BOUDAI/YAMMOUNEH, Lebanon: The special bond that residents of the long-neglected Baalbek-Hermel area have with the cannabis plant – whose female buds they transform into top-grade hashish – is no secret.
The bond is so strong that farmers are willing to challenge the state and dominant parties or even kill to preserve their precious crops.
“In the absence of alternatives, we will break the hands and legs of anyone who dares destroy our crops,” one of the region’s biggest cannabis cultivators, Ali Nasri Shamas, told The Daily Star.
Defiantly, the modern-day desperado said cultivators would “kill” the Army and security forces if there was ever a crackdown on cannabis fields.
Last year, armed to the teeth with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, farmers warded off bulldozers employed by the state to raze the illegal plantations. The clashes stopped only after the government promised the farmers financial compensation, which was never paid after the Finance Ministry announced it lacked funds to carry out the plan.
“We will not be gentle with them [the security forces] like we usually are,” added Shamas, who is wanted on several arrest warrants, including on a charge of attacking the Army. “It will be a full-blown war if necessary.”
Although the topic of fighting drug cultivation was on the agenda of the Higher Defense Council earlier this week, political and security sources confirmed that the authorities would turn a blind eye to the practice over the next couple of months.
The sources cited the fragile security situation and the government’s inability to provide decent compensation to the farmers as reasons behind a decision to postpone cannabis field destruction sprees for the time being.
A tacit agreement to momentarily freeze the policy came after a meeting early last month between key officials in the caretaker government and a delegation of municipal officials from the Baalbek-Hermel region, the sources added. The meeting was not disclosed to the media.
“The Army is exhausted by the roving security incidents and the farmers are poor and angry,” said a political source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everyone wants to avoid a major confrontation with the military. No one wants carnage.”
Once a thriving multi-billion-dollar business, cannabis cultivation was targeted by the government in the early 1990s due to international pressure. Since then state bulldozers and plows have carried out yearly eradication campaigns that often generate violent clashes with the farmers. Government promises to introduce alternative crops have yet to materialize in any serious way.
But despite the crackdown, unyielding cultivators have not stopped growing cannabis, even devising a cunning system to conceal the plants within corn and tobacco fields.
Some, like Shamas – a notorious member of Baalbek-Hermel’s “tuffar” movement, a group of lawless individuals who largely reject state authority – are outspoken about the issue and argue they have no reason to hide the plants.
These days, the road linking the city of Baalbek to the villages of Boudai and Yammouneh is lined with dark green cannabis fields, a sign the sector is flourishing.
Shamas dubbed this year’s cannabis crop, due to be harvested in October, as “wonderful.”
“We moved from 5,000 dunums of cannabis-cultivated land to 45,000 dunums,” he disclosed, adding that there was no shortage in drug dealers who buy the hashish at good prices and smuggle it abroad to destinations such as Egypt, Turkey and Europe.
Crop substitution programs devised by the Agriculture Ministry in coordination with the United Nations and other international organizations have failed to yield positive results and so have had little sway with farmers.
Abu Asaad, a cannabis farmer in Yammouneh, said he was not pleased with his status as an outlaw. “But we have no other choice,” he confided. “Our region is highly poor and neglected and I prefer planting cannabis to turning into a bandit or a car thief.”
Abu Asaad and Shamas mocked the programs implemented by the Agriculture Ministry over the years to secure alternative crops and accused the state of entrenched corruption.
“It’s high time international donors realize that their money is not spent to devise tangible agricultural policies, but rather goes straight to the pockets of officials,” Abu Asaad said. “Eradication campaigns are carried out at our expense and used to secure more funds, which will surely be embezzled.”
Even caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, a member of the dominant political party in Baalbek and Hermel, Hezbollah, does not escape criticism.
“He wants us to raise goats instead of growing cannabis,” Shamas said, in reference to one proposal by Hajj Hasan to gradually introduce cattle production to replace cannabis. “We will not go backward to being peasants.”
Farmers also complained that their suggestions for practical substitute crops have all been neglected by Hajj Hasan and his predecessors.
Shamas said easing restrictions on licenses to grow tobacco was a possible way to end cannabis cultivation.
“They can spare us their [Agriculture Ministry] expertise,” said Abu Asaad. “If they offer us low-cost water for irrigation by buildings dams, we’ll be able to grow wheat and barley instead of cannabis.”
The farmers also accused powerful groups such as Hezbollah and the Amal Movement of conspiring to keep people dependent on them. Arguing that Hezbollah and Amal were “partners in the crime,” Shamas said farmers would no longer be intimidated by the two parties.
“When you have enough money to enroll your kids in school and ensure health care for your family, you won’t be forced to become a member of a political party to win some favors,” Shamas said. “Hezbollah and Amal don’t want us to be self-sufficient. They want to keep the people of Baalbek and Hermel at their mercy.”
Until solutions are found, farmers and authorities appear confident that a cannabis-related drama will be dodged for at least the next couple of months.
Shamas believes that raising the issue of cannabis eradication during the recent meeting of the Higher Defense Council was a “ploy” by the authorities to demonstrate to the international community that they were still exerting efforts in the field.
The political source echoed Shamas’ logic, stressing that all groups were looking to avert a crisis.
“The [police and Army] might destroy a small plot of land where cannabis is grown in the next few weeks just to demonstrate that they have not dropped the ball on the matter, but I totally rule out a large-scale campaign,” the source said.