Smallholder marijuana cash crop lessens the pain of poverty

Concerted efforts by Swazi police to rid the country of marijuana have been complicated by cultural practices and the profitability of the illegal crop in an impoverished nation.

Last week police confiscated R1.7 million (US $295,000) worth of marijuana, locally known as 'dagga', from small-scale farmers in the Hhohho region north of the capital, Mbabane. The drugs were reportedly compressed into packages, ready for transport to neighbouring South Africa en route to Europe, particularly the Netherlands.

"The interdiction of dagga and the eradication of crops continue as government policy, and there are arrests. But it hasn't dented cultivation much in the northern Hhohho region, or really cut into the supply going to the urban areas," a source with the Royal Swaziland Police Force told IRIN.

Swaziland has the climate and soil conducive to growing dagga. Most of it is cultivated in the north of the country, where the terrain is steep and hilly, and not easily accessible by road. The aerial spraying of marijuana fields with defoliants was stopped in 2002 because of budgetary constraints, and since then eradication efforts have been carried out by a small band of police inspectors.

According to a study by Swaziland's Council on Alcohol, Drug and Tobacco Abuse, an estimated 70 percent of smallholder farmers in the Hhohho region grow marijuana to some extent, as a cash crop.

During a recent visit to the area, local farmers told IRIN that cultivating it was their best resource against grinding poverty.

"My father and his father grew dagga here; my son now knows how. We are far from markets, and the trucks from the marketing board (the National Agricultural Marketing Board) are unreliable. The marketing board tells us to grow tomatoes and such for sale, but our harvests can rot in the sun waiting for them," said a farmer near the provincial capital, Pigg's Peak.

He was reluctant to reveal who his clients were, but alleged that they were Swazi nationals linked to a South African drug syndicate. In 2000, three tonnes of compressed cannabis were seized in the United Kingdom in a container emanating from Swaziland. The following year Swazi police seized a further 3.9 mt in a single raid, saying at the time that the cargo was probably destined for the UK, where its street value would have been over US $20 million.

According to the UN Development Programme, two-thirds of Swazis live in chronic poverty and many are concentrated on rural Swazi Nation Land, where peasants cannot own their farms or find capital for agricultural improvements like irrigation or better seed stock.

"I can get kicked off my land, and I can never do much, growing maize on our small plot, but I can always find a nook somewhere to grow dagga," a farmer told IRIN.

Farmers admit to supplying marijuana to the growing number of people living locally with HIV/AIDS. Although growing dagga is illegal in Swaziland, there seems to have been a system in the past whereby some individuals obtained approval from the late King Sobhuza II to grow it for medicinal purposes.

Some support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS encourage their members to smoke marijuana to stimulate their appetites.

"Particularly when you are starting with the anti-retroviral drugs, your body can feel bad and you don't want to eat anything - that is when people become thin," Eunice Simelane of Swazis for Positive Living told IRIN.

Nearly 40 percent of adult Swazis are living with HIV, according to UNAIDS.