History of hemp in Chile

Erich Forster

Safari Seeds, 774 Mays Blvd. #10, Incline, Nevada 89451, USA

        Hemp farming began in Central and South America during the time of the Spanish Conquest (circa 1500 AD).  Spain was a very strong naval power, and depended upon hemp ropes and sails to outfit their vessels plying the Atlantic Ocean to the resource-rich New World.  Hemp was sown in many places almost immediately upon arrival, in the hope that they could produce their own hemp, and not depend on foreign merchants for this important strategic resource.   Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia all had their initial crops, but only Mexico (California) and Chile had any long-term favorable results.
        The word for hemp in Spanish is 'caņamo', and although originally a term specific to Cannabis hemp, now generally means plant fiber.  So in fact, there are many types of fibers in Chile that go under the name of caņamo (hemp), just as there are many types of 'ma' in Chinese, and 'hemp' in English.   In Chile, the list of fibers known as caņamo starts with major fiber plants such as Cannabis, flax, jute, ramie, Manila hemp and broom sorghum and such minor fiber species as 'esparto' grass, 'ortiga' (nettles), Agave (century plant) , Raphia palm, 'totora' (rush), 'cardon' (giant thistle) and blackberry vine.  Many of these minor species have been used since ancient times by indigenous Chilean peoples to supply their fiber needs.
        Hemp was a very important item for the Conquistadors.  Since hemp is an annual plant that grows very rapidly, they could be assured of a relatively quick and efficient harvest.  Hemp also proved ideal for the mobile lifestyle of the Conquistadors, their early descendants, and the native peoples.   Hemp was so important to the Spanish Crown that in many parts of the Spanish New World, orders were imposed requiring that farms produce their quota of hemp to be delivered to the Viceroy.  Spain became even more dependent on the colonies as their economic situation at home plummeted.  Hemp experts were dispatched to the new world to promote the increased production of hemp for export to Europe.
        Certain regions of the New World favored the production of fiber and/or seed better than others.  The success of hemp in the Spanish New World may have been limited because the first seeds grown were of a temperate European origin and were not adapted to the tropics.  Chile and Argentina are in a geographical position covering latitudes identical with Spain, though in different hemispheres, and having opposite seasons.  Considering the European origin of the first hemp seed in the New World, and thus its strong preference for European-like environmental conditions, it is apparent why hemp took a strong hold in Chile and to a lesser extent in California, both with Mediterranean and temperate climates similar to Europe.  The initial plantings of hemp in Chile took place north of Santiago in the Valparaiso district near the town of Quillota where it continued to grow continuously for the next 400 years.
        Argentina could have been more successful in commercial hemp production except that approximately 80% of the water from the Andes mountains flow to the Chilean side, thus giving Chilean farmers a greater capacity to irrigate and to conduct the water-requiring processing of the hemp fibers.  This water resource and the ideal climate, are the biggest factors that have kept hemp cultivation viable in Chile to this day.
        Hemp was not only for military and strategic uses, but was an extremely important item in everyday farm life, being used to make sacks, shoes, canvas, clothes, rope, cable, twine, bow strings, lassos, saddles, animal feed and seed oil.  To this day, many a Chilean farmer still gets a gleam in his eye when he sees a good quality hempen sack.  One sack is easily worth 5 liters of freshly pressed and fermented grape "chica"!  The agrarian culture puts a high premium on natural fiber products.  They put these products to their ultimate test on the farm, and they know how well they function.  A hemp sack or rope is more valuable than a plastic substitute because hemp will last much longer.  If it was not so expensive, many Chileans would prefer hemp sacks and ropes.
        At one time, hemp farms could be found in practically all parts of Chile, from the extreme north to the south.   Over time, the hemp industry became concentrated in a few central areas with ideal climatic factors and nearby processing factories.  Hemp farms continued on a grand scale into the early 1980's, after which time production slowed steadily.  The main factor seems to be the replacement of hemp sacks and ropes with more economical synthetic alternatives.  Even though synthetic plastics are of inferior quality, their reduced price provided the economic momentum that heralded the virtual end of hemp production.   When international markets shriveled, the few remaining farms and industries survived by selling their fiber and seed products on a national level.  In addition, environmental laws become more strict and water retting is now limited to only a few locations.

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Figure 1.  Hemp grown for seed

Medical uses
      There are several interesting medicinal uses in Latin America for both hemp and marijuana varieties.   It should be noted that hemp and marijuana have their own listings in Latin American herbals indicating that they are considered to be distinct herbal entities.
        Hemp roots have been used as a purgative.   An infusion of the stems, and seeds have sleep inducing properties.  In weakly concentrated beverages, caņamo can be a general pain reliever, and use ceases convulsions, alleviates rheumatory afflictions and also afflictions of the urinary tract.   It is also considered a blood purgative.  Against cold humors, plasters made from ground up fresh flowers are applied over the affected part of the body.  For irritation of the urinary tract, 30 grams of the fresh flowers are infused in one liter of boiling water and imbibed.
        Marijuana is known as 'hierba', 'hierba mala', 'hierba buena' or 'marijuana' in Chile.  It was at one time extensively used in natural medicine, especially in tincture form.  Against headaches, and neuralgia the tincture diluted in water and soaked into compresses are placed over the afflicted parts.   Also, the tincture can be taken orally 5 to 25 drops per day.  This tincture is made by mixing 20 grams of dried flowering tops with 90 proof alcohol and soaking for 15 days.  This is filtered through filter paper or cloth.
        These treatments have been extracted from Latin American herbals.  In Latin America there is a very strong herbal healing tradition, so to many Chileans it is no surprise that Cannabis is a medicinal herb.   Many Chilean doctors support its reappearance as an effective and socially acceptable medicine.

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Figure 2.  Handbrake

Present situation
      One of the main issues since the late 1970s has been hemp's similarity to the drug plant marijuana!   Hemp cultivation is 100% legal as long as the intentions of the farmer are not criminal.  The burden of proof lies with the cultivator.  Many hemp fields have been burned down by overly anxious police officers, or upon suspicion that they contained not only hemp plants, but also drug varieties.  They may have occasionally been right since a few hemp farmers discovered that marijuana plants and hemp plants look essentially the same, and that they could easily hide a few in their big hemp fields.  These farmers were thrown in jail, all of their hemp fields were burned, and they are never allowed to grow hemp again.  Another problem is that some people will steal anything resembling marijuana, even if they are drug-free varieties of low value to the illicit smoker.  Those few remaining farmers willing to brave the economic factors and political pressures began to protect their crops on a 24 hour basis in order to harvest before losing their crop to thieves.  This protection occasionally involved encounters with armed bandits who threatened farmers and their families.
        Thus, present-day hemp production in Chile is serious business, and relies on the discreet location of the plantations, high security, and cooperation with the authorities.  Farmers hope that the marijuana smoker/thief will not be satisfied with low quality smoke and that hemp plantations will no longer be subjected to such a pestilence.  The key lies in the detection and development of essentially drug-free hemp varieties that cannot be stolen and then diverted to the recreational smoker.  This will be the only way to grow hemp in Chile and expect to receive the full support of the authorities.
        In Chile, hemp has been an important industrial plant since the Spanish landed almost 500 years ago, and has found such a place in their culture that many Chileans have been surprised to learn that caņamo and marijuana come from related plants.  Many local farmers wonder how a plant that once served for so much and be made into so many useful products for living and working on the farm, could turn out to be of the same species as marijuana.  Debate exists in Chile as to whether we should continue confusing legal hemp with it's criminal cousin marijuana.   Chilean farmers recognize that there are industrial hemp varieties, and also there are marijuana varieties, and that they are as different as night and day.  Chilean law still respects this difference and there have always been provisions allowing for legal cultivation of Cannabis as hemp.
        In present-day Chile there are very few hemp farms, but there is a concentrated effort preparing for a resurgence in hemp cultivation and new hemp industries are being developed.  Many of the recent developments have been in response to the international demand for hemp prducts.  Much of the work is centered around assuring the propagation of acceptable non-drug varieties and new product research and development.  Pristine natural climate, rich soils, and long agricultural tradition make Chile a natural place for a resurgence in hemp cultivation.

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Figure 3.  Scutching machine

Landraces and cultivars
      Many landraces and cultivars of hemp have been grown in Chile.  Hemp "varieties" were divided into four basic categories: fiber hemp, seed hemp, mixed hemp (fiber and seed) and drug Cannabis, based on the products that were harvested.  Here is a partial list of these varieties.
        Piedmont hemp - This fiber hemp variety originally from Italy is also known as Caņamo de Ancona.  This variety differentiates itself from common hemp by growing to a larger size, and requiring more fertile soils.  It commences flowering later than common hemp but ends up maturing at the same time.  It produces a smaller amount of fiber, but yields a larger amount of seed.  Unfortunately, this variety was found to lose its favorable characteristics after a few years, so it was necessary to acquire new seed at regular intervals.
        Chinese hemp - This fiber hemp variety is also known as "the giant" because it reached over 22 feet in height.   Even when planted closely, its stalks are thick and of tremendous height.   Produces coarse fiber.
        Italian hemp - This fiber hemp variety was experimented with for several years, and was found to be inferior to the common hemp land-race.  It yielded less fiber of no better quality.
        Kentucky hemp - This fiber variety was imported from the USA.  It proved to be very quick growing and could be harvested early.  However, it was never accepted because it was considered inferior in yield compared to the common landrace.  In the extreme southern regions, it was found to be the most productive, but seed production required a location much farther to the north (more tropical).
        Russian, Lithuanian, and Finnish hemp - These seed hemp varieties from cold climates are short and characterized by fast growth, high seed yield and low fiber yield.
        Common hemp - This mixed hemp variety was preferred by many Chilean farmers and resulted from years of natural selection for local climatic conditions.  It is hardy, vigorous, very productive and yields good quality fiber.
        Turkish hemp - This mixed hemp variety is smaller than the Italian hemp, with dark leaves, and very late flowering and appears to be from the same group as the Italian.
        Yugoslavian hemp - This mixed hemp variety has a high percentage of fiber.
        Arabian Cannabis - This short drug variety was notably different due to its resinous leaves which were used to make an inebriating drink in Arabia, India and possibly also in Chile.

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Figure 4.  Combing

Cultivation and processing
      In Chile, ideal areas for hemp farming include isolated and protected valleys or along the banks of rivers and lakes.  Depending upon seed quality and cropping strategy, the following quantities are sown.

Fiber production 60-300 kg/ha
Seed production 40-180 kg/ha
Mixed fiber and seed 40-250 kg/ha

        Almost all Chilean hemp farmers produced fiber and seed at the same time, although many realized that this was not the ideal method, since it produced fiber and seed each of less than optimal yield and quality.   Nevertheless, it provided them with two products, and two sources of income.   Dedicated plantings for fiber or seed production have been slow to catch on, even though research indicates that dedicating your crop to either fiber or seed production is economically better, since you can harvest higher quantities of better quality of either product.
        Fiber production requires irrigation at least once a month and ample soil nitrogen.  Males are removed as soon as they begin to flower, and are bundled separately, since they provide a higher quality fiber, to be retted separately.  During seed production, preferred males of ideal stature are selected and allowed to fertilize the females.  All other males are culled.  One select male remains per 25m
        In the past, harvesting was done as follows.   All the female plants were pulled up at a point when the seed was well formed.   It was not advantageous to wait for the female plants to mature completely because even though the seed yield increased, it drastically reduced the yield of quality fiber by making it thicker, more brittle and unmanageable during processing.
        To eliminate this problem, farmers waited for the grain to be well formed and begin its ripening, and then at this precise moment they began to cut down the plants.  Many strongly willed and muscled farmers did not cut the plants, but pulled them out of the ground 15 to 20 plants at a time through a brisk action of the hip.  These bundles of plants were then dropped on the ground and left to finish drying for 3 to 5 days, and then collected and stacked into a type of bale.   These bales were rounded up a few days later and stacked in a 'capilla' or church shaped structure for final drying for another week or so.
        First the seed was threshed by grabbing the dry plants by the base of the stalk, and beating the seed bearing flowers against a clean piece of ground or tarpaulin.  In this way the hemp seed is collected in one place for later cleaning and winnowing using screens, brushes and wind.  In some cases threshers and seed cleaning machines have been used to automate the process.
        The harvesting of the seed, leaves behind the fiber-rich stalk ready for further processing on it's way to becoming finished hemp fiber.   Water retting has traditionally been preferred in Chile.  The stalks are stacked in retting ponds and covered with stones.  Then the ponds are filled with water to immerse the stalks.  Retting ponds are usually about one to two meters deep, and as long and wide as needed for the quantity of stalks processed at any one time.   Stalks remain in this retting pond for a period of 8 to 10 days in the summer, and 12 to 18 days during the winter, during which they complete the retting process.  As the stalks begin to ferment, the water becomes putrefied.  If it was to be directly released into rivers and lakes, it could cause injury to the animals and people who drink water from these sources.  Chilean Law # 3133 prohibits the retting of hemp in stagnant waters for this very reason.  The Law of Fishing also prohibits the release of this effluent into rivers and lakes.  Thus careful attention must be paid to the disposal of the retting effluent.
        Before the invention of the hemp breaking machine, hemp fiber decorticating was an incredibly laborious task often performed by slave or indentured labor.  More recently, mechanical and automated hemp breakers have revolutionized this industry and at one time several automated breakers were in operation.  One of the best was the Ferriani decorticator and comber which rapidly delivered finished combed fiber ready for industry.
        Hemp cultivation is very good for the soil because it controls weeds and aerates the soil.  However, hemp is a heavy feeder and depletes soil nutrients, especially nitrogen.  Chilean farmers have long recognized that crop rotations with nitrogen-fixing legumes restores the nutrient balance of the soil.
        Chilean hemp deserves to be preserved so that small farmers can continue to have this additional source of income, and access to its various products for use on the farm.  Hemp could help provide alternatives to the paper and logging industries, so that native trees may be spared.  Chilean hemp has been given another chance.  The process of re-establishing the crop may be a slow one, but hemp will make its resurgence to the fertile fields of Chile.

References are mostly Spanish titles and are available from the author upon request.