Hemp Production Potential Sustainable Economic Future for Indigenous Communities


At 6 a.m. on August 24, 2000, Alex White Plume was awakened by a call from his brother. All he said was, “They’ve arrived. White Plume knew exactly who his brother was talking about. Walking outside, White Plume was ambushed by Drug Enforcement Administration agents holding machine guns.

“[An agent] pointed his gun at me and said ‘Halt’ three times,” White Plume recalled in the 2006 PBS documentary “Standing Silent Nation”. something inside me got angry, like an accusation. I just looked at him and I’m not going to say what I said, but I said, ‘You’re going to have to shoot me in the back’ and I just started walking.”

The DEA raided White Plume’s property on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota over its decision to grow hemp, a class of cannabis used for medicinal and industrial purposes but lacking the high amounts of Psychotropic THC found in marijuana. What could have been a cash crop for White Plume and her family was decimated by DEA agents in the raid.

The story of White Plume illustrates how hemp has been regulated in the United States for decades – as a Class 1 drug – but it also represents how Indigenous peoples have been blocked from trying to use hemp. as an economic driver for themselves and their communities. .

Between farm legislation and the marijuana legalization movement, hemp has become a more viable commodity for farmers, including indigenous farmers, in recent years. For Indigenous communities, hemp production could be an opportunity to build powerful, self-sufficient economies.

“Long before the Europeans arrived, we were farming, and we were doing it well,” says Tim Houseberg, co-founder and executive director of the indigenous nonprofit Cherokee Nation. Indigenous health issues. “Now we are mostly landless, so even when you have highly skilled farmers like me, we don’t have thousands of acres. We are not part of this agricultural network. It overtook us. I watched [hemp] as an opportunity, in many cases, where people of indigenous backgrounds, of diverse backgrounds, could all of a sudden be involved in something to provide a living wage.

The potential of hemp

Unlike marijuana, hemp has low levels of THC – less than 0.5% compared to an average of 15% in marijuana – high levels of CBD and thousands of potential uses. Hemp is used in clothing, animal and human food, rope, and some exciting new uses.

“I think there is a significant opportunity to capitalize on and innovate,” says Jared Auclair, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. “There are some pretty interesting things where we could leverage hemp and cannabis in general in other areas like biofuels.”

For Houseberg, the potential of hemp production for tribal communities is more than just additional income: it is part of a path to a sustainable “circular” economy for indigenous peoples.

“You have people who could go out and learn about emerging crops and make a career out of it or rent land,” Houseberg says. “They could also be involved in growing hemp and producing hemp not for the fiber but for the seed and for the nutritional value, to eat and stay alive.”

However, there are regulatory, economic, and educational hurdles that still present challenges for Indigenous farmers looking to enter the hemp industry.

The complicated history of hemp

Part of this has to do with the curious history of hemp as a crop in the United States. Hemp has been grown by farmers for thousands of years all over the world, including in the United States. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, legally separating hemp from marijuana. as culture. Hemp production was encouraged by the government in the 1940s as part of agricultural efforts during World War II. However, hemp fell victim to the war on drugs, starting in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act, which criminalized hemp and classified it alongside heroin and marijuana as a abused drug.

For tribal communities, the question of sovereignty still hangs over all of this, especially since recent efforts to get rid of it. The Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, like all tribes in the United States, were granted sovereignty over their lands, and in 1998 the tribe passed an ordinance legalizing the cultivation of hemp on the Pine Ridge reservation.

“I said [the DEA agents], “You’re breaking tribal law,” White Plume said on “Standing Silent Nation.” “’This is our family’s land. … You are raping us and you are taking something that we have planted and we are going to sell it.’ »

With the 2014 Farm Bill, states could set up pilot programs regulating the production of hemp for research purposes, which meant that educational institutions and their partners could get into the industry. The 2018 Farm Bill went further by allowing large-scale production of hemp, provided it was made legal by states or tribes, and removing it from the DEA’s list of controlled substances.

