The world's leading industrial democracies agreed this week to cancel some $40 billion in debt owed by African nations in an effort to jump-start the continent's ailing economies. But while the impact of ponderous macro-level reforms will take time to trickle down, farmers in the southern African kingdom of Swaziland are making micro-level decisions to grow marijuana crops now, and local police say they can't stop them.
From high in the kingdom's remote northern mountains comes "Swazi Gold," a potent variety sought after in consumer markets in nearby South Africa, which completely surrounds the New Jersey-sized country, as well as Europe and North America. For Swazi farmers, marijuana, or "dagga," as it is commonly known in southern Africa, is a crop worth growing, despite police raids and herbicide spraying. Smugglers will pay farmers about $150 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), a significant amount in a country where the average annual income hovers around $1500.
That same "Swazi Gold" will sell for about $11 an ounce in Johannesburg or Capetown, according to a Reuters report this week. By the time it makes its way to the coffee shops of Amsterdam, it goes for $7.50 a gram.
Swazi law enforcement finds itself fighting a losing battle as it butts up against dagga's profitability. "We can't win this war," said Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho. "This is just a drop in the ocean," he said as he showed Reuters a field that had been discovered and destroyed. "The people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he said.
According to Swaziland's Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 70% of farmers in the Hhohho region are growing dagga for the domestic and international market. Local officials blame drought and point to the mountainous terrain, which makes maize-growing difficult. But a Hhohho women named Khanyesile provided a more direct reason. As Reuters put it, her non-dagga earnings consisted of "a patchy income selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road."
"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory," said Khanyesile. "I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school." She has been jailed and fined for her dagga, she said, police have twice sprayed her field, and thieves stole her crop once just before harvest. For Khanyesile and her family, the black market in dagga is the only shot at economic survival. "You can't get money for maize... and it is difficult to grow, but a man from South Africa comes every month to buy my dagga," she said. She and her neighbors grow dagga and sell it jointly to the South African buyer to minimize his risks, she said. "I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga -- it is the only way we can make money."
"It is everywhere. At every stream or river the banks are full of dagga," said Inspector Dlamani. That's not surprising. Not only has dagga become a valuable cash crop, it has a long history of acceptance in Swaziland, where it has been smoked for centuries by farmers and used as medicine by healers. Even the chief of his home village smoked a pipe of dagga twice daily, Dlamani noted, before returning to the fruitless fight.