Killing the economic lifeblood of the Eastern Cape's weed-producing people

27 March 2016 - 02:00 By Niren Tolsi
A sangoma handling the dried product.
A sangoma handling the dried product.
Image: Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network

The mountains meet the Indian Ocean on the Wild Coast. At Ebulawu, south of Port St Johns, green-topped peaks undulate up towards sheer drops into the blue maelstrom below, where waves crash against cliffs of white, grey and red.

Vines hang heavy on centuries-old trees. The vegetation's lush hypnotism is a reminder that this is psychotropic territory in every sense. The descent into the ravines takes us down paths darkened by impenetrable tree canopies.

Forests give way to clearings, which give way to squares of crops - and back again. Navigating down the steep inclines, one is soon walking in fields of marijuana, where stalks are star-spangled with leaves and crystalline flowering buds. Some plants are shoulder high, others are stunted by drought.

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Ebulawu is one of the heartlands of Pondoland marijuana. These are fields of green.

The strains of Cannabis sativa cultivated at Ebulawu have been famous for generations. Locals, tourists, visiting fishermen and dealers have been buying, smoking and selling the marijuana for decades. Some locals barter their crops for anything from food to appliances. Customers come from as far away as Pretoria and Cape Town to buy bulk for resale.

"My grandfather planted before me, I remember he planted three or four mountains away from here," says Michael*, 62, pointing northward. "My father didn't plant at all. I didn't either, until I came back from the mines in 1989."

Michael had been working as a miner in Welkom when he was retrenched. He says one day his benefit pay-outs stopped - with no explanation. To supplement an income from catching and selling fish to tourists - and to support his nine children - Michael began growing marijuana.

Employment in the area is limited to cleaning the cottages that white tourists and anglers have built on land obtained on long-lease from local chiefs, sometimes in exchange for alcohol and a feast for the village. Or selling the abundant harvest of fish, mussels and shellfish to tourists - the going rate for a whole steenbras the length of one's forearm, says Michael, is about R50.

There are no other jobs in this lush paradise. Men will go to the mines if they can, committing themselves to the penury of hard migrant labour, only seeing their families two or three times a year. Women will tend the fields growing mealies, spinach, cabbage and vegetables for subsistence. Money for clothes, school uniforms and books or cellphone airtime comes from social grants, seafood sales - and marijuana.

Michael, who doesn't smoke the plant, is cultivating two fields of cannabis and reaps about 40 to 50 bin-bags per field. He measures the bulk sales in litres: at the beginning of the harvest season in February every year, he sells five litres for R1,000; by the end of the season in May, he is selling 20 litres for the same price. Depending on the yield, and its quality, he can add between R40,000 and R60,000 to the annual household income.

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During harvest season, he employs young men from the area to assist him and pays them R600 per five-hour shift. This is manna in a moribund rural economy where women cleaning holiday cottages are lucky to earn R70 per day.

"There are three villages that are planting here," Michael says. Fields of about half-a-hectare form a patchwork on the slopes of a valley, at the bottom of which streams wind their way towards the northern Hluleka estuary.

The marijuana fields, a discernibly darker green than maize fields when seen from a distance, are cultivated further away from roads, homesteads and legal crops, to avoid detection and persecution by the authorities.

But the police do know of this community's historical association with cannabis. Every so often, especially at harvest time, they apparently come breaking down doors, smacking people about; making arrests or taking bribes. In the last decade, police helicopters have sprayed herbicide in an effort to curb marijuana output.

block_quotes_start I had hoped that intsangu would make me the Sol Kerzner of this area                                   block_quotes_end

"I had hoped that intsangu would make me the Sol Kerzner of this area," Michael's wife, Thabiso* says with dark humour. "But whatever they spray is unsellable - so you make nothing when the helicopters come."

The aerial spraying is indiscriminate: marijuana plants, subsistence crops, water sources, and even people have been doused by the poison.

"I remember the day in 2015 when they sprayed me and my cattle, on bare land which I was ploughing. On brown land, with no crops," said Thembinkosi*, 68, a local farmer with eight children and 25 grandchildren.

"It was an overcast day and they had come to spray my crops at about seven that morning. It rained at about 10am, and then they came back about an hour after that ... They saw me in the field and flew over me and didn't spray. They went off about a kilometre away and they turned around and came back, even lower, but they didn't spray," he said.

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"They came back a third time, much lower, and then they started spraying us. My oxen scattered and I just put my hands up in the air, as if to say that I give up. Then I started pointing to my stomach to tell them 'Sorry, but I am hungry. I must grow what I can to feed myself.'

"It felt as if they were bullying me. They had come earlier and sprayed my crops, but this time, it felt like they were after me," said Thembinkosi bitterly. He says the police helicopters have been coming to the area every other year - harming his ability to support his extended family, very few of whom are working. Thembinkosi estimates he makes around R30,000 per harvest. In years when his cannabis crop is sprayed, "we live off the earth and the sea, there is very little we can buy ... We do this for our children".

His wife, Ntombi* chips in: "When they spray us and we are desperate for money we have to go to the loan sharks to borrow cash. We never know how we will pay them back, but people are hungry so what can we do?"

According to Ntombi, the local micro-lenders charge 30% interest. She adds that with the spraying and the drought, 2015 was a lean year: she had to borrow R1,500 in December, to ensure the grandchildren had a reasonably festive Christmas. Speaking in January, Ntombi had yet to pay back the money, and was already worried about buying school clothes and books for the new year.

The police, meanwhile, have been enjoying what appears to be an annual month-long jaunt, staying in the holiday town of Port St Johns, and flying out to spray crops across a swathe of land that extends from Mpande and Ebulawu near the coast all the way inland to areas like Emanaleni, southeast of Lusikisiki, about 100km away.

Port St Johns locals have described the police expeditions as "a bit of a holiday by the beach".

"They stay at an exclusive lodge on the Mzimvubu River, fly out early in the morning for the spraying and are done by midday. You see them often at the pubs and bars. This is not hard work," said the proprietor of a local establishment, who did not want to be named.

This year there has - so far - been no spraying in the Eastern Cape. Lawyers acting for concerned farming and community organisations in the area wrote to the police and, citing environmental and health concerns, asked that they desist.

In the event that the police decide to continue, the lawyers asked for an undertaking that communities be forewarned as to when the spraying will occur and in which areas. There have been several complaints about the police spraying without adhering to the herbicide's instructions, which include clearly demarcating the area intending for spraying.

Responding by letter on March 1 this year, the police said they would not be "derailed" from their mission unless "interdicted by court or advised not to proceed by the government of the Republic of South Africa, acting on advice of toxicologists employed to look at the interests of the state". In the absence of an interdict, "the SAPS will continue with the aerial spraying programme to eradicate illicit cannabis crops".

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The police also refused to inform communities of when they intended to spray areas - pointing out that this would mean "pre-warn[ing] offenders".

While Thembinkosi said he felt no side-effects after being directly sprayed, there is growing concern about the health effects of the herbicide used: the best-selling Monsanto weed-killer Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

While police have contended that the herbicide is not toxic, the World Health Organisation last year released findings that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans". Used by many governments and municipalities to curb weeds, it is banned in countries like the Netherlands and from use in public spaces in Chicago and Paris. The European Union will soon vote on whether it should be banned. Its detractors, and many researchers, attribute birth defects, kidney diseases and infertility to its presence in drinking water.

Following the release of the WHO report last year, the Colombian government ended its two-decade long programme to curb cocaine production by spraying coca crops, due to concerns about cancer. At the programme's height in 2006, over 164,000ha of coca were sprayed annually, according to the New York Times.

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In the communities that Lifestyle visited, several people blamed the indiscriminate spraying of water sources that provide drinking and irrigation water for miscarriages amongst their livestock, especially cows and goats.

In the hippie zones of Port St Johns, "crusties" and "greenies" whisper of the spraying being part of a grander Monsanto plot to eradicate any "heirloom maize" left in the area to clear the way for more genetically modified maize and a limitation of biodiversity. Already, much of the traditional mealie cultivation in the area has been replaced by Monsanto maize, which is resistant to Roundup, but creates a seed dependency on Monsanto - which posted $16-billion (about R245-billion) in global revenue in 2014.

The visual similarities between clumps of hashish and goat poo become obvious when the wind picks up and scatters loose bits of the former amongst a trail of brown, round droppings in the shade of a large tree.

Sifting through the sand and pellets is a hazardous business - and will lend new meaning to any question of whether the "shit" one is smoking is any good.

But it's break-time on a long trek that will soon include crossing the Mzimvubu River - not as daunting as in times of abundant rainfall - and trudging a quarter-way up a mountain.

We are in search of a cannabis-growing village there, and have been walking through the northernmost edge of the Emalaleni area. The roads turned into footpaths a few kilometres back and the 4X4 has long since been abandoned.

The land is desiccated by the drought. Along our hour-long walk through areas mainly populated by Kei apple and other thorn trees, only one farmer was brave enough to attempt to grow maize.

The rest have been growing marijuana, but the plants look stunted and parched. Some are flowering earlier than they should - in mid-December - due to drought-induced trauma. Many fields that have been planted in previous years, and have signs of water piped from the river, are lying fallow.

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The cannabis land races (heirloom strains) in the region are ideal for making essential oils, says Philasande Mahlakata, a farmer and herbalist from Port St Johns.

"They have lower THC content, so you may not get that stoned, but they do seem to have the cannabinoids that are used in treating diseases like cancer."

