By JAMES ANDERSON
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Caribbean troops were rappeling from U.S.
helicopters and learning how to avoid booby traps in dense tropical foliage over
the weekend, preparing for a mission to destroy marijuana on the island nation of
Training began despite protests from hundreds of marijuana growers, who
have no way to make a legal living.
``At this time of year, if the U.S. comes here and destroys our plantations,
spell hardship and the business sector will feel the pinch for Christmas,'' protest
leader Junior Cottle said.
His new Marijuana Farmers movement, which claims to have 800 members, sent
letter to President Clinton on Thursday demanding compensation for lost marijuana
Six U.S. Marine Corps helicopters will ferry more than 120 troops from
Caribbean Regional Security Service and St. Vincent police force this week to
uproot and burn marijuana plants on remote northern plots.
The two-week operation, targeting mountainous terrain near the 4,000-foot
Soufriere Volcano, was requested by St. Vincent and the Grenadines' prime
minister, Sir James Mitchell.
Similar operations in recent years destroyed millions of plants in Trinidad,
St. Lucia, Dominica and Antigua. But none have stirred the kind of organized
protest seen in St. Vincent.
Without their plants, the farmers say unemployment in St. Vincent and the
Grenadines will rise above today's 40 percent. That, coupled with U.S. action
against the Caribbean's vital banana industry, could lead to unrest, they said.
``We have 8,000 people whose livelihood depends on marijuana,'' Cottle said.
With an estimated 12,350 acres in production, St. Vincent is the eastern
Caribbean's largest marijuana producer. Most is consumed on neighboring islands.
St. Vincent business leaders concede that, although illegal, marijuana
important to their economy. And it could become even more important, because
the United States has successfully challenged a European Union quota system that
was crucial to the region's banana industry.
How much the marijuana crop is worth isn't known. But when the harvest
in, soda trucks return to their Kingstown bases empty, and downtown stores do
brisker business, said Martin Barnard, president of the Chamber of Industry and
``They told me they're in trouble -- the jobs are not there, they have
support, they have to turn to the hills to farm marijuana,'' Barnard said. ``I am
sympathetic to all that . . . but at the end of the day we had to say, `Fellows, it is
Mitchell and other Caribbean leaders have long warned that, without a European
market for their bananas, many farmers will turn to marijuana or to smuggling
cocaine and heroin. In St. Vincent, population 110,000, the banana industry
employs up to 60 percent of the work force.
But Mitchell told the farmers that tolerating their illegal work could
lead to U.S.
sanctions. Many farmers planned to harvest their plants before the U.S. helicopters
U.S. officials say the Marines will only transport troops, not destroy
there are risks, Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Douglass said.
Regional troops will be trained to detect booby traps, such as shaved bamboo
sticks in pits or crude pipe guns fired by trip wires, Douglass said.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald