February 19, 2021

Canadian, US cannabis corporations threaten Colombia’s indigenous communities

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Why the Misak people oppose cannabis monocrops on their land

Misak People in the department of Cauca, Colombia. Wairaquetzal/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This story was originally published on Media.coop; an edited version is published on Global Voices.

In 2016, when the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was signed, Colombia also introduced the legal growth, processing, and exportation of medical cannabis. To date, total investment in medical cannabis farms and laboratories in that country has reached approximately $600 million Canadian dollars, including “roughly $100 million invested by Canadian firms, which are among the first movers in the sector,” according to Michael Cullen and Miguel Salcedo, international consultants at FTI Consulting.

That same year, national authorities granted the first license to PharmaCielo, a Canadian corporation whose subsidiary company is located in Rionegro, in the province of Antioquia, and which employs 500 Colombians. According to PharmaCielo’s media liaison, their commitment to their operations in Colombia overall has remained “unchanged since establishment.”

“It is the core of our business strategy, and we expect to continue to grow over time,” the spokesperson told Media Co-op in an email.

The company works with Seynekun, an association led by the Arhuaco people that serves indigenous communities working on different projects in the Sierra Nevada, located between the provinces of Magdalena and Cesar.

PharmaCielo also works with Caucannabis Cooperative, which seeks to improve people’s health through medicinal cannabis. This cooperative has 63 members of different rural and ethnic groups, including farmers and members of the Nasa and Paeces indigenous communities who are spread across five municipalities: Jambaló, Corinto, Caloto, Miranda y Toribio, North Cauca.

Additionally, Asocolcanna, a Colombian association of cannabis industries, includes 30 members, at least eight of which are the Canadian and Colombian-Canadian companies Pharmacielo, Khiron, Nusierra, Ecopharma, Canopy Growth, Avicanna, Cleaver Leaves, Green Health, as well as other Canadian companies not named on its website, such as Verdemed and Aphria.

According to Fedesarrollo, a Colombian socio-economic research centre, the world’s cannabis market is expected to grow 44 per cent by 2025.

In 2019, One World Pharma, a US-based corporation, obtained Colombian licenses for non-psychoactive low-THC cultivation and the manufacture of hemp derivatives and seed use. They also touted their partnership with the Misak People for the cultivation, purchase and sale of non-psychoactive cannabis and hemp for medicinal and scientific research.

This company also works with Wala Cannabis. Both received the Medal Croix of Belalcázar from the provincial assembly thanks to their investments in 2019. (Belalcázar was a Spanish conqueror and founder of Popayán city in Cauca whose statue was toppled by Misak people last year.)

‘Cannabis isn’t part of our traditional medicine’

This massive influx of cannabis investment, however, puts the traditional living standards of indigenous nations like the Misak at risk. More than 26,000 Misak people live across the country in Cauca, Caquetá, Huila, Putumayo, Valle del Cauca, Cundinamarca and Meta provinces and many are uneasy about cannabis cultivation.

Mama Mercedes Tunubalá, a Misak mayor of the municipality of Silvia in the province of Cauca, explained to Media Co-op that ancestral authorities are worried about the future of young generations and the social disruptions this type of monocrop brings, as evidenced by poppy crops for opium in the past.

“We believe in medicinal plants, cold and hot, which have their functions, but cannabis isn’t part of our traditional medicine,” she said in Spanish. “We are not interested and don’t use it.”

Jesús Tunubalá, political secretary of the Council of Taitas and Mamas, ancestral Misak Nu Nakchack authorities, also says cannabis cultivation can bring conflict on lands where different social actors such as paramilitaries and drug dealers dispute the territory.

He also defends their own agricultural practices which he says are respectful of Mother Earth, including the cultivation of diverse crops in yatules (orchards) around their homes. These, he said, promote traditional ways of farming which cannabis monocrops do not.

The Misak’s situation is worsened by the fact that they face a deficit of land.

For example, in the Guambia reserve, 78 per cent of the land is protected as important ecosystems and sacred areas, which leaves a mere 22 per cent of land available for agricultural use.

Taita José Pillimue, a Misak vice governor of the town council at Guambia reserve, added that the cultivation of cannabis monocrops has divided their people, as some growers disrespect the guidance of ancestral authorities who protect the land and the community’s food sovereignty.

The division is already taking place, as some Misak-run companies have partnered with US-based One World Pharma, namely Farmacéutica Indígena Medicinal Wala Cannabis Zomac Colombia S.A.S and Pharma Indígena Misak Masnar S.A.S. Media Co-op tried to contact the companies but did not get responses by press time.

However, ancestral Misak authorities are clear.

“Misak People will not bow down to the induction of a corporative regime in our territories,” read a press release, “because we will not sell our workforce, nor will we become workers of a foreign company.”

Multinationals not welcome

Cauca is the second Colombian province with the largest indigenous population, strategically located in the southwest, with a route to the Pacific Ocean, a variety of climates, fertile land, rivers, minerals and metals.

According to the Colombian Drugs Observatory, Cauca was the province with the most poppy crops and the number one with cannabis in 2017. Fourteen of the 91 massacres in 2020 happened there, which included the murder of 96 of the 300 social leaders living there. This year has already seen yet one more massacre in the area.

Colombia’s location is ideal for foreign investors because of its climate, sunlight, geostrategic location for exports and lower production cost (approximately $0.50/gram of cannabis flowers compared to $2.10/gram in Canada). Lower costs of production mean a cheap (underpaid) workforce.

This explains why the number of licenses granted by the country’s Ministry of Health is so high. There were 632 as of December 30, 2020, in addition to those approved by the Ministry of Justice and Interior.

Last year, mainstream media reported that Pharma Indígena Misak Manasr S.A.S, run by a group of Misak, had obtained the first license for cannabis cultivation and would work with the US-based company One World Pharma.

But despite this being touted as “good news,” national ancestral authorities Misak Nu Nakchak—Fogón de la Autoridad Mayor and Unidad del Pueblo Misak—expressed their opposition.

In a press release written in Spanish, they recalled their mandate from the 2017 and 2019 national congresses which prohibits both the expansion of monocrop plantations and external forms of economic pressure perceived as a threat to ancestral sovereignty.

In the press release, they declared: “We decided that none of our national territories Nu Nakchak will allow the experimentation of the collective land with monocrops, mining exploitation, and other projects which break the equilibrium of our health, culture, spirituality on the Misak territory.”

Misak authorities further stated that producing cannabis feeds multinational corporations, which diverts land that the Misak require for their own needs and disrespects the legacy of the ancestors who fought for it.

Taita José Pillimue believes that the Colombian government should limit the entrance of transnational corporations, which influence the political economy wherever they go.

International presence on indigenous territories, he emphasized, has a negative impact on their culture and economic stability.

For this reason, he added, the proliferation of multinational corporations, which accumulate wealth for industrialized countries, is simply not welcome.

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