Tuesday, June 21, 2005

War on Drugs, War Against the Poor

I came across an article in the South African newspaper, The Star, published in Johannesburg, about futile efforts to stamp out marijuana cultivation by peasants in neighboring Swaziland.

If you are not familiar with Swaziland, it is

a small landlocked country of about 17,360 square kilometers, with a population of approximately 1 million in 1999, at a density of 57 persons per square kilometer. Swaziland has some natural mineral resources (coal, asbestos, timber) but is a predominantly market economy based largely on wholesale and retail trade, agriculture and light industries. The Gross Domestic Product per capita is approximately US$1,300.
According to one recent report, "two-thirds of Swazis [live] in chronic poverty, and unemployment [reaches] beyond 40 percent." And the World Food Program reports:
The poorest and most food insecure households are headed by people with the least employment opportunities and very few assets

Even in years of reasonable harvest and stable prices, some two-thirds of households live below the poverty line. The recent dramatic increase in food prices have pushed a greater proportion of people below the poverty line and worsened the lives of those already struggling

66 percent of Swaziland's population live below the poverty line

The economy is largely dependent on agriculture and manufacturing sectors

As a land-locked country, with limited domestic markets, it relies on exports of agricultural commodities for economic development and food security

Arable land only represents 11 percent of the total area; the rest is permanent pasture, forest or woodland

The average unemployment rate in Swaziland is about 40 percent, although this figure is higher in rural areas

So it should come as no mystery why Swazi farmers turn to a cash crop that actually earns them cash in an effort to rescue their families from abject poverty. They grow "dagga" (a South African term for marijuana, weed, pot). The Johannesburg Star article explains:
Prized for its potency across the world, "Swazi Gold" is grown in the remote northern mountains of this tiny African kingdom, then smuggled into neighbouring South Africa and on to Europe and North America.

Police in impoverished Swaziland say that despite dousing acres of towering plants with deadly insecticide, they are losing the war on dagga to dirt-poor peasants bent on protecting their most lucrative crop.

"We can't win this war," says inspector Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho.

"This is just a drop in the ocean - the people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he says as he sniffs at a 2m plant in one makeshift field north of the regional capital Pigg's Peak.
To put a human face on the situation, correspondent Rebecca Harrison found the widow of a peasant farmer. It's hard to argue with her reasoning:
Like thousands of other peasant farmers in Hhohho, a woman who identifies herself only as Khanyesile ekes out a living from 30 limp dagga plants hidden in thick undergrowth behind her rickety shack.

"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory - I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school," she says from beneath a flowered headscarf.

Khanyesile, 45, has been jailed and fined for her dagga. Police have twice sprayed and burned her tiny fields and once local thieves stole the entire crop just before harvesting.

But a patchy income from selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road is not enough to feed her family, and she has no intention of giving up her plants despite the threat of up to six years in prison.

"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 says.

Most of her neighbours, Khanyesile says, also grow dagga, and homesteads club together to minimise risk for the man from South Africa, who arrives on foot across the mountains.

"I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga - it is the only way we can make money."
While small-scale farmers like Khanyesile barely eke out a living by growing pot in a tiny patch in their backyards, the potential for profits that will pull them out of poverty is great:
Swazi marijuana, which is said to be more potent due to the soil and weather conditions, fetches a handsome premium.

On the streets of Johannesburg, Swazi Gold is sold in 30g small bank bags, or "bankies", for R70 apiece, while Amsterdam coffee shops charge the equivalent of around R50 for one gram.

Khanyesile says she gets around R1 000 for 2kg.
(Current exchange rates will bring approximately 6.7 South African rand for each American dollar. So R1,000 is about $150.00 -- a lot of money in a country where the average income is barely more than $100 per month.)

Why do the United States and other developed countries subsidize a global war on drugs that is effectively a war on the survival of the poor? Why do they do it even when its futility is so apparent? As Harrison puts it in her Star article,
[M]any experts say police are wasting their time, since dagga is embedded in Swazi culture, smoked for centuries by farmers and used for medicine by traditional healers.

Dlamini [the drug enforcement agent] says even the chief of his home village would smoke a dagga pipe twice a day as an accepted part of Swazi tradition.
Futile and cruel. Cruel and futile. Those are the words to describe the war on drugs.

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