A large logs sticks out of a bridge in North Leeward. (IWN photo)

By Camillo Gonsalves
(Republished from “Firm Meditation”)

Two days after SVG experienced its worst flooding in a century, I travelled up the leeward coast of St. 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.

ganja-deforestation

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 St. 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.

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 per cent 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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mboGlcOATX4

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 per cent 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.

Logs and boulders caused extensive damage to this house in Fancy. (IWN photo)
Logs and boulders caused extensive damage to this house in Fancy. (IWN photo)

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)

(Editor’s note: Camillo Gonsalves is a  senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Commerce and Information Technology in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.)

6 replies on “This is NOT a Marijuana Blog… (Pt 1 — The Environmental Apocalypse)”

  1. Are our waters being overfished? if so by who?
    Are our waters being overfished? if so by who?
    Are our waters being overfished? if so by who?
    Are our waters being overfished? if so by who?

    WHAT WILL BECOME OF OUR WATERS?

    Has any one country overfished their own waters or international waters?

    Good point about the Environment, yes our forests are as important as our waters.

    Logging is bad as a result of illegal farming and illegal logging… ok got it? But I believe we need to really find individuals educated in Agriculture and individuals educated in business and develop a strategy to Make Agriculture develop SVG. Mercantilism: Colonies built to benefit the metropolis. Metro: You cant produce your own Salt… Colo: But me have sea water and sea water have salt.

    Lets not get to crazy on taking away peoples bread and butter before we can afford to give them options.

    SVG need options, our young people need options.

    In terms of housing, its time for our county to have apartment buildings and condos and save our land for agriculture.

    Grow or own chicken? How much chicken do we import? Do we import chicken?

    why do we import pops, do we?

    Can we produce what we import? Can we?! Can we?!

    Galvanize Mentality?

    Breadfruit Mentality?

    What is the definition of a breadfruit mentality?

    Does it mean that we are an ignorant people who can be bribed who can be fed to do whatever our master wants us to do?

    Breadfruit was used to feed Enslaved persons cheaply.

    What I would like to see is the track record for each agricultural minister in the past 15 years, how have they improved the economy of Saint Vincent and The Grenadines as Minister of Agriculture.

    We well never know how desperate our citizens are until we see their acts of desperation.

    WE WILL NEVER KNOW HOW DESPERATE OUR CITIZENS ARE UNTIL WE SEE THEIR ACTS OF DESPERATION!!!

    1. I’m glad that someone mentioned condos and apartment buildings. This has been a pet peeve of mine. We absolutely do not have the luxury to continue splashing giant single residential units all over the place. We simply do not have the land space. For our size we are probably the most land space challenged country in the Caribbean. We need to start thinking about building up rather than out.

      As to the issue of the marijuana farmers, this conversation will not have a happy resolution unless these farmers are provided with viable options. Options that can allow them to put steady food on their table as well as provide a quality education for their kids. I would be interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

  2. Took him almost two months to write a partly fictional novel, I shall analyse it further and write my findings in a new yet to be submitted article.

    What we do know is it makes a great smoke screen as an attempt to take all our minds off the situation of the New York Green Card matter. To get all the Diaspora back to something that he and his father are in control of.

    I visited the flood area at Buccament the very next day. I interviewed people and I wrote about what they said. I also wrote about the floodplain and the building of Buccament Bay resort and houses in the floodplain. All built during the time of the ULP government, all approved by them. Planning approved on their watch, the ULP government and its administration must take the blame.

    The photo of the mountain, I know the area and have flown over it and looked at it several times. The area is not a planting area at all, it is an area that slipped several years ago. If you get real close to it, there is little or no soil, all rocks. Certainly no evidence of marijuana growing, nor would it grow there, it requires protection from the severe winds for such a place to grow anything. Its exposed both to obvious air view and the elements. Its a red herring photograph, attached to a red herring blog, described as not about marijuana, but it is.

    Kenton the addition of your photograph showing trees and roots. Although it dramatises the article is not appropriate. Logs are the tree trunks of trees without roots or branch’s, what you show are the roots of an almond and a coconut tree stem. Neither of these are high altitude trees, they never came from the mountains.

    By the way Blog site Firm Meditation on WordPress is a brand new site, probably erected by Camillo for this original article.

    Camillo, may I suggest you get up a little earlier in the morning.

    Peter Binose, self appointed of the whistle, and blowing hard.

  3. Hahaha. Sometimes I just have to laugh, Camillo I know that you have been in New York for a while and you are now back in Vincy so I will just brush you off as being ignorant. Let me state here clearly that I have been on A few Ganja farms and have an understanding of how the system of fear has changed the way that Marijuana is cultivated in SVG. Secondly It was the same ” hyper-competitive, gun toting, booby-trap setting, eye-for-an-eye warriors” that came from the hills and voted the ULP into office, the ULP got into office on the backs of the rastas and the ignorant young people at the time, I saw it with my own too eyes, so I think you should at least do a proper study of this subject instead of just talking because daddy say so. Infact, rastas came from the hills in thousands, people who were away so long that we forgot about them, these are the guys who came down from the hills and voted ULP into office, so at the very least investigate things like these properly before you write them, because they will have grave impact for the ULP to come. And the rastas might just feel like they became scapegoats in a machine that has been turning since 2001.

