Marijuana plant
SVG’s ambassador to the UN has said that the country is among the Caribbean’s largest producer of marijuana. (I Witness file photo)

TAIPEI, Taiwan: The decline of the banana industry and the global financial crisis has made St. Vincent and the Grenadines one of the Caribbean’s largest marijuana producer.

That is what the country’s ambassador to the United Nation, Camillo Gonsalves, told the international organization last week while responding to a report of the Commission on Narcotic Drug.

Gonsalves registered “the alarm and profound dismay of the entire Caribbean Community” at the closure of Caribbean field office of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).

“We consider it nothing less than an abandonment of the Caribbean region,” he said.

Gonsalves said that SVG produces less than half of the bananas it did 10 years ago.

He said that because of challenges made to the World Trade Organization by other large banana interests and the United States, Windward Island banana exports to the United Kingdom had fallen from 45 percent of the market in 1992 to single digits.

According to him, the resulting unemployment, rural poverty and sudden social dislocation in SVG had made marijuana cultivation more appealing.

He said that a single raid by regional security forces earlier this year uncovered over 700,000 marijuana plants and three million seedlings in one area.

“Unfortunately, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has now become one of the Caribbean’s major marijuana producers,” Gonsalves said.

Production of marijuana had “rapidly morphed into an elaborate criminal enterprise, orchestrated by heavily armed drug barons and gangs, often from other countries,” Gonsalves said.

Law enforcers in SVG, Gonsalves said, were seizing an ever-increasing numbers of ever-more sophisticated firearms, which are directly linked to narcotics trade and trafficking in SVG and the Caribbean region.

Watch the first part of Ambassador Gonsalves’ speech below

Highest murder rate

Gonsalves said that a recent UN report had shown that the murder rate in the Caribbean – 30 per 100,000 population annually – was “higher than for any other region of the world and had risen in recent years for many of the region’s countries”.

He quoted the report entitled Threat of Narco-Trafficking in the Americas as saying that “[t]he Caribbean is such a diverse region that it is difficult to explain the widespread recent escalation in violence in terms other than those relating to the drug trade”.

Gonsalves identified the drug trade as “the most pressing immediate threat to the security” in the region.

Transshipment challenges

The UNODC reports suggested that about 20 percent of cocaine destined for North America currently travels through the Caribbean.

Additionally, increasing amounts of synthetic drugs also pass through the region en route to markets in developed countries, the report said.

The report said that the southern Caribbean was increasingly being utilized as a transshipment point, and was particularly favored by drug producers from certain South American states.

The UNODC also suggested that the Caribbean would continue to play an important – and possibly increasing – role in future drug transit.

Gonsalves said that the UNODC’s Crime, Violence, and Development report for the Caribbean had said that the region suffered from the disadvantage of being located between the world’s source of cocaine in South America and its primary consumer markets in the United States and Europe.

The report also noted that the small Caribbean nations have “large coastlines and territorial waters to control relative to their ability to fund law enforcement coverage.”

It also noted that the small criminal justice systems were easily overwhelmed in terms of police, courts, and prisons.

“The Caribbean has some of the highest prisoner to population ratios in the world, and overcrowding interferes with the rehabilitation process,” the report said.

‘Particularly apt’ for SVG

Gonsalves said that the situation the report detailed was “particularly apt” for SVG, noting the country’s 32 islands, rugged coastlines and vast seascape are patrolled by “a mere handful of coast guard vessels”.

“Our justice system is crowded with drug-related crimes and criminals. Further, one cannot overstate the ease with which a single, relatively minor drug baron can threaten the very foundations of our region’s small societies.

“In countries like ours, with only a few hundred, largely unarmed, law enforcement officers, one heavily armed drug gang – no matter how insignificant in the global scheme – can seriously threaten to undermine the state’s legitimate monopoly on coercive force,” he said.

Watch the second part of Ambassador Gonsalves’ speech below

Onus on governments

Gonsalves said that the onus was on governments – particularly in those states whose demand fuels the drug trade – to demonstrate the necessary political will to cooperate fully against the drug problem.

“It is far better for us to hold hands in cooperation than to point fingers; and the cost of ignoring this problem is far greater than the cost of confronting it head-on,” he said.

He further said that the “the interconnectedness of the world drug problem to other global issues must be acknowledged and addressed”.

He mentioned the “list of international maladies that were not created in the Caribbean, but that disproportionately affect our sub-region.

This list, he said, includes “climate change, an iniquitous international trade regime, small arms trafficking, and narcotic transshipment”.

“Make no mistake, without active and aggressive assistance to small, vulnerable and poor countries like ours, the yawning social, political and economic cleavages being caused by this global economic and financial crisis will only increase the attractiveness of illicit activities and their disastrous global implications.”

Gonsalves said that it was baffling that the UNODC office in the Caribbean was being closed at a time when reports had noted that drug-related crime and the violence in Central America and parts of the Caribbean were “a threat to public safety and an impediment to development”.