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Bekaa farmers hedge their bets on cannabis

Bulldozers destroy cannabis fields in the Bekaa.

YAMMOUNEH, Lebanon: This year, cannabis farmers in the northern Bekaa bet that the Army would be too preoccupied with the Syrian crisis to destroy their entire yield.

Their bets paid off, and in the coming days farmers will begin harvesting the illegal cannabis that is estimated to be worth $20 million and provides income for more than 3,000 families in Baalbek-Hermel alone.

Yammouneh farmer Yasser, who did not want his real name revealed, is preparing for the harvest. He runs one hand over the dark green leaves of a stalk, and ruffles his 5-year-old son’s hair with the other. The smell of cannabis wafts through the cold, dry air.

Yasser’s relationship with cannabis is intimately tied up with that of his five children, as he plants the crop to fund their education so they don’t end up like him: a cannabis farmer wanted by the state.

“Planting cannabis was a last resort for feeding my family and educating my children ... I tried all possible other crops, like grains and vegetables, but I ended up losing money and in debt.”

Yasser is not alone: Since cannabis was banned after the end of the Civil War, multiple crop replacement plans have been attempted. In the 1990s, a large-scale project that convinced some farmers to switch to legal cannabis – hemp – was dropped after it was deemed too expensive.

A bevy of crops including saffron, sunflowers, beetroots, capers and tobacco have been tried, and all have – for the most part – failed. Most farmers returned to cannabis – it is easy and cheap to grow, requires little water, and provides a large profit.

Instead, each year the government undertakes an expensive program of eradication. This year, Yasser explains that the confluence of the Syrian crisis and financial desperation led farmers in the northern Bekaa to coordinate and confront the security forces assigned to destroy their crops.

The farmers used machine guns, mortar shells and hand grenades against the approaching tractors. They blocked the roads to their fields with rocks, their bodies and those of their families.

After 6,615 dunums – out of 30,000 dunums in the northern Bekaa – were razed, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel met with the farmers and agreed to put the obliteration on hold. The Cabinet formed a ministerial committee, headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati. and which has so far met once, to provide solutions for farmers.

To farmers and politicians alike, the committee’s formation calls to mind the multiple projects, programs and committees that have failed to find profitable alternatives for cannabis farmers.

As Yammouneh’s Mayor Mohammad Shreif points out, one dunum of cannabis can provide $500 to $1,000 per month for a family. He is skeptical that the committee will help, as since 1992 repeated promises for government assistance have been broken.

A leader of the local Jaafar family, Ojaj Jaafar, confirms that farmers don’t trust the committee to secure a successful substitute. He cites a popular Lebanese saying: “Committees are the graveyards of projects.”

Agricultural engineer Hasan Nasereddine is also pessimistic about the committee’s prospects, saying that switching from cannabis is especially difficult because, in addition to finding a crop suitable to the cold and dry climate, it requires subsidizing farmers until they have a proper yield. This could take years.

But a co-op in Deir al-Ahmar has been growing what he calls “strategic crops,” because of their quick yield. They produce pistachio nuts, saffron, hazelnuts and grape vines.

Jalal Mahfouz, the head of the Planning and Development Center in Hermel, says that the Lebanese economic system has focused on developing its service sector and directed foreign investment there. With economic development aimed at central areas, peripheral areas like the northern Bekaa and their agriculture have been neglected.

Mahfouz criticizes alternative crop programs, as well as the policies of successive governments. Destroying part of a year’s crop, he says, drives up prices but average farmers do not see benefits. Destruction has cost the government LL500 million annually since 1992.

For now, he says, many of the under-served residents of northern Bekaa feel forced to choose between two off-putting outcomes: move far from home to the deprived suburbs of Beirut, or accept the risks of cultivating cannabis.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 24, 2012, on page 4.

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