By Rebecca Harrison
After hours of scrambling over rugged mountain terrain, Swaziland's drug squad finally find what they're looking for: a secret field packed with some of the world's strongest dagga.
Prized for its potency across the world, "Swazi Gold" is grown in the remote northern mountains of this tiny African kingdom, then smuggled into neighbouring South Africa and on to Europe and North America.
Police in impoverished Swaziland say that despite dousing acres of towering plants with deadly insecticide, they are losing the war on dagga to dirt-poor peasants bent on protecting their most lucrative crop.
"We can't win this war," says inspector Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho.
"This is just a drop in the ocean - the people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he says as he sniffs at a 2m plant in one makeshift field north of the regional capital Pigg's Peak.
A handful of drug lords buy and sell Swaziland's marijuana - the world's most popular illegal drug - but most of the growing is done by subsistence farmers desperate for cash after four years of drought and hefty job cuts.
According to Swaziland's Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, about 70 percent of small farmers in the Hhohho region, where mountainous terrain makes growing maize tough, turn to dagga.
The world's top law enforcement agency, Interpol, says Southern Africa, including Swaziland, has the potential to overtake key dagga producers like Morocco, and already sends major shipments to the west.
Like thousands of other peasant farmers in Hhohho, a woman who identifies herself only as Khanyesile ekes out a living from 30 limp dagga plants hidden in thick undergrowth behind her rickety shack.
"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory - I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school," she says from beneath a flowered headscarf.
Khanyesile, 45, has been jailed and fined for her dagga. Police have twice sprayed and burned her tiny fields and once local thieves stole the entire crop just before harvesting.
But a patchy income from selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road is not enough to feed her family, and she has no intention of giving up her plants despite the threat of up to six years in prison.
"You can't get money for maize... and it is difficult to grow, but a man from South Africa comes every month to buy my dagga," she says.
Most of her neighbours, Khanyesile says, also grow dagga, and homesteads club together to minimise risk for the man from South Africa, who arrives on foot across the mountains.
"I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga - it is the only way we can make money."
Police say that although peasants like Khanyesile are harmless enough, some of the bigger growers are swapping dagga for illegal firearms from South Africa and Mozambique, prompting a rise in gun crime in this sleepy nation.
Armed with a couple of assault rifles and several litres of insecticide, Dlamini's drug squad scours the region daily for dagga plantations in a bid to contain the industry.
"Look, they've left traces," shouts Dlamini to his colleagues as they tramp through the forest, holding up the distinctive five-speared leaf of a dagga plant.
But he knows that even if they find the field, the country is teeming with thousands more.
The bigger growers penetrate the country's furthest-flung valleys, hiking deep into the forests across crocodile-infested rivers to avoid police.
"It is everywhere. At every stream or river the banks are full of dagga," says squad member Hoare, decked out in waterproof overalls with a spray gun in his hand.
Swazi marijuana, which is said to be more potent due to the soil and weather conditions, fetches a handsome premium.
On the streets of Johannesburg, Swazi Gold is sold in 30g small bank bags, or "bankies", for R70 apiece, while Amsterdam coffee shops charge the equivalent of around R50 for one gram.
Khanyesile says she gets around R1 000 for 2kg.
Police have seized 285kg of dagga so far this year and destroyed roughly 197 hectares - a fraction of the total, says Albert Mkhatshwa, head of the national drugs unit.
Small-fry dealers smuggle out their stash on foot while the big guys find myriad ways to sneak their goods past customs. Police recently stopped a giant wooden fish headed for Italy packed with at least 30kg of compressed weed.
But many experts say police are wasting their time, since dagga is embedded in Swazi culture, smoked for centuries by farmers and used for medicine by traditional healers.
Dlamini says even the chief of his home village would smoke a dagga pipe twice a day as an accepted part of Swazi tradition.
And some local health workers argue dagga could help in the fight against HIV and Aids, which affects around 40 percent of the adult population.
"In terms of HIV, sometimes it can boost the immune system," says Madzabudzabu Kunene, who co-ordinates the Swaziland Aids Support Organisation in Hhohho.
"It can help in boosting appetite, that is proven." - Reuters