01 / 2009
Please tell us about your experience as a small farmer in Lesotho
I am from Lesotho; it is a mountainous country that is inside South Africa. Over 75% of the population lives from agriculture. Most crops we grow for food (maize, wheat, sorghum). Cannabis is mainly grown in the foothills of Lesotho. Like every peasant or farmer, we find ourselves compelled to grow some plants which may be described as illegal. Cannabis, for most farmers, is not produced for autoconsumption, but for commercial purposes. We export it to South Africa, to get money so we can take our kids to school, for medical purposes, all those basic issues. It is for survival and nothing else. It is only in rare cases that we sell cannabis to locals.
The law in our country concerning cannabis only prohibits possession, but it does not say anything about the use of it. It is illegal to be found in possession of cannabis.
What about the cultivation? Is it penalized?
Well, cultivation is partly possession. Generally, there is no major problem with the government, only last year, when there was this huge operation of the South African police in conjunction with the Lesothan police into certain areas in Eastern Lesotho. Regularly, we find that there are road-blocks by the Lesothan police all around, but one cannot say that they are constantly blocking transportation to South Africa.
What is the current situation in your community?
In Lesotho, we haven’t opened the debate - neither the growers nor the government - as to what is our perception of marijuana. It was during the British colonisation that the law declaring marijuana an illicit plant was established. Hence the first political organization in Lesotho (which was striving to achieve independence) had two main claims: that the British should « return the country » (by which they meant a land that is twice bigger than current Lesotho, part of which is now in South Africa) and that they should legalize marijuana. Their understanding of the community was right: this plant is beneficial for us as a nation.
So the main claim of the Basuto National Congress for Independence was that they had to return that land to Lesotho and for the legalization of marijuana. But since then and post-independence (1966), there has never been a debate on how we should legalize, or what we should do to legalize marijuana. So the community in Lesotho is not as well organized as in other countries.
Do you have any association between farmers?
We don’t have any type of association; we operate in groups. And they are created on the basis of friendships or commercial purposes. For example, if one person goes to do some marketing in South Africa, we join him and do the marketing there together.
Regarding legality, what are the problems that you face and encounter as a community?
The law is quite weak, it is not clear. It does not prohibit you to plant. The law just says it is illegal to be in possession of marijuana. That’s all it states. If you smell of marijuana, but they do not find any on you, they cannot arrest you. But if they get you with possession, no matter the size of it, you might get a fine proportional to the amount. Sometimes they might just confiscate what you have.
Do you face any problems as a grower/producer?
Certainly, because if I can be found planting, I am as wrong as someone who is in possession. It is not something we can do openly. We normally do it in the valleys, which are hidden, and which are inaccessible for the police to get to. We normally do it in “no-go-zones” for the police.
Does this make it more difficult for you too, to get to the fields?
Cultivation is not that easy. Transportation from the valleys to the market is quite complicated.
How is it with the soil and the water, since it is so far away?
In those valleys, the soil is quite fertile. Lesotho is the second if not the first country with the most water in Southern Africa. Actually, there are two huge dams that have been built basically to provide water for South Africa.
Do these dams affect you?
Yes, we normally grow in the valleys where the rivers and canals that drive water to the dam are located.
Are you subject to any pressure from organisms - paramilitary, military, governmental? Or as long as you are far out, you are safe?
A little bit. We mainly encounter problems when we are transporting from the fields to the market, because that is when we encounter road-blocks by the police. You rarely find the military involved. It is not like in other countries. In Lesotho, this does not exist.
Do people often get caught at the borders? Is your own personal subsistence is at risk?
Yes, very much so.
Are there any other crops that you can grow together with marijuana?
Usually, people who grow cannabis grow it along with maize.
Personally, do you grow your own food?
Certainly. That is how we survive.
Has it ever happened that the police or any other organism come and affect your personal food crops?
Not at all; at least, this has never happened to me. With other farmers who have been affected by police seizing their crops, the police only come and get the marijuana and leave the maize.
Politically speaking, it is not Lesotho who has illegalized marijuana. It was the foreigners. Lesotho has no problem with marijuana. In fact, it is a source of income for us. This is why the government cannot get that tough on Lesothans, on those of us who grow it, because they know that it is how we survive. Some of the ministers grew up in such families, and they know that this is how peasants in those regions survive.
What becomes of the cannabis that is cultivated? Is it used only for consumption, or perhaps also for textile or medical uses?
Recently, they have started using it in modern hospitals, but to be converted into chemical. Probably in South Africa, but this country does not have its own plantations of cannabis: it is grown in Lesotho and exported to South Africa.
In Lesotho, you may find someone occasionally using it for consumption. For medical purposes, for example, if you are having a headache, you use it as a medicine, and nothing else. This is why we say that it is not a drug: because we have never seen it as bad, and it has never been converted into a hard drug that can damage someone.
When we get to big cities in South Africa, and they see a license plate from Lesotho, they just rush to you because they think that you have brought cannabis.
Since you are “in the middle of South Africa”, I suppose you are the object of special attention when you travel out to your neighbour country?
Definitely. If you get to any border town in South Africa, and the police sees you are from Lesotho, they will stop you and ask what it is that you are doing in South Africa.
The economy that is created, is it only enough to sustain your own family, or can you to a certain extent grow richer because there is a big market?
It is also enriching. There are some big business men in the country who started growing marijuana, who now stopped, and are running for example a big fleet of buses. But most of our farmers are growing it for survival.
I have read that cannabis has existed in Lesotho for a very long time…
Yes, marijuana has been there long before.
Is it a plant that people know and accept?
It has been accepted all along. In fact, in our traditions, it used to be one of those herbs that were found available for the councillors. It shows that it has a long history for us as a nation.
How is it that after 1980 there was such a big growth in the commerce of marijuana?
It was due to retrenchment policies. People who worked in the mines were brought back home. So they found themselves with no other alternative for creating family income, and turned to marijuana plantation. Hence production increased, and so did exportation.
How does it feel for you personally to grow this plant?
For me, it is a commercial crop and nothing else. It doesn’t cause any harm, it must be used reasonably like any other plant, and I don’t want to see it being converted into something that can be dangerous to humankind, because it has never been so. In fact, it can make us a better people. It must be used as natural as it is. It is a medicine and nothing else. This is what nature provides us to make our life out of it.
How do you see the future of your community?
I would say: let us go ahead with our business. If you don’t want us going ahead with our business, come up with an alternative, instead of just saying: drop it. Because this plant, that God has given us, helps us survive. If you want my community to stop growing cannabis, give them an alternative. And we are going to put it on trial: can this alternative sustain people’s needs?
Interview realized during the Ist Global Forum of Producers of Crops declared to be Illegal, Barcelona, 29-31 January, 2009.
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