/ 13 August 1999

Getting that natural E Cape high

Peter Dickson

It’s been growing in the Eastern Cape for centuries, the so-called Transkei Gold sought after by cannabis connoisseurs from California to Amsterdam. Its illegal trafficking in South Africa is estimated to contribute to as much as one-fifth of the informal economy.

But while it is the smoky sister whose cash crop value is stunted by the unyielding backstop of the law, her baleful brother looks set to separate the rope from the dope and turn soft green leaves in this poverty-stricken province into hard green dollars.

The cannabis plant has two variants – male and female. The female is the one most in demand: she has a high tetrahydrochlorine content which gives one a high, while the male is an impotent piece of rope.

The Eastern Cape government recently launched a multimillion-rand hemp pilot project, backed by leading international companies, at the respected Dohne Agricultural Development Institute at Stutterheim outside East London.

With a R1,45-million grant secured from the Department of Agriculture in March to develop a hemp capacity in the Eastern Cape, Bisho hopes to generate about 9 000 jobs when seed planting begins in the first week of next month at pilot project sites at Dohne, Keiskammahoek, Umtiza and Libode in the centre of the Transkei’s famed “Green Triangle”.

The largely rural province is desperate to create jobs and find an export cash crop to help lift it from the economic doldrums. While the hardy cannabis plant, long acclimatised to the region, appears able to grow anywhere and under the driest conditions, putting a damper on drought is not the only motive for hitting on hemp.

MEC for Agriculture and Land Affairs Max Mamase, whose innovative and tireless efforts to boost Eastern Cape agriculture made him one of only three pre-Thabo Mbeki MECs to survive Bisho’s post-election axe, says European companies are looking for “capable” southern hemisphere partners.

Mamase, who launched the project with Minister of Agriculture Thoko Didiza last Friday, said worldwide hemp sales are expected to reach R3-billion by 2001. Europeans are increasingly demanding natural fibres for products like paper, clothing and biochemicals.

European legislation, through tax incentives, was also encouraging using natural fibres in industrial applications. Mamase said 26 countries permitted industrial hemp cultivation, with the total acreage having increased fivefold over the last decade.

Mamase secured the government grant through an arrangement with Austria earlier this year and subsequent negotiations with international companies on forming a joint- venture company to manage local processing and co-ordinate exports to foreign markets as well as technological transfers.

The creation of small businesses to process hemp is also envisaged. Emerging and commercial farmers will be able to apply to the Department of Agriculture to grow the crop, and will be involved in co-operatives from growing to agri-processing stages.

If the pilot project is a hit, the Eastern Cape will be able to harvest its first non- narcotic cannabis crop in April next year, Mamase says.

Then there will the legal minefield. Several South African laws prevent commercial hemp production and the crop can only be grown for research purposes through a licence issued by the departments of health and agriculture and the Medicines Control Council.

After enabling legislation is negotiated to separate hemp from marijuana, state land will be opened up for full-scale commercial production by next September and Eastern Cape farmers may finally get to experience that elusive natural high.