Volcanic eruptions hit St Vincent’s ganja farmers hard

THOUSANDS of ganja farmers in the eastern Caribbean island of St Vincent and the Grenadines are now piecing together what is left of a once-thriving industry following last month’s explosive eruption of La Soufrire volcano.

Co-founder of St Vincent and the Grenadines Cannabis Revival Committee (CRC) Junior Cottle, who could not put a figure on the loss suffered by some 3,000 farmers the union represents, said it could be in the millions.

He was speaking with the Jamaica Observer in an exclusive interview last Wednesday when he stressed that the industry has suffered a devastating blow.

“It has been particularly devastating for the small traditional cultivators, most of whom do farming in communities in the red zone which are not very far from La Soufrire,” said Cottle, who has farmed ganja for over 50 years in the largely tourism-dependent country.

The red zone, located to the north of the 345 km island, included areas that experienced maximum damage as a result of the eruption and was the zone in which hazardous events had their greatest influence. It was deemed the area that would have had destruction from pyroclastic flows, surges and mudflows and which would have suffered maximum damage from all projectiles. The zone likely experienced more than 30 cm of ash.

Approximately 15 per cent of the island’s population of 110,500 people occupied the red and orange zones which covered communities such as Fancy, Rose Bank, Owia, Chateaubelair, and Georgetown.

“The majority of the cannabis is grown in those areas. Those are the areas that are badly affected as a result of the eruption,” Cottle pointed out.

Ganja farmers, who Cottle said make up the bulk of the evacuees from these communities, have felt the brunt of the disaster as thousands of acres of land belonging to them sit at the foot of the volcano.

Cottle told the Sunday Observer that heartbroken growers are now attempting to head back into the fields there, though the all-clear has not been given.

He explained that La Soufrire erupted when farmers were looking to harvest their crop, killing any hope they had of going to market, and that those who managed to reap lost it all due to ash fall and theft.

“Persons would have also gone and stolen a lot of cannabis after people were evacuated from the red zone so the damage and loss have been very, very devastating. The damage has not only been done in the red zone, where most of the cannabis farmers are, but throughout the island. The ash fall affected plants throughout the entire island.

“I’m unable to estimate a cost to the loss right now but what I can tell you is that thousands of pounds have been lost. As a result, there’s going to be a serious shortage of cannabis in St Vincent for a while,” he said, though insisting that “we are very resilient people”.

He explained that while the industry has largely been an unregulated and illicit one, there is an ongoing cannabis cultivation amnesty programme that serves to legitimise cultivators of illegal cannabis so as to incorporate them into the legal industry.

He said the bulk of the product is exported to other Caribbean islands, with Barbados being the main market.

“That amnesty allows you to grow your cannabis as you usually do and to sell it to a licensed purchaser. We do export thousands of pounds mainly to the region but that exportation is usually done illegally. However, most of the growers are in a period of transition from illicit to licit.

“So while most haven’t exported under legal terms, this is how most traditional ganja farmers survive — through illegal cultivation and exportation of cannabis, like in Jamaica,” Cottle told the Sunday Observer, arguing that cannabis has played an important role in the development of the country’s economy.

But there are concerns among growers now who believe that they will not be given the level of assistance required to get the industry back on its feet, or the assistance given to farmers of other industries.

“We are hoping that the authorities will give some attention to traditional growers in the same way that attention is given to other agricultural farmers. We are concerned that we may not be given equal attention other farmers are given in the recovery period, and that is because of the stigmatisation attached to the crop itself,” he said, adding that the CRC has reached out to the Government for support in building back the industry.

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