    I will return to my first point about the system of fear in cultivation now, since the James Michelle administration first partnered with the USA to fly helicopters to burn fields in SVG, the way weed has been grown has changed. Firstly the picture that is shown above is a fantasy, because almost all plantations are designed to be hard to spot from the sky, secondly the rastas like to clear as little trees as possible to camouflage the plantation between the trees, And third and the most important thing that was left out, it’s actually simple when you think about it, almost all of the trees that the rastas cut are used back for cooking fuel. They are either turned into coal from a coalpit, or burned directly, these guys are up in the hill for months, what else are they going to cook with? So most of there logs are used for cooking, with little left to float down stream, in essence they are trying to hide their presence as much as possible, so cooking with the trees help in that regards (burning the evidence in a sense).

    Now let’s go to some of the politics, you are talking about productions and outlaws and all kinds of things, but the most obvious question escapes you, and that is, why are so many people in the hills, and why has the production of ganja increased so much?. Is it the regressing economy that is causing so many to turn to the hills? The James Mitchell administration did their best to cut down on production, Have the ULP done anything to cut down on distribution? are our coast guards up to the task? are they even willing when their friends are killed over soap powder?
    I have to agree with Peter, the above reads like more than a fairy tale, and more of the blaming that we are use to from this government. It’s sad that Rastas are being blamed for this, could it be that the soil is loosening because there is more land that had bananas that are empty now? Banana farmers not planting banana anymore in SVG is a bigger cause of environmental concern for soil erosion and logs getting into the rivers.

    Marijuana’s economic impact can be explode some other time, but i just wanted to rebut what was said above. And to let the author of this fantasy novel to wheel and come again, the rastas are not going to take the blame for this.

  4. SHANEL, nice contribution by you that helps people think of what is rellevent.

    Our waters are being overfished, they are being raped by the Japanese and Taiwanese fishing boats, raped with the help of our government. What our own fishermen catch is easily sustainable.

    The trees cut by marijuana farmers is not nesecarily what is producing the logs in the rivers.

    Marijuana is grown at mid altitudes not on the tops of mountains. There are no floods at high altitude or mid altitudes. Floods occur on the lower slopes by the accumulated volume of water run off from the upper and mid areas. To better understand, the further down the mountain the more water, because it is running down from above and the volume increases at lower altitudes being fed from above. If you go to the beginning of any river it is a tiny stream in the mountains, as you come down the mountains the size of the river expands until it hits the floodplain. If the volume is so great that the river at the flood plain cannot cope with it, it spills over and dissipates over the flat area, that is the floodplain.

    Now, if there are no rivers on the tops of mountains, how can logs get washed down from high or mid altitudes? the answer to that is very, very simple, they cannot.

    The tree logging is taking place at much lower altitudes, by farmers increasing their field sizes and by people using the logs to make furniture etc. I know of the location of several small backyard sawmills. I am sure that some of these logs may even be produced by the forestry department.

    I have said this at least six time before on this very news site. During the dry season the forestry department should travel the dry or low level rivers, clear them of logs and debris and burn it all where it is found. It is the failure of this ULP government to properly fund the Ministry of Agriculture and the Forestry Department that is the root contributor to flooding caused by blockage under bridges by logs, trees and debris.

    Every flood caused by logs, trees, garbage and debris can be directly attributed to the government, yet another of its failings. I suppose the government can try and say they never put it there, we did. But it is still their responsibility to secure it or remove it.

    Shanel, you are quite right when you write about the choice of language chosen by PM Gonsalves. Breadfruit mentality is directly meant to show that such people described as of breadfruit mentality are ignorant field slaves. He would never dare to use the term ‘ignorant field slaves’ so he uses the words ‘breadfruit mentality’ fully well knowing, we know that he knows that we know exactly what he means.

    The reference to galvanise mentality is a direct reference to the fact that his supporters can easily be bought.

    As for chicken, most of our chicken come from the USA. They grow the corn and grow the chickens half a mile down the road from the feed source. We cannot compete on the price of chicken because we buy and transport the grain thousands of miles to the mill here. We could never be self sufficient in corn, never grow enough to feed a lot of chickens.

    Shanel we really need more people like you posting.

    Peter Binose

  5. By the way unless any of you have forgotten. Camillo is the young man, the prime ministers son, a member of the Gonsalves clan, the Madeira family who first started off the Atlantic slave trade.

    The very person who made us all look silly by his un-diplomatic behaviour in New York when he tried to ignore a policeman and got put in his place.

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