The harsh reality of Mzansi’s cannabis smallholders

Small-scale Mpondoland cannabis grower in Eastern Cape. Photo: Supplied/ Tijmen Grooten

Small-scale Mpondoland cannabis grower in Eastern Cape. Photo: Supplied/ Tijmen Grooten

Small-scale cannabis farmers in South Africa are still operating in illicit and informal markets. After navigating Mzansi’s dagga landscape for the past three months, Tijmen Grooten, a Dutch researcher doing his master’s degree on Mpondoland farmers, provides a critical perspective on how smallholder inclusion is not realised.

Since the end of the twentieth century, Cannabis Sativa is making its comeback after a long period of legislative and public condemnation. Currently, the plant’s multiple, sustainable, economically advantageous uses for food, medicine, textiles, building materials and as a safe relaxant for adults are increasingly recognised, and many governments intend to build thriving cannabis economies.

Since the 1990s various African countries have followed swiftly in the footsteps of The Netherlands, Uruguay and Canada in pursuing full legalisation and commercialisation of the cannabis plant. By 2021, South Africa became Africa’s frontrunner when the government issued the National Cannabis Master Plan.

Despite the sky-high aspirations of the South African government, currently all small-scale cannabis farmers are still operating in illicit and informal markets. This is simply because policy has not yet provided a way in which farmers can legally sell their plants.

Between 20 and 60 thousand small-scale indigenous cannabis farmers have already been cultivating for at least five generations and have experienced a long history of violent criminalisation and economic-political marginalisation.

Most of these farmers are rurally dispersed over the Dagga Belt region, which traverses the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Pockets of rural farmers can be found in every province. More specifically, the highest concentration of dagga farmers is in Eastern Cape Mpondoland.

To ensure smallholders are included in South Africa’s cannabis movement, an implementation strategy is needed to provide farmers with the basic services (running water, irrigation, electricity and infrastructure) and appropriate market support experts say. Photo: Supplied/ Tijmen Grooten

According to president Cyril Ramaposa’s 2022 State of the Nation address, a major economic transition must take place wherein indigenous smallholders in Mpondoland must be the backbone.

In the 2021 National Cannabis Master Plan, the government proposes three pathways to which smallholder commercialisation can be applied: cannabis for medicine, cannabis for industrial and food products, and cannabis for adult use.

However, until this day it remains largely unclear how the strategies of smallholder inclusion will be implemented. More importantly, it remains unclear whether the proposed pathways suit the agricultural practices and aspirations of the small-scale Mpondoland cannabis communities.

In order to scrutinise this question, I have been navigating the South African dagga landscape for the past three months. By talking extensively with farmers, activists, civil society organisations and government representatives, I try to formulate a critical perspective on how smallholder inclusion is (not) realised.

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The harsh reality in rural Mpondoland

The first thing that hits me when entering the deep rural Mpondoland river valleys is the widespread poverty. Where 20 years ago cannabis sales fueled local development and allowed farmers to put their children through universities, this economic support has completely evaporated.

When in the past cannabis cultivation was strictly criminalised and violently discouraged, the plants’ value was high and thus provided farmers with a decent income.

After the 2018 court ruling, when the Constitutional Court urged parliament to decriminalise private cannabis use and cultivation, increasing competition of high-grade cannabis has simply robbed indigenous smallholders from their entire income.

Unintentionally, the seemingly progressive government policy has thus negatively impacted the living standards of the resource-poor dagga farmers, especially of those who are entirely dependent on the cannabis. On average, rural households have not been able to sell their cannabis harvest for at least 21 months, which has led to pulling their kids from school.

Tijmen Grooten, a master’s student doing research on Pondoland cannabis farmers. Photo: Nicole Ludolph/Food For Mzansi

“First and foremost, an inclusive cannabis industry cannot move forward in South Africa without a proper legal framework that regulates the commercialisation of the plant.”

Financial dependence has completely shifted from crop production to child-grants and out of desperation farmers have started to burn their excess cannabis.

This recent blow to economic resilience adds to the harshness of the prohibitions strategies to which these farmers fell victim over the past 20 years.

For years, the South African Police Service indiscriminately sprayed farmers’ arable plots with the carcinogenic substance Glyphosate, which not only destroyed their crops but also severely affected their natural ecosystem and livestock’s health.

Fortunately, under pressure from civil society organisations, the spraying stopped in 2016 but harassment by local police is still very common. Thus, where in the past criminalisation impeded smallholders ability to make a living, the waning market currently intensifies the struggle to innovate beyond the subsistence economy.

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Recommendations on the way forward

First and foremost, an inclusive cannabis industry cannot move forward in South Africa without a proper legal framework that regulates the commercialisation of the plant.

This missing piece of legislation currently impedes farmers from earning any kind of income from their current agricultural practices. The government’s goals of economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation cannot be met in this way.

A second requirement for a fair and inclusive industry is proper instructions and controls on cannabis-related police work. The ongoing police harassment of cannabis cultivators and traders must stop in order for the industry to develop further.

Thirdly, the national government should draft a strategy document exclusively focused on the inclusion of indigenous or resource-poor cannabis farmers.

Key aspects that should be included are:

The possibility of supporting these farmers with crop substitution must be an integral part of the strategy.

In order to be able to draft and implement a proper inclusion strategy, the responsible government personnel should educate themselves. It is paramount to understand the complex dynamics of the cannabis industry and South Africa hosts ample institutions who can readily provide the appropriate training.

Lastly, the Mpondoland farmers invite the government to come visit them and listen to their needs. In order to effectively execute a pro-poor and inclusive cannabis policy, the needs of these people must be taken as the leading principle.

ALSO READ: Cannabis rush: Will indigenous farmers be left behind?

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