Bryan expects it will take a year to recover financially from what a recent volcano eruption destroyed in a few hours. His cannabis farm -- and primary source of income -- was demolished by a blizzard of ash and river of grey mud.
“All the plants were buried in ash. Everything was destroyed,” he said.
The La Soufriere volcano in St. Vincent, a dot in the middle of the Caribbean sea with a population of just over 100,000, began to erupt in early April. The onslaught of white dust and subsequent mudslides threw the cannabis industry, a pillar of the underground economy, into disarray, as over half of the island’s marijuana farms were entombed in ash.
Bryan, who asked that VICE World News not use his real name because of his illegal production, is now one of hundreds of cannabis farmers desperately seeking land on the southern side of the island, where the damage has been minimal, to begin planting again. He is also one of the roughly 16,000 people who have been displaced, their homes crushed or washed away. Most are living in shelters, where there are reports of COVID-19 outbreaks. Others have squeezed into the homes of family and friends.
The eruption revealed a sharp divide between illegal and legal marijuana cultivation on the island. All legal farms, located far away from the volcano, escaped the disaster relatively unscathed. In contrast, nearly 75 percent of illegal plantations were destroyed by the eruption and subsequent mudflows. The total losses could amount to millions of dollars, according to the Medicinal Cannabis Authority.
“The ash fall in some places reached at least half a meter. The ash is loose, so you could blow it off easily, but it started raining a little bit, and the ash turned into concrete. The plants just fell over,” Marie-Helene Tremblay, chief science officer at Medicinal, a legal cannabis company on the island, told VICE World News. Medicinal works with a co-op of marijuana farmers, formed to resemble the co-ops once used in the booming banana industry in the mid 20th century. Some of these farmers also worked on illegal farms or owned illegal farms before the eruption.
Hundreds of cannabis farmers have now lost their source of income, including families that have been growing cannabis near the volcano for decades. “There have been several generations of families involved in this traditional cultivation,” Jerrol Thompson, director of the Medicinal Cannabis Authority, told VICE World News.
For sixty years, beginning with groups of Rastafarians, people have been growing cannabis on the slopes of the La Soufriere volcano. These farmers, known as “traditional cultivators,” developed an original strain of marijuana, adapted to the climate of the island. The volcanic soil on St. Vincent contains a collection of nutrients found in less than one percent of the Earth’s soil. This super-soil is optimal for growing cannabis, as well as vegetables and fruits, experts told VICE World News.
In 2018, St. Vincent legalized cannabis for medical use, and licensed farms mushroomed around the island, with foreign investors eager to market the special “volcanic weed” to consumers in the rest of the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.
Now, traditional cultivators will need to rely on the legal industry to survive. “It will be very difficult for most farmers to bounce back in the short term,” Tremblay said.
Unlike licensed farmers, illegal cannabis farmers will not receive financial assistance from the government to get back on their feet. The Medicinal Cannabis Authority is jumpstarting programs to encourage these farmers to apply for a license and join the legal industry. “The government will not necessarily state that they are going to assist illegal cultivators with recovery. We are trying to be innovative in the way that we incorporate traditional cultivators, so that they continue to have a prominent space in the industry and are not left out. A lot has been learned from traditional cultivators,” Thompson said.
Now, in a bittersweet turn of events, the volcano eruption has boosted international interest in Vincentian cannabis and the legal farms that survived the disaster. Medicinal plans to begin selling products from their most recent harvest this week. By the end of the year, Medicinal, bolstered by investment from the United Kingdom, will send its first shipments of marijuana to Europe, said Francesca Ferdinand, Medicinal’s Retail Manager.
“Now, so many people are interested in St Vincent. It has definitely put us on the map.”