This is NOT a Marijuana Blog… (Part 1 – The Environmental Apocalypse)

Two days after SVG experienced its worst flooding in a century, I travelled up the leeward coast of Saint Vincent to survey the damage. The trip, for me, was more than an exercise in disaster tourism. It was an opportunity to educate myself on the scale and scope of the damage, so that I could accurately convey to bilateral and multilateral partners the nature and urgency of the assistance we needed. Also, I wanted to be able to answer a question that was gnawing at the edges of my consciousness, and one that would surely occupy the minds of those we asked to support us: 

How could a mere three hours of rainfall cause so much death and destruction? 

The complex answer to that question lay at the crowded intersection of meteorology, geography, topography, poverty, history, poor planning and plain bad luck. The World Bank tells us that SVG hasn’t experienced that much rain in that short a period at any point in its recorded history. The rain fell most intensely in rural communities, where historical underdevelopment and an inhospitable terrain forced people to perch houses precariously on mountainsides and in riverbeds. Our 28 damaged or destroyed bridges, and our road network, simply were not designed or engineered to accommodate the historic deluge that we experienced. Some of the deceased – like those in the tragically affected Nanton family and my own family member Raymond Gonsalves – might have survived if their homes were simply built ten or so feet to the left or right, as landslides did not devastate entire villages, so much as they seemed to target individual households within a village. 

But there was another element to the damage that played a lesser, though still significant role in the tragedy. A common sight amid the twisted metal and crushed concrete of ruined infrastructure was another, more curious, presence: 

Logs. 

Not trees – uprooted, with twisted trunks and broken branches (though there were plenty of those too). But logs. Standard lengths, stripped of branches, and neatly cut by cutlass or chainsaw. These logs clogged swelling rivers, and acted like high-velocity battering rams as they hurtled downstream and downhill into bridges, pipelines and homes. 

Where did these logs come from? Some were the product of illegal logging, where people venture into the hills to cut trees for resale to furniture builders, and their own construction needs. But far more, according to the area’s residents, came from the farmers “in the hills.” 

The Ganja farmers.

Marijuana, illegal throughout the Caribbean, isn’t grown on easily accessible farmlands, for obvious reasons. SVG – which boasts a mountainous, remote, yet fertile interior – has always been an idea locale for enterprising Marijuana cultivators. As Marijuana has become a big regional business, fuelled by growing demand in nearby, more affluent islands, Ganja-growing conglomerates have been putting more and more Vincy acreage under cultivation. A few years ago, the (conservative) estimate was that over 300 of St. Vincent’s 30,000 acres of forest was being used to grow Ganja. It is undoubtedly much more than that today. This means more clearing of high-altitude farmland, more logging, and less protection for our steep slopes and downhill villages. 

Add once-in-a-century rainfall to increasingly unprotected mountainsides; and the landslides aren’t hard to predict. Combine that with hundreds – if not thousands – of cut logs lying loosely on those same unprotected hillsides, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We have this image of the noble Ganja farmer in our collective consciousness, which – although it has some elements of truth – is increasingly at odds with the emerging modern reality. He is not the subsistence farmer he once was – he is growing for export. He may not be the solitary, independent, free spirit he once was – now he has employers, workers, suppliers, shippers and markets to satisfy. He is probably not the humble pacifist he once was – now he can also be a hyper-competitive, gun toting, booby-trap setting, eye-for-an-eye warrior. He is less often the devout Rastafarian he once was – he now is the producer of a cash crop, and his end user is more likely some drunken partygoer in Martinique, Barbados or Trinidad than it is a righteous consumer of a holy sacrament. Let’s face it: SVG’s Rasta community does not need 300 acres of weed to meet their local religious and medicinal purposes. 

More than any of this, today’s Ganja farmer is not necessarily a caring steward of our precious natural environment. He is just as likely to be a slashing, burning, logging destroyer of centuries-old indigenous forests and other flora and fauna. An eradicator of habitat and nesting areas for our unique and endangered Saint Vincent Parrot. Not to mention being a mortal threat to the lives, livelihoods and infrastructures of his friends and family members who live in the communities beneath his wonton environmental destruction.

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In the month before the floods, I raised these environmental concerns on two separate occasions with some of the members of the “informal farming sector,” and with some of their primary advocates and defenders. The response I received was a predictable refusal to squarely acknowledge the environmental impacts of their actions, and a desire to turn the conversation towards the legalization of Marijuana. If Ganja were legal, the argument goes, these farmers would come down from the hills, put away their chainsaws, and plant on the flat and fallow farmlands that were once home to our booming banana business. The forests would return, the parrots would nest, and the illegal logging would be reduced to a trickle. They told me that nobody wants to be in the mountains for months, away from family, removed from modern amenities, fighting with rival planters, and afraid of the next “Vincy-Pac”-style law enforcement action. It is the system that has driven them into the hills – a system of laws, underdevelopment, the legacy of the WTO’s antipathy to Caribbean bananas, and limited options for personal growth and development. Change the system, by legalizing Marijuana, and voila! the problems I complain about will disappear. 

