education administrator in the Swazi Department of Education, was an early hemp advocate. "The major emphasis on cannabis in Swaziland has always been on smoking it and getting a 'high,' but if we were to grow hemp commercially it would solve a lot of problems," he told IRIN. "It can be used to manufacture fuels, textiles, healthy oils and lotions," he pointed out. "People are getting the idea that hemp can be used for purposes other than smoking, but the process of understanding this is very slow."