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Grandmas Grow Gold in Swaziland

Sibongile Nkosi, 70, started growing marijuana near Piggs Peak when she heard that the plant could earn a decent return.


PIGGS PEAK, Swaziland — After her daughters died, Khathazile took in her 11 orphaned grandchildren without hesitation. It is what a gogo, or grandmother, does in a country where the world’s highest H.I.V. infection rate has left a sea of motherless children.

“God will help us,” she said.

Perhaps. But Khathazile has some insurance in case divine intervention fails: Swazi Gold, a highly potent and valuable strain of marijuana that is sought after in the thriving drug market of next-door South Africa. In a field deep in the forest, atop a distant hill in this arid corner of tiny Swaziland, Khathazile grows Swazi Gold to keep her growing brood of grandchildren fed, clothed and in school.

“Without weed, we would be starving,” explained Khathazile, who asked that only her middle name be used.

Khathazile is one of thousands of peasants eking out a meager living in the rural areas of this kingdom at Africa’s southern tip by growing marijuana, according to relief workers, embracing it as a much-needed income boost that is relatively hardy and easy to grow.

She does not think of herself as part of a vast global chain of drug cultivation that includes poppy farmers in Afghanistan or coca growers in Latin America. She simply has her grandchildren to consider and says she started growing it when her attempts at other crops failed.

Swazi Gold, a highly potent and valuable strain of marijuana, is sought after in South Africa’s drug market.

“If you grow corn or cabbages, the baboons steal them,” Khathazile said.

Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, is officially a middle-income country. But deep poverty remains the rule here in the rural hinterlands around Piggs Peak, a dusty town in the country’s mountainous northwest. Not much grows in its rocky soil, and jobs are tough to find. Many young people flee to Swaziland’s two big cities, Mbabane and Manzini, or to neighboring South Africa to look for work.

That leaves behind a lot of old women and children. Aggressive rollout of antiretroviral therapy has helped curb the country’s AIDS death rate, but the disease has hollowed out virtually every family in one way or another, leaving older siblings caring for younger ones and frail grandparents struggling to raise small children once again.

It is the story of Khathazile’s family. In 2007, her daughter Tensile died at the age of 24, she said, leaving behind four orphaned children to take in. A couple of years later another daughter, Spiwe, died, leaving three more mouths to feed. They, too, came to live with their gogo. Then in July, her daughter Nomsa died, leaving behind four more children. There was nothing to be done but move them into her one-room hut as well.

“I cannot abandon these kids,” Khathazile said.

Such families struggle to make ends meet. “Most people are farming in a way that depends on rain,” said Tshepiso Mthimkhulu, an official at Swaziland’s Red Cross, based in Piggs Peak. “There are many orphans and widows who have difficulty surviving.”

There is certainly a market for their alternative source of income. According to the United Nations, South Africa has reported rising marijuana use, and Swaziland appears to be an eager supplier. The country, a tiny nation of about 1.4 million people, was reported to havemore acreage under marijuana cultivation in 2010 than India, a nation more than 180 times its geographic size.

Sibongile Nkosi, 70, said she started growing marijuana even before her daughter died and left her with two orphans to feed. She had heard from other women in her village, which sits on a hilltop on the outskirts of Piggs Peak, that the plant could earn a decent return.

“I put the seeds in the ground, watered them, and it grew,” she said of her first crop. “I was able to feed my children.”

Marijuana cultivation may provide a safety net, but the grandmothers of Piggs Peak are hardly drug kingpins. They must find a secret field to plant, often one deep in the forest, which they reach by walking for hours. Clearing a patch is tough work, even for women long accustomed to hard labor. They have to buy seeds, if they are new at planting, as well as manure. Not enough manure and the crop fetches a lower price. It must be carefully pruned to produce the right kind of flowers. And they have to watch out for weeds.

“Weeds are very bad for weed,” Ms. Nkosi said.

Then there are the police. They often search for marijuana fields in March and April, just before the harvest, and burn them to the ground, leaving the women with nothing to show for their hard work.

A good harvest can yield as much as 25 pounds of marijuana. But they sell to middlemen who come through the villages at harvest time, and have little bargaining power. Most make less than $400 per crop.

“The men come from South Africa to buy, but they cheat us,” Ms. Nkosi said. “What can we do? If you sit with it the police can come and arrest you.”

Enterprising growers bury part of their harvest in watertight barrels deep in the woods, saving them until December when the supply dries up and prices rise. But most of the grandmothers need the money last week, not six months from now.

Ms. Nkosi said she had never been tempted to sample her crop.

“It makes you drunk,” she exclaimed when asked if she had ever smoked marijuana. “If I try it I will fall on the ground!”

Marijuana had provided her family with enough to survive, but she wondered if it was really worth it.

“I don’t want to grow it anymore,” Ms. Nkosi said. “The money is too little.”

But as this year’s planting season began, she was gearing up for another crop. School fees for her two remaining grandchildren at home would be nearly $400 next school year, she said, and she had no other way to earn the money.

“When you are in poverty you must do whatever you can to live,” she said. “If I earn a little something my heart will be content.”

Grandmas Grow Gold in Swaziland


Climate results turn sceptic: ‘let the evidence change our minds’

By Leo Hickman

The BEST study found that the Earth's land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years.

The study found that the Earth’s land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years.

THE Earth’s land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years and ”humans are almost entirely the cause”, according to a scientific study set up to address climate sceptic concerns about whether human-induced global warming is occurring.

Richard Muller, a climate sceptic physicist who founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, said he was ”surprised” by the findings. ”We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds.”

He said he considered himself a ”converted sceptic” and his views had received a ”total turnaround” in a short space of time.

”Our results show that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by 2½ degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of 1½ degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases,” Professor Muller wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

The team of scientists based at the University of California, Berkeley, gathered and merged 14.4 million land temperature observations from 44,455 sites across the world dating back to 1753. Previous datasets created by NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Britain’s Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit had gone back only to the mid-1800s and used five times fewer weather station records.

The funding for the project included $US150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, set up by the billionaire US coal magnate who is a key backer of the climate sceptic Heartland Institute think tank. The research also received $US100,000 from the Fund for Innovative climate and Energy Research, created by Bill Gates.

Unlike previous efforts, the temperature data from various sources was not ”homogenised” by hand – a key criticism by climate sceptics – but, instead was ”completely automated to reduce human bias”. The BEST team’s findings, despite their deeper analysis, closely matched the previous temperature reconstructions, ”but with reduced uncertainty”.

Last October, the BEST team published results that showed the average global land temperature has risen by about one degree Celsius since the mid-1950s. But the team did not look for possible ”fingerprints” to explain this warming. The latest data analysis reached much further back in time but, crucially, also searched for the most likely cause for this rise in land temperature by plotting the upward temperature curve against suspected ”forcings”. It analysed the warming impact of solar activity – a popular theory among climate sceptics – but found that, over the past 250 years, the contribution of the sun is ”consistent with zero”.

Volcanic eruptions were found to have caused ”short dips” in the temperature rise in the period from 1750 to 1850, but ”only weak analogs” in the 20th century.

”Much to my surprise, by far the best match came to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice,” Professor Muller said. ”While this doesn’t prove that global warming is caused by human greenhouse gases, it is currently the best explanation we have found, and sets the bar for alternative explanations.” Professor Muller said his team’s findings went further and were ”stronger” than the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In an unconventional move aimed at appeasing climate sceptics by allowing ”full transparency”, the results have been released before being peer-reviewed by the Journal of Geophysical Research. All the data and analysis may be freely scrutinised at the BEST website. This follows the pattern of previous BEST results.

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