They may have a point. They do have a point. But it is a point that is equal parts reality and hopeful utopian conjecture.  How close are we – realistically – to the full legalization of Ganja? Will decriminalization of small amounts for medicinal/home use allow for mass cultivation of Ganja in open farms below the 1,000 foot contour? Do the men in the hills actually own or have access to any of these low-lying farms? In an environment where Ganja cultivation and export is legal, what would be SVG’s competitive advantage, and what is to stop Ganja going the way of bananas as a once-lucrative cash crop that is produced more cheaply elsewhere? Who’s to say that the illegal export model will translate smoothly to the regulations, pressures and expectations of a legitimate production regime?

Also, fundamentally, we cannot ignore the fact that farmers have “squatted” on 300+ acres of forested Crown Land and converted it, with their own sweat equity, into fertile farmland. The price of that land – $0.00 per square foot – is hard to beat down on the flats. Who’s to say that anyone will simply abandon the land and cede their farms to the encroaching forest once Ganja is legal? Wouldn’t they continue to work those lands, with legal or other illegal crops, in the way in which they have become accustomed?

Many of these questions I’ll explore in more depth in parts 2 and 3 of this posting. But neither those questions, nor the overarching issue of legalization/decriminalization, get us any closer to solving our pressing environmental problems in the short term. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation has told us that the Christmas floods have denuded over 10% of our indigenous forest cover. A lot of that deforestation was exacerbated by, or directly related to, the behavior of the Ganja farmers. And a lot of those trees – whether cut or uprooted – remain on the mountainsides, waiting for the next bit of bad weather to come careening downhill towards vulnerable towns and villages. Without mentioning Ganja specifically, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves calls this deforestation problem a “ticking bomb” in Saint Vincent’s interior. This ticking is only going to get louder, and the bomb bigger, without action from all sectors of society – including the farmers themselves. 

The environmental cost of continued logging and poor forest management by Ganja farmers cannot be ignored. If the farmers themselves do not play a role in mitigating the potential effect of their deforestation and farming methods, then the Government will have no choice but to act even more aggressively in controlling the illegal activities in the hills. The argument that the Ganja farmers “aren’t hurting anyone” rings hollow when a government is faced with a double-digit death toll and a reconstruction bill that is almost 20% of GDP. Was this death and devastation all the fault of Ganja farmers? Of course not. Not even close. But the contributory role played by the deforestation and logging must not be swept under the carpet, either.

What can be done today, in a sociopolitical environment where the State has obvious difficulties in formally engaging with a sector of society that is openly flouting the law? Quite a bit, actually. 

First, farmers must agree to a moratorium on clearing additional forest cover for Ganja cultivation. There must be a total freeze in further deforestation. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a pretty solid aerial view of how much forest has been cleared to date. Farmers need to be made aware that the next acre of forest removed will have severe, interdiction-style consequences. Some existing farms, based on their location, may simply have to be surrendered. 

Second, forestry officials and farmers must cooperate in the identification and disposal of logs and fallen trees. We’re talking about close to 4,000 acres of inhospitable mountainside that is either denuded after the flood or under Ganja cultivation. The simple fact is that the Government does not have the human or financial resources to deal with a problem of that magnitude on its own. Cooperation – unofficial though it may be – is vital.

Third, the Government must attempt to actively court funding from environmental agencies and NGOs that have an interest in combatting deforestation. We must try to persuade the FAO, UNEP, UNDP, the UN-REDD programme, the Nature Conservancy, etc., to overcome their squeamishness in dealing with “the Marijuana issue” so that we can get real money and expertise on the ground to help manage this problem. These agencies and organisations cannot only help us financially, but their personnel can be effective interlocutors in dialogue with the farmers. Politicians and Government personnel may have the stench of Babylon’s System or be accused of spying for future raids and eradication campaigns; but an FAO official could more credibly talk about terraced farming, managing water runoff, and soil conservation.

Fourth, the Government must continue to beef up its forestry and environmental divisions, with funding, human resources, and stronger legislation. A lot has been done to date in all three areas, but the increase of logging and climate change volatility is outpacing our ability to keep up. Roughly one third of mainland Saint Vincent is forested. That forest is under threat. We must increase our commitment to this aspect of environmental stewardship.

Fifth, the nascent conversation that is just underway about the legal framework surrounding Marijuana in the Caribbean must also focus on how we will deal with the existing growers and exporters. Everyone is talking about whether the innocent teenager with a spliff should be prosecuted. But no one is talking about the supply chain that begins with a large-scale Ganja cultivator in the mountains of SVG. Ganja isn’t grown by the stalk in backyard gardens anymore. It’s grown on mini-plantations. Any emerging regulatory framework must encompass both the consumer and the producer of the product.

Sixth, as implied in every other point here, we need to talk. Not to apologise or antagonize or defend or deny, but to deal with the very real fact that an informal activity in SVG has grown to the point that it is affecting the environmental health and disaster preparedness of our country – at a time of increasingly volatile and dangerous climate change. These conversations have to begin in earnest. They can be informal, backdoor, clandestine, or whatever. If the USA can have peace talks with the Taliban, if the Syrian Government and Islamist rebels can negotiate in the midst of a war, then certainly all of us Vincentians can sit down and have a sober collective discussion about how to resolve this gathering environmental threat. 

I called this posting “This is NOT a Marijuana Blog.” And it’s not. The mountainside farmers could’ve been growing tomatoes, for all I care. It’s an environmental posting. And its message is simple:

Leave the trees. Move the logs.

(Part 2 next week)