Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jul 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Michael Slackman, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon -- For seven years, Abu Mohammed tried to support his 
wife and five children by growing melons. But there was never enough water, 
and even when weather conditions were good, no one wanted to buy his produce.

So now he's cultivating a crop sure to sell: Cannabis sativa, the spiky, 
olive green plant used to produce hashish.

"To us, this is just a crop," Abu Mohammed said as he checked his plot, 
stretching the length of a football field alongside the main road in this 
sunburned valley in northeastern Lebanon. "I would rather plant melons, but 
customers are always ready to buy hashish." The Bekaa Valley is nearly 
barren of crops; its irrigation channels are dry and filled with debris. 
But cannabis needs little water to grow, and after years of waiting for 
government assistance, many farmers here have turned to the illicit harvest.

They say that if the government tries to stop them, there will be 
bloodshed. "I am serious," said Ali, a 50-year-old with 11 children who, 
like other cannabis farmers, asked that his last name not be used. "If I am 
going to die, I want to die defending myself."

The resurgence of cannabis in the region is a serious problem for the 
Lebanese government. Faced with a crushing $28-billion debt, Lebanon is 
desperate to convince the international community that it is safe for 
investment. Production of illicit drugs will only hamper that effort, and 
could even lead to sanctions. But officials acknowledge that a crackdown 
will exacerbate economic tensions and empower radical groups in the region. 
Either way, Lebanon loses something.

"I don't agree the solution is to grow hashish," said Prime Minister Rafik 
Hariri, whose blunt words have not yet been followed by concrete action. 
"We are going to destroy it, this is for sure. This is illegal. This is 
unethical. And we will not allow it."

Off the valley floor, in the dry rocky hills of the Lebanon Mountains, 
60-year-old Sobhi Barkashi has resisted the temptation to plant cannabis. 
Instead, he grows tobacco, buying supplies on credit and hauling water from 
distant wells. He has tons of tobacco dried, bundled and ready to sell.

"Nobody is buying it," he said despairingly. "I will have to throw it all 
out. I am hoping someone helps."

After a decade of promises from the government and the West, his neighbors 
have given up waiting.

"My family has been 10 years without anything--we had to grow hashish," 
said Monsiour, 25. "People are going hungry. If they try to stop us, we 
have our weapons. We will have war. There will be victims."

Cannabis has been grown in the Bekaa for centuries, dating back to the days 
of the Ottoman Empire. The crop became an integral part of the economy and 
the culture, occasionally used as a currency for barter and, according to 
local lore, even included in dowries.

When Lebanon's 15-year civil war began in 1975, the area experienced a 
boomlet, with cannabis as the economic engine. The drug revenue--tens of 
millions of dollars annually--was the cornerstone of the local economy. 
Shopkeepers sold more goods. Factories were built. Stone villas shot up in 
the countryside. Drug profits from sales to smugglers from the United 
States, Europe, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel even helped pay for schools 
and textbooks.

But the profitable harvest also put Lebanon on America's list of 
drug-producing countries. When the civil war finally ended, the government 
was faced with several obstacles to achieving international legitimacy. One 
was the militant group Hezbollah. Although it was viewed here as a 
liberation militia dedicated to driving Israel out of southern Lebanon, the 
West labeled it a terrorist organization.

The second problem was the Bekaa's drug production.

"They felt they could defend the presence of Hezbollah because 'it's not 
terrorism, it's resistance,' " said Nasser Ferjani, head of the U.N. 
Program for Integrated Rural Development in the northern Bekaa. "But to 
avoid being criticized and having sanctions imposed against Lebanon, they 
decided to remove the illicit crops."

In 1991, an estimated 75,000 acres were cultivated with cannabis and, to a 
small extent, opium. That year, army troops moved in with bulldozers and 
chemical sprays. The government gave tours to the media and international 
observers as fields were plowed under. By 1994, the government declared the 
Bekaa a drug-free zone and the international community hailed its success.

But for the 250,000 people living in the region--and the 23,000 family 
farms here--the eradication effort wiped out their main source of support. 
The government and foreign countries promised help. In 1992, a study led by 
the U.N. Development Program calculated it would take $300 million over 
five years for comprehensive development. But all that the people here 
received in funding was $4.25 million, none of which came from 
international donors.

In June 1995, the U.N.'s Ferjani said, he took the region's case to a donor 
conference in Paris, where he asked for $53 million. Ferjani said that the 
donor community didn't reject the request--it never replied.

"Under these conditions, we noted in all our reports since 1994 that the 
return of illicit crops is imminent," Ferjani said. "We cannot oblige the 
people to continue suffering without any reaction from their side."

 From June 1994 through this September, the United Nations and the 
cash-strapped Lebanese government have cobbled together $15 million to help 
farmers. Foreign governments have financed a few small programs, including 
the U.S. sale of dairy cows to Lebanon. The cow project, however, proved 
disappointing, primarily because there was very little grass to feed the 
animals, so milk production was low. A U.N. project to grow 
drought-resistant wheat attracted little interest and is about to run out 
of funds.

"We can blame the donor countries, especially the Arab countries that 
promised to help the Lebanese government," Ferjani said of the overall 
situation. "To date, all we have received are tokens."

Lebanon's biggest obstacle to receiving international financial aid is that 
it's just not poor enough compared with underdeveloped countries such as 
Sudan, U.N. officials said. Lebanon's annual per capita income of $4,500 
disqualifies it as a country in need. But that offers little comfort to 
residents of the Bekaa, where incomes are far lower than in the capital, 

"They think hunger is only what happens in Africa." said Ali, the farmer 
ready to defend his cannabis fields.

Farmers here say they made an effort to grow legitimate crops but could 
barely even cover their costs. Ali said it costs $100 to produce a ton of 
cannabis, which he can sell for $2,800 to $3,000. By comparison, he said, 
he spends $500 to grow a ton of onions, which he can then sell for $100, if 
he can find a buyer.

With such a great temptation, cannabis started showing up in the late 
1990s. At first, government troops moved in and eradicated it. But last 
year, the government did nothing, and this year, according to the U.N., it 
appears that cannabis cultivation has reached an all-time high since the 
end of the civil war.

Once sowed in remote mountain hide-outs, cannabis now stretches in long 
green ribbons across the open valley. Although the government says the crop 
represents a small part of all arable land, U.N. officials on the ground 
said it is very widespread. "If they don't [grow cannabis]," said Nizan 
Hamadeh, an agricultural engineer with the U.N. program here, "they will 

So far, the only government action has been to drop leaflets from 
helicopters warning farmers that they will be imprisoned and fined if they 
grow cannabis. But that has had little effect. In Beirut, members of 
parliament and Hezbollah have warned the government not to send in troops, 
arguing that it's wrong to treat this matter with security forces. They are 
using this issue to air their grievance that the government has focused so 
exclusively on rebuilding war-torn Beirut that it has neglected the outer 

"We are not condoning what they are doing, but we are trying to push the 
government to find an effective solution," said Hussein Husainy, who 
represents the region in parliament. "I am against dealing with the 
situation as a security measure with the police."

But Hariri, the prime minister, said he sees no alternative but to send in 
troops. He won't talk about the cannabis growers and a long-term solution 
in the same dialogue, because he says he doesn't want to appear to be 
rewarding the drug producers.

And he said the government is willing to confront anyone, including 
Hezbollah, if the eradication effort is blocked.

"If the government said, 'OK, we are going to compensate the farmers 
because of the hashish,' you will see next year 10 times hashish grown more 
than this year," he said. "If we do that, then we are saying to the people 
who did not grow hashish and who believed in the law that they have been 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens