Swaziland's mountainous northern Hhohho Region, one of Southern Africa's prime marijuana growing areas, is being targeted in a new strategy to convince farmers that now is the time to switch crops.
"We want the small-landholder farmers up here to switch from insangu (the Swazi word for marijuana), but not exactly. They are experts at cultivating cannabis, so why throw away that talent? We just want them to grow another species of cannabis – hemp," said agriculture consultant, John Weatherson.
"We are looking to set up a large-scale hemp growing agribusiness... All the small farmers would be able to piggyback on the plant by selling their hemp crops there, where it would be processed into value-added products for export," Weatherson added.
Such products would be included in goods shipped to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunities Act, a trade scheme intended to boost Swaziland's economy by allowing locally produced goods into the world's largest market, duty-free.
Marijuana has been a real money-earner for Swazi farmers, and much more than just a subsistence crop.
"We're trying to convince the Hhohho farmers to grow vegetables for the export market. This can be lucrative. But a transport and marketing infrastructure is not yet in place, and we've not been successful," said former head of the National Agriculture and Marketing Board, Magalela Ngwenya.
Weatherson doubts farmers currently growing marijuana can easily be persuaded to try other crops. "They have no interest in growing tomatoes. They are experts in cannabis," he said.
The Swaziland Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse estimates that 75 percent of small-landholder farmers in Hhohho's isolated mountain valleys grow marijuana.
"The buyers are South African drug dealers from Johannesburg and Durban. Some of the drug is consumed in South Africa, but most of it is shipped up to Europe. In the Netherlands there is a big demand for 'Swazi gold', as the local marijuana is called," said David Pritchard, recent president of the organisation.
"From what we understand, Swazi marijuana is highly prized for its potency and purity. The Swazi soil is fertile – this is an agricultural country – and apparently it is good for marijuana, too," he said.
Marijuana has always been a part of Swazi culture. One privilege of the headman of a traditional homestead is to retire to his private kraal with male companions and pass around a pipe filled with the intoxicating weed. At Swaziland Cultural Village in Mantenga, a faithful re-creation of a 19th century Swazi homestead, a man in traditionally-braided hair playing the role of the family elder demonstrates smoking with a classic bone pipe, using actual marijuana.
But changes in the drug trade have thrown the Swazi marijuana cultivation business into confusion this year. For decades, Swazi farmers bundled up their drug harvests in bales, which were compressed locally into brick-sized blocks for transport out of the country, en route to Europe.
"Now European buyers want 'chocolate', which is a viscous brown resin distilled from the plant," said Weatherson.
All over Swaziland, unsold blocks of marijuana are stacking up. There are no extracting machines in the country to manufacture "chocolate" resin.
An agriculture ministry developmental officer, David Masuku, who has studied alternative crops for the marijuana-growing region, noted: "What these farmers would get from hemp is nowhere near what they now get for marijuana. But this is the time to convince them to change cannabis crops, because of the insecurity in the marijuana market."
Another inducement is the peril marijuana farmers increasingly face from law enforcement bodies. Police are stepping up their interdiction efforts to stamp out the drug trade at its source. In the past, joint army and police operations were assisted by South African police helicopters to locate and destroy marijuana crops in remote areas.
But with the construction of Maguga Dam on the Komati River, which spurred the development of the Hhohho Region road system, once isolated farms are more accessible.
This week, police confiscated marijuana worth R1 million (US $125,000). What was once an unusually large haul is now routine. "I have lost everything. Insangu (marijuana) is part of Swazi culture, and this is not fair," one farmer who lost his harvest complained to the local press.
"These farmers have tons of experience in growing marijuana. They are so good at it, it's logical they should continue, but with hemp," said Weatherson.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions