ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan’s Chui valley, where wild cannabis grows naturally, was once a mecca for hippies — and drug dealers — from across the Soviet Union.

Now the country has come up with a scheme to eliminate the growing menace of drug abuse and simultaneously establish a new cash crop: rip up the cannabis and replace it with the world’s largest plantation of hemp, a non-narcotic version of the plant.

Kazakhstan is embarking enthusiastically on a programme to boost output of what they see as a miracle crop with uses in the car industry, construction and textiles, to name but a few.

“Drugs are a huge social problem here,” Kazakh doctor Marat Kulmanov told a news briefing on Thursday, welcoming the programme to replace the cannabis.

But he warned strict policing would be needed: wild cannabis is a weed, extremely hard to eliminate, and will continue to grow alongside the hemp even after it is cleared from fields.

Ex-Soviet Central Asia is awash with drugs like heroin, produced in Afghanistan, smuggled through Tajikistan and other border states, and distributed across the region.

With support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank and others, Kazakhstan is setting up a joint venture with German hemp refining and processing firm Treu Hanf to plant hemp on 20,000 hectares, making it easily the world’s largest producer.

Hemp yields a rough fibre already used in the car industry — every BMW 5-series produced contains over 3 kg in its bodywork, Treu Hanf chief executive Matthias Schillo told the same briefing — and it is rapidly gaining favour among car makers over traditional material glass fibre.

“In the car industry it’s indispensible, as recycling glass fibre is not realistic,” Schillo said.

Fibre, furniture, fine cloth

But the plans do not stop there. The first stage will be to grow hemp on 5,000 hectares and building a plant to process it into fibre. The venture will then start making insulating material, based on the fibre, for the construction industry.

A plant to produce chipboard for making furniture will come next, followed by plans to process the fibre into a softer, finer material for the textile industry.

“We see a huge potential for export,” Schillo said, adding that at first the main market would be Kazakhstan itself, followed by Russia and China. The material is too bulky to make it economic to export it further, he said.

By 2005, he said, if all goes to plan Kazakhstan could have 50,000 hectares of hemp dedicated to the car industry alone. This compares with just 2,000 hectares planted in Germany and 3,000 to 4,000 in Romania, Europe’s main commercial growers.

Although Treu Hanf has not finalised its business plan, Schillo said the project would receive investment of $80 million next year, supported by the Kazakh state, private investors, banks like the EBRD, and international anti-narcotic programmes.

Ultimately he expects the project to create 80,000 jobs in Kazakhstan, mostly in farming.

In the long term, he said, hemp could challenge cotton as a source of textiles. Cotton is a major cash crop in ex-Soviet Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, causing huge ecological damage because of its enormous demand for water in a hot, dry region.

“Hemp could be a major competitor for cotton,” Schillo said, pointing out both its lower water consumption and its resistance to pests. “This would be very desirable.”

Thursday, November 7, 2002
Kazakh cannabis mecca turns to hemp
Sebastian Alison