HERMEL, Lebanon: The government’s decision to begin destroying cannabis farms in the Bekaa Valley Thursday has angered impoverished farmers whose livelihoods rely heavily on drug production, with doubts arising as to whether the policy can continue to be implemented amid the unstable security and political situation in Lebanon.
“We call on all the authorities to take into account our very poor living conditions, because we want to live just like everyone else, especially since the agricultural season in the Bekaa [Valley] this year is at its worst because of the severe drought that has damaged all kinds of crops,” said Ali Nasri Shammas, a well-known grower in the region who is acting as spokesman for the illegal industry.
Cannabis farmers in the area have previously vowed to defend their crops with their lives, and Shams stressed that farmers were ready to face the authorities, whether by protesting and blocking roads or more violent means.
“We will also use arms to face the security forces, who will damage the crops even if it leads to bloodshed. Destroying [the crops] is forbidden no matter the results,” Shammas warned.
Once a thriving multibillion-dollar business, cannabis cultivation began to be targeted by the Lebanese government in the early 1990s due to international pressure.
But 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 Lebanese farmers continue to grow the lucrative plant despite yearly crackdowns by the state.
According to civil society figure Ahmad Asaad Jaafar, the decision will be possible for the government to implement, but will be received with protest.
“Cannabis farmers in the Bekaa hail from all sects, and agricultural spaces have now expanded ... from the northern plains in Al-Qaato to some plains and valleys in the southern part of West Bekaa,” Jaafar, who hails from the Baalbek neighborhood of Hay al-Sharawneh, told The Daily Star. “This decision has come very late.”
The government should have begun the crackdown in the spring, he said, before the farmers had experienced losses due to the drought and the associated expenditure on irrigation water.
“The resentment stems from the officials neglecting the issue until after the cultivation of land, whereas farmers want alternatives before incurring losses,” Jaafar added. “They will not accept symbolic compensation.”
He also said that the drought, brought about by the lack of rainfall this winter, was causing several other problems in the Bekaa that the government had yet to address, such as a shortfall in drinking water in the north that could be addressed by digging artesian walls to extract groundwater.
Jaafar pointed to several programs to lift the Bekaa Valley’s farmers out of poverty – and thus reduce their reliance on cannabis – that had yet to be implemented.
Najib Mikati’s government decided in a session in August 2012 to support a program of alternative crops in the Bekaa Valley to the tune of LL45 billion, with LL25 million for the cultivation of sugar beets and LL20 million to support and develop agriculture in the Baalbek-Hermel region. That plan was hatched to replace a scrapped program to support beet planting in 2006 and wheat in 2007.
There have also been other projects aimed at developing milk production, the cultivation of grain crops and the establishment of artificial ponds to gather rainwater in light of the Agriculture Ministry’s five-point plan.
The fact that the government’s failure to see through such initiatives dates back decades does not help to inspire much hope that the future will be any different.
During the civil war, the Bekaa Valley produced up to 1,000 tons of cannabis yearly, according to the head of the Agriculture Cooperative in Hermel, Muhib Hamadeh. After the war ended, a crop substitution plan was brought in with the help of the United Nations Development Program, and by 1994, the U.N. announced that the Bekaa Valley was clear of drug farms.
The cost of keeping it that way, the UNDP said, was estimated to be $300 million, but most of that money never reached its intended recipients. As a result, cannabis producers slowly regrouped, and despite continuing crop substitutions programs, including cultivating plants with medicinal properties to sell to pharmaceutical companies, they all failed due to a lack of funding and a strategic plan.
According to Hamadeh, part of the reason cannabis farms have expanded so much recently is because of the leniency of the government on the one hand, and its preoccupation with the deteriorating security situation on the other. He said some families and clans of the northern Bekaa had planted cannabis in large swathes of land west of Baalbek and in Deir al-Ahmar all the way to Hermel.
The annual destruction of cannabis crops came to a halt in 2012 after farmers blocked the roads while security forces were damaging the crops and violence erupted in Boudai, Saideh, and Allaq. Several farmers were injured, an Internal Security Forces car carrying members of the Anti-Drug Bureau was attacked and rockets were launched at the Lebanese Army.
The Syrian conflict and the spate of rockets landing in the Bekaa contributed to preventing the destruction of cannabis crops from resuming.