This may not be the outlandish suggestion that many may think. We are not talking high content drug bearing cannabis, as has been grown in Belize in the past to feed the illegal drug market, but hemp.
Here is how a U.S. enthusiast describes cannabis for industrial use: "Hemp is the fiber of the future. For 5,000 years, it has been used for clothes and food, rope and sails, bagging and tents. Now, at the millennium, this amazing plant is being rediscovered as an earth-friendly, renewable resource. Hemp is an ecofriendly plant. It can be grown without toxic chemicals, puts 70 percent of its nutrients back into the soil, prevents erosion, repels harmful pests, and can be grown on marginal land. Hemp is versatile: its fibers, stalks, and seeds can be used to make clothing, body products, home products, food and paper. It can be woven with other natural fibers - organic cotton, wool, silk - to create unique blends that offer a variety of looks and textures. Hemp is durable, due to its long fibers. Its fuzzy fibers create an insulating material . . ."
Now just in case you think that this was by written by some longhaired individual promoting drugs, read on, as state after state in the U.S.A. starts promoting hemp production.
State of Vermont Hemp Bill
At least five other states have hemp laws pending in their legislature, including New Mexico, California and Hawaii.
This is what U.S. Agricultural Department expert Jeff Gain had to say recently about hemp: "Industrial hemp and marijuana aren't the same thing," he said at a recent specialty crops conference in Champaign. "The active ingredient, THC, was removed in the 1930s ... It's a non-issue."
Gain, who formerly worked for the Illinois Farm Bureau and the National Corn Growers Association. has hit a roadblock .trying to convince federal offlcials that hemp Could fit well into farm rotations and Could give tobacco growers facing an uncertain future for their crop, a new lease on life. Gain, who is chairman of the board of directors of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Alternative Agricultural REsearch and Commercialization Corporation. said agriculture is changing, and so are national priorities.
"There are concerns about the environment," he said. "We won't be able to grow corn, soybeans and wheat like we have since the early 1950s. We must have diversity. Crops like hemp that grow without pesticides."
The inevitable economic collapse of Belize and other Caricom countries through the U.S. banana war could be quickly offset by a Caricom-wide effort to promote hemp as a substitute crop for bananas.
In the U.S.A., Canada, Europe and even Australia, legal hemp is today already being grown as an industrial crop. In northern climates it is only a once-a-year crop, but Central America and the Caribbean are most likely capable of producing two crops per year. Here is a small slice of the history of hemp:
"Up to the middle of the last century, France was cultivating more than 100,000 hectares, whilst so precious was the plant in Tudor England that Queen Elizabeth I exacted a bounty of five gold sovereigns on any farmer who did not cultivate it. The reason for such a penalty was simple: hemp fibre is the strongest vegetable fibre known to man, and can be grown easily and in a single six-month cycle from April to September. Before the introduction of tropical sisals and Manila hemp, it was essential for the rope and canvas (the very word derived from cannabis, according to the OED) used to outfit the Navy.
"An American comment, on the 1764 Hemp Law governing importation from "His Majesty's colonies into Great Britain" notes the necessity to render their mother country in dependent of certain norther powers (mainly the Baltic States) upon whom her former dependence. for a supply of naval stores, has been frequently very precarious.'
"This strategic aspect of cannabis as a basic fibre source reappeared for a short while during the Second World War. In the wake of Pearl Harbour and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, the US was cut off from its supplies of Manila rope and twine, and made considerable efforts to revive its, by then., sagging hemp trade. Planters' manuals were rapidly reprinted, and the estimated area under cultivation increased from 585 hectares in 1939 to 59,500 hectares in 1943. By 1946 the total had dropped back to 1950 hectares and the industry k11 as on its way to extinction in the industrial West."
This was the beginning of the anticannabis war by U.S. big business and gasoline giants and the U.S government - driven by fear of fuel competition and of the drug content of cannabis.
Of great interest to Belize, now in a quandary over future energy sources, is the fact that hemp is considered one of the best and economically feasible biomass fuel sources.
Here is a note from "Energy Farming in America," by Lynnn Osburn: "About 6 percent of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for biomass could supply all current demand for oil and gas." A way to employ farmers instead of subsidizing them!"
The report goes on: "Farmers must be allowed to grow an energy crop capable of producing 10 tons per acre in 90-120 days. This crop must be woody in nature and high in lignocellulose. It must be able to grow in all climactic zones in America. And it should not compete with food crops for the most productive land, but be grown in rotation with food crops or on marginal land where food crop production isn't profitable.
"When farmers can make a profit growing energy, it will not take long to get 6 percent of the continental American land mass into cultivation of biomass fuel- enough to replace our economy's dependence on fossil fuels. We will no longer be increasing the carbon dioxide burden in the atmosphere. The threat of global greenhouse warming and adverse climactic change will diminish.
"To keep costs down, pyrolysis reactors need to be located within a 50-mile radius of the energy farms. This necessity will bring life back to our small towns by providing jobs locally.
"Hemp is the number one biomass producer on planet earth: 10 tons per acre in approximately four months. It is a woody plant containing 77 percent cellulose. "Wood produces 60 percent cellulose. This energy crop can be harvested with equipment readily available. It can be 'cubed' by modifying hay cubing equipment.
"Hemp is drought resistant, making it an ideal crop in the dry western regions of the country. Hemp is the only biomass resource capable of making America energy independent. And our government outlawed it in 1938."'
From the biomass point of view, hemp could signal a new era for the old Corozal sugar factory, with commercial hemp making up for any shortfall in sugar waste and also providing a valuable alternative crop for the entire northern sugar industry.
Other facts about hemp: the oil from hemp seeds can be refined to produce an oil, cheaper, but superior to nearly all over vegetable oils; its quick growing root structure makes it a perfect riverside and mountainside defence against erosion, and the substitution of hemp for bananas would immediately solve the grave problem of pesticide and fertilizer run-off fjom banana and other agricultural lands.
Had hemp been planted in place of bananas in Honduras and Nicaragua, much of the damage that occurred from Hurricane Mitch could have been avoided.
It would be interesting for the Government of Belize and the private sector to investigate the prospects of hemp growing in Belize and pass their findings on to fellow Caricom members. This would include not only an investigation of the biomass power of hemp, but also a joint Caricom marketing strategy for selling hemp worldwide.
The establishment of a viable hemp industry in Belize and the Caribbean should not be seen as a challenge to the U.S., but as a move in self-defense of the regions' economies. In fact, much the same legislation that various U.S. states are presently adopting, could be copied to avoid charges that Belize is deliberately flying in the face of U.S. or world opinion.
Footnote: The Hawaii legislature passed its industrial hemp act on Feb. 10 this year by seven votes to two. The act: "establishes the Hawaii Strategic Industrial Hemp Development Act of 1999."