Focus on marijuana cultivation

Swaziland, as signatory to international agreements to control illegal narcotics, has little choice but to disrupt marijuana cultivation in the kingdom. But many traditional Swazis are confused.

Insangu, as the inebriating weed is known in the SiSwati language, is the customary relaxant of the headman of a Swazi homestead. Its usage is traditionally discouraged among young people, but is enshrined as a privilege of the elders.

"Insangu is a part of Swazi life," said Moses Mahlalela, a cotton farmer along the Komati river. "If it is illegal, then Swazi life is illegal."

Legality is of greater concern for Swazis who grow marijuana for a living, such as farmers confined to the narrow mountain valleys of the northern Hhohho Region, where they insist nothing but marijuana flourishes. For these impoverished farmers, their only cash crop and means of livelihood is insangu.

With battery-powered radios, they listen to government officials encouraging them to become entrepreneurs, to form cooperatives and solicit capital from donor organisations. Yet, when South Africans come over the border and provide capital and technical assistance for cultivating marijuana, government disapproves. Swazi police swoop down in South African helicopters to destroy the crop.

The South African benefactors are drug lords, according to the Royal Swaziland Police Force. The payments they give Swazi small landholder farmers are a fraction of the illegal harvest's ultimate value.

"Swazi marijuana is prized in Johannesburg, and what is not consumed there is shipped to Europe. Marijuana users in Holland are particularly keen on what they consider high-quality Swaziland marijuana," explained Dr David Pritchard, director of the Council of Swaziland Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

Pritchard said it was inevitable that some of the crop that is cultivated for export finds its way to users in Swaziland. "Drug use is a growing problem among youth. In the olden days, young people were not permitted to use insangu," he added.

Jim Gama, whose radio programme devoted to advising Swazis on cultural matters earned him the job as governor of the royal village, Ludzidzini, told IRIN: "The Swazi way is that young people do not abuse drugs. Their job is to tend cattle, which are the wealth of their fathers. What happens to the cattle when the herd boys are intoxicated?"

As far as the police are concerned, "it is illegal to cultivate or possess marijuana," said police public relations officer, Assistant Superintendent Vusi Masuku. "Our agenda as law enforcers is to eradicate marijuana in the kingdom."

With the assistance of South Africa's police, eradication efforts have never been more successful. The construction of the Maguga Dam in northern Swaziland provided a new road network in areas previously inaccessible - prime marijuana cultivation land where South African drug lords have secured their supplies.

A series of raids at the beginning of the year resulted in the destruction of 2,500 hectares of marijuana fields, which were identified by South African police helicopters. Swazi police then sprayed defoliants on the plants, whose cultivators fled to the hills while the operation was in progress.

The Times of Swaziland reported last week that rains immediately following some raids washed the chemicals off the plants, and instead destroyed weeds on the ground that competed with the marijuana. Agents of the drugs lords who finance the cultivation also instructed farmers how to wash the plants to rid them of defoliants.

However, a considerable portion of this year's crop was destroyed, as gauged by the rise of marijuana prices on the streets of Mbabane. Locally grown marijuana is always cheapest in the capital, and the price escalates the further the drug travels to its consumer, in Johannesburg or Amsterdam.

"A matchbox of insangu now costs ten emalengini (US $1), and a compressed block is E500 (US $50). Twenty-five kilos costs E1,500 (US $150)," said Police Superintendent Jerome Ndlangamandla. "This is cheap by Johannesburg standards, but represents a 40 percent price hike locally. Drug users are suffering in Mbabane."

Marijuana is cultivated not only in the mountainous northern region, but in the fertile hills of central Swaziland, and in the southern region where fields have also been targeted by combined Swazi and South African interdiction efforts. Peasant farmers complain they have no alternative to insangu as a livelihood.

The agriculture ministry disagrees. Irrigation water from the new Maguga Dam and the Lower Usutu River Project intended to harness the kingdom's largest river for irrigation purposes is being targeted for use by farmers' cooperatives. Small landholders are being tutored by agriculture field officers to combine their fields and seek capital from donor organisations.

"Cash crops from vegetables to cut flowers for export to Europe and Asia are viable alternatives to marijuana," said Agriculture Minister Roy Fanourakis.

Fanourakis admitted that inertia was the biggest hurdle to overcome: the unwillingness of conservative farmers to switch from a lucrative if illegal crop to an untested alternative.

But the argument that insangu cultivation is sanctioned by Swazi tradition is growing less credible. Just as the traditional homestead where several generations of a polygamous family lived and died on an isolated farm is a thing of the past, the 19th century insangu lifestyle has also largely vanished.

Abednego Nxumalo, head of one of King Mswati's warrior regiments, admitted: "The tradition of the head of a homestead retiring with the elders to smoke a pipe is over. Men today prefer homebrewed tjwala (beer), or bottled alcohol if they can afford it. The effect of beer is quicker, and there are no hassles with the police. People adapt."

Peasant farmers will have to adapt, also. Swazi authorities are in no mood to argue for an exemption in drug interdiction agreements they have signed, as required by Swaziland's membership in the Southern African Development Community. If farmers replant their marijuana fields with cut flowers, banana or avocado trees for the export market, South African drug lords will also have to adapt, and find alternative suppliers.