However, these recent changes haven’t made things much easier for Indigenous farmers, Houseberg says.

Obstacles to success

Native Health Matters, his Oklahoma-based nonprofit, has been ahead of the curve in the world of hemp production in general. In 2018, the nonprofit partnered with the University of Arkansas for the first university-supported hemp agronomic study in the United States. It has an extensive genetic library of hemp varieties from around the world. But even with all of these benefits, Native Health Matters has faced challenges in the world of hemp production.

Most tribal communities simply don’t know where or how to grow and harvest hemp or who to talk to, which can leave them vulnerable to “unscrupulous promoters,” says Houseberg. For people already facing significant economic challenges, the difference between a successful or failed deal with a developer is significant.

“As with any emerging business, there are good and bad. There are people there just to take advantage of it, so in a tribal community, where you have young and new businesses, they can’t accept “I just spent $10,000 to buy the wrong seed,” says Houseberg . “They can be done, period. They could not survive contracts that are more unilateral than bilateral. There’s just a lot of lack of knowledge about who to do business with.

Equipment and land are also expensive, and because of the federal government’s history of deletion indigenous to their land, tribal communities have very little acreage to work with in the first place. Then there are droughts, pests, and fertilizer shortages that present additional hurdles. Houseberg started growing hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill, but he saw farmers who weren’t so lucky. Some lost their farms, went to jail or even committed suicide.

“If you see a Native American farmer period, take a picture because it’s rare,” Houseberg says. “It’s tough for the farmer back in the days of the United States, let alone a Native American farmer, let alone the one who decided to try growing hemp.”

There are also regulatory hurdles, which can vary from state to state, says Paul Peiteaching assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern.

“Fifteen days before harvest, if the THC content of the plant exceeds a certain level, you have to destroy the land completely,” says Pei. “All the money is gone.”

To look forward

But there are some signs of hope. After 20 years of a court order preventing it from growing hemp, White Plume recently partnered with Minnesota-based hemp company Evo Hemp in 2017 to create a line of hemp-based food products. Even if it takes time, Houseberg remains optimistic that this type of agricultural development can be a boon for tribal communities.

“There are opportunities for Indigenous communities that aren’t in cities just because we were, we are, a plant-based society, although we’ve moved away from that,” Houseberg says. “Getting back to those things, starting with the little ones, is an opportunity to create a workforce in emerging areas, but that’s what we’ve forgotten. It’s a chance for us to get back to those things and join this new economy.

To help provide pathways to success, Native Health Matters created the Indigenous Production Trade Alliance, a group of farmers, universities, seed breeders and entrepreneurs who aim to educate and strengthen the workforce. work in the hemp industry and the world of sustainable agriculture. Native Health Matters also works with other tribal communities and organizations on remediation efforts, improving soil to help grow hemp and other crops. All of these efforts must start at the community level, Houseberg says, otherwise the benefits of hemp production won’t stick or work for the community.

But that doesn’t mean indigenous farmers have to figure it out for themselves. Houseberg says a group like the Indigenous Production Trade Alliance is proof that collaboration is key to success in the hemp industry.

“Like cannabinoids, companies [and] individuals should start working together to create unique links in the global supply chain to have incalculable impacts on the environment,” says Houseberg. “A Healthy Energy Conservation Ecosystem [and] well-being is a collaboration, much like the symbiotic effects of the cannabis plant, which was coined the entourage effect. With such a diversity of useful innovations, hemp companies, like cannabis compounds, and synergistic corporate alliances [can] create a Hempire like the world has never seen.

Although Houseberg has spent a decade exploring the potential of hemp in tribal communities, he is adamant that hemp alone is no panacea. But it’s a way to embrace a sustainable future that could prove fruitful for Indigenous peoples across the United States.

“Everyone thinks hemp will save the world. Well, he’s not – he can only do his part,” says Houseberg. “It’s us who are working to create more of a plant-based ecological environment that will change things.”

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