Struggling Lebanese Farmers Return to Illegal Crop

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jun 9, 2001.

  1. By Kim Ghattas
    Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

    Eight years after international pressure pushed the Lebanese government to eradicate cannabis farming, the illicit crop has made a strong comeback here in the fertile, sun-drenched Bekaa Valley. Cannabis is the hemp plant from which marijuana and hashish are made.
    "People are hungry; we need to feed our families. We know drugs are haram [forbidden by God], but isn't starving your children haram too?" asked one mother of six from the town of Hermel.

    For the first time in eight years, she has planted 12 acres of marijuana. She knows she might go to jail for this, but is willing to take the risk so she can afford to send her children to school again.

    Since 1992, the government has introduced all sorts of alternatives, from sugar beets to dairy cows, but nothing has been as lucrative as cannabis. Cannabis farming in the Bekaa Valley goes back centuries, but it boomed during the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975.

    In the mid-1980s there were 150,000 acres of illicit crops here, and Lebanon was high on the United States' list of drug-producing countries. The eradication campaign eliminated an important source of illegal drugs for Europe and the United States; it also left 25,000 families without an income and cost the region about $500 million a year.

    Nasser Ferjani, head of the U.N. program for Integrated Rural Development in the area of Baalbeck-Hermel in the northern Bekaa, blames foreign donors for failing to help support the farmers after getting rid of the marijuana. The Lebanese government, burdened by a $25 billion debt, has little money to offer.

    "I warned the international community since we started in 1994, that in the absence of substantive support to development efforts, farmers will return to the illicit crops," Ferjani said.

    This summer, an estimated 37,000 acres are planted with marijuana as farmers give up on potatoes, which sell for 9 cents a pound, and revert to cannabis, which can bring them up to $130 a pound.

    Farmer Ali Hajj Hassan, 50, was hired by the U.N. program to guard a new irrigation system for the fields around the village of Shaat in the Bekaa. Although he is full of praise for the project that tries to encourage farmers to stay away from cannabis, Hajj Hassan has planted some himself.

    It is easy to understand why. Hajj Hassan paid $1.50 for a bag of birdseed, from which he fished the cannabis seeds. His 9-by-22-foot plot will bring him $200. In comparison, he says, he spends $175 on seeds, water and plowing for a wheat crop that will bring him a mere $47.

    "This little plot of hashish that you see will bring me more money than a few hectares of wheat," he said. "This year, everybody is planting cannabis again. If there is another eradication campaign this summer, there will be riots."

    The farmers are clinging to one last hope: a project started in 1999 by Hassan Makhlouf, an agronomist who has done extensive research on alternative crops. He proposes replacing cannabis with profitable crops such as pistachios, saffron and capers. For an investment of $10 million, he says, the crops could bring an annual revenue of $200 million into the area. More than 700 enthusiastic farmers have participated in the project, which has relied mainly on donations of saplings and seeds.

    "One hectare [2.5 acres] of cannabis can bring as little as $2,000 to $3,000, if there is a lot of supply," said Makhlouf, who grew up in the Bekaa and whose father planted cannabis. "Saffron is very important and expensive like gold. One hectare can give one kilogram [2.2 pounds] of saffron, which will sell between $4,000 and $8,000. This is extraordinary for a family of farmers."

    Makhlouf, who lived in Paris for 12 years, was invited back by the Lebanese antidrug squad, which was interested in his ideas and asked him to implement them in Lebanon. Two years later, he says he is still waiting to be officially hired and allowed to approach international donors.

    Some farmers say they have been told the authorities will permit the illicit crops this year because influential people are involved in the trade.

    Hermel, Lebanon

    Source: Inquirer (PA)
    Author: Kim Ghattas
    Published: June 6, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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