Mahlakata is attempting to set up a business to produce essential oils based on traditional knowledge of plants that have been used by Amampondo for centuries.

She says marijuana oil, with its palliative effects for cancer patients, is vital, not just for medical treatment, but for job creation in a desperately poor region.

"This is an untapped natural resource. Instead of men going off to the mines, they could be working here, growing their 'weed' for essential oil production," she says.

This is a view shared by Inkatha Freedom Party chief whip Narend Singh. He sits on parliament's health research group, and has been driving the Medical Innovation Bill in parliament.

The bill was initially tabled by Singh's former colleague, Mario Ambrosini, who died of cancer in 2014. It calls for amendments to current legislation that will "allow for the possession and use of cannabis for experimentation and research purposes", Singh says.

"We don't have any concrete figures, just anecdotal evidence, but there has certainly been an increase in the use of cannabis oil for the palliative treatment of cancer - illegally of course," says Singh. "These people should not be persecuted and cannabis is a resource that we should be tapping into to help those who are sick."

Peter*, an artist and photographer, was diagnosed with liver cancer over four years ago. Initially on chemotherapy and radiotherapy - both of which have corrosive side-effects - he has started using cannabis oil alongside his medical treatments. It has helped to relieve pain, spur his appetite and treat the nausea caused by regular medication. "I've also been experimenting with using it to target specific cancerous areas."

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Since 1996, 23 states in the US have legalised the medical use of marijuana - for anything from insomnia to glaucoma and asthma - with varying restrictions on usable amounts and the number of plants one is allowed to have.

Last year, Colorado's tourism office reported that marijuana's legal status in the state influenced the holiday decisions of 49% of the state's tourism visitors - who numbered a record 71.3million in 2014, spending $18.6-billion.

Progressive legislative approaches to marijuana are being adopted around the world - from Uruguay's far-reaching reform to Barcelona, where private, members-only cannabis clubs have created a new tourism culture.

The city is apparently ready to supplant Amsterdam as Europe's cannabis capital.

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, scheduled for 2019, has been brought forward to next month following a request by the governments of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. These countries appear intent on shifting global drug policy away from the "war on drugs" approach to a more progressive, holistic one.

With medical and tourism benefits yet to be explored in South Africa - and shifting attitudes to "softer" drugs around the globe - Ricky Stone, the attorney representing the concerned communities around Port St Johns, has just one question for the government and the police: why?

block_quotes_start We are a proud people. We do not appreciate being treated like stupids. Just because we are poor... block_quotes_end

"Why are police harassing and intimidating communities that are poor, because of marijuana? Why are they depriving poverty-stricken communities of a chance to better their lives, and afford themselves their own dignity? Why are we not having a progressive debate about the benefits of marijuana for both medical and tourism?"

These questions become more acute as we trudge up the mountain toward a village near the summit.

The drought has made this world drier than usual. Dust clings to the inside of the throat.

Aside from a few blocks of dark green plants growing next to the river beds, there is little farming about. A spring previously used by the community has dwindled to a mere seep, congested with goat tracks and animal faeces. Children drink straight from the river.

The community here live on what they grow: from the cabbage to the marijuana that they sell. The options are few.

"We have very little that grows here, and we don't have the materials to make craft and sell them: the earth here is not good for clay for pottery and we don't have the grass for weaving baskets," says Agnes*, a feisty old lady putting her grandkids through school while her offspring seek urban jobs.

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"We have nothing here," she says, "and we are nothing too. We have asked the [Lusikisiki] municipality for roads, so that we can be connected to the towns and the clinics, but they have not responded to us at all. It is only when the helicopters come that it seems people remember us - but they are only remembering to kill us."

The helicopter has an infamous place in Pondo mythology. In 1960, when Pondoland revolted in the culmination of a decade-long resistance to rural policies and "betterment" programmes, their collaborator king, Botha Sigcau, was said to have been taken up in a helicopter - the first time one was seen in the region, some say. From the air, he apparently fired the first bullet of the Ngquza Hill massacre that claimed 11 lives. Several more men were later hanged in Pretoria.

In Marikana, on August 16 2012, helicopters circled above the scene of the massacre in which 34 striking miners were killed - most of them from Pondoland.

"We are a proud people," says Lungisile*, a headman in the Emalaleni area. "We do not appreciate being treated like stupids. Just because we are poor and uneducated does not mean we are nothing. We have rights.

"People are getting angry here. Government sends the helicopter to starve us, to kill us, but it won't send the emergency helicopter when one of us is sick - that is only for the white person. People are angry here. How long they will contain themselves, I cannot guarantee."

* Not their real names

Niren Tolsi is a journalist who has spent over three years investigating the Marikana massacre with photographer Paul Botes. Their books will be published later this year.

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