Pubdate: Thu, 22 May 2014
Source: Jerusalem Post (Israel)
Copyright: 2014 The Jerusalem Post
Authors: Laila Bassam and Dominic Evans
Page: 19


Hardy Crop Brings Big Profit for Farmers As Syria Conflict Diverts 
Troops From Drug Eradication

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (Reuters) - Driving around his Bekaa Valley 
farmland, Ali Nasri Shamas carries a revolver by his side and an 
automatic rifle in the back of his car, weapons he says he's ready to 
use if the army moves in to try to destroy his lucrative cannabis crop.

But he may not need them this year. With Syria's civil war raging 50 
km away, Lebanese security forces have other priorities than their 
annual showdown with the Bekaa hashish growers.

"If they want a confrontation that's no problem for us, it will be 
harvest season soon," Shamas says, standing in a field of the green, 
spiky-leafed plants from which hashish resin is extracted.

In recent years, security forces have sent tractors, bulldozers and 
armored vehicles to plow up, flatten or burn the cannabis crops, 
leading to clashes with farmers armed with assault rifles and 
rocket-propelled grenades.

Dramatic as they were, those shows of force by authorities achieved 
only partial success in a region where the state holds limited sway 
and even Hezbollah is reluctant to confront formidable local clans.

Since 2012, the campaign has been quietly shelved.

Two years ago farmers blocked roads when security forces started 
burning cannabis. The government backed down and the interior 
minister promised to look into compensating farmers for crop 
eradication and finding them alternative sources of income, pledges 
the farmers say have not been honored.

Last year, as violence spilled over the border from Syria's civil war 
- - with bombs and gunfights in Lebanon's coastal cities and rockets 
striking towns in the Bekaa - authorities called a halt to a battle 
they had waged with farmers since the end of Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war.

During that war, the fertile Bekaa Valley produced up to 1,000 tonnes 
of cannabis resin annually, before it was briefly stamped out under a 
United Nations program between 1991-1993.

"From the 1990s until 2012, cannabis eradication took place on an 
annual basis," said Colonel Ghassan Shamseddine, head of Lebanon's 
drug enforcement unit.

"But in 2012... it was halted because of the situation on the 
Lebanese borders and the instability in Syria," he said in an 
interview in Beirut.

Shamas has grown a variety of crops in his 135 acres (54 hectares) of 
fields, including barley, wheat, onions and potatoes. But cannabis 
provides by far the best returns.

It's also a hardy crop, well suited to withstand the unusually dry 
winter which Lebanon suffered this year, without the need for 
expensive irrigation.

It costs between $100 and $150 to cultivate one dunam (a quarter of 
an acre, or tenth of a hectare), much less than a field of wheat. At 
harvest time in late summer, farmers can get up to $3,000 per dunam.

"With hashish no one loses," says Shamas, who has planted more of it 
as a portion of his overall crop in recent years.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon in 2011 
as one of the world's top five sources of cannabis resin. Shamseddine 
said official figures suggested the total area of cannabis planted 
has remained constant over the last three years at around 35,000 
dunams, though it has fluctuated sharply in the preceding years.

In 2005, a tumultuous year when Syrian forces ended their 29-year 
military presence in Lebanon, 64,000 dunams were planted. That fell 
to 11,000 by 2010, the year before Syria's uprising erupted and 
Lebanon slipped towards domestic turmoil.

The long and inconclusive campaign against the cannabis crop, 
combined with recent moves to legalize the drug in two US states, has 
led some prominent Lebanese to add their voices to the farmers' calls 
for cultivation to be legalized.

Veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt - insisting he had never smoked 
marijuana - said last month he supported growing cannabis for 
medicinal use, arguing that regulated crop cultivation would improve 
living conditions in poorer areas of the Bekaa Valley.

Economist Marwan Iskander said fully legalizing the cannabis crop 
would help Bekaa and another impoverished part of Lebanon, the 
northern Akkar region, as well as contributing $400 million to the 
state budget and $2 billion to the wider economy at a time when 
Lebanon is struggling with the fallout of Syria's war.

"At this stage it would have a big impact," he said. "Lebanon needs 
this farming and needs to revive the Bekaa and Akkar regions."

While conceding the idea was unlikely to gain widespread support, he 
said he had floated it to senior United Nations and World Bank 
officials in Beirut. "They didn't say at the outset that this is 
going too far," he said.

In practice, Shamseddine says that as long as the drug control 
efforts take second place to containing the spread of Syria's 
conflict into Lebanon, cannabis cultivation will be seen to be 
officially tolerated, at least by the farmers.

"Every year that passes without eradication encourages people," he said.

Shamas said authorities should take a step further and formally 
recognize cannabis as a legal crop - a move he said would have 
benefits for all.

"We don't like cultivating cannabis by force and making problems," he 
said. "When the state legalizes it and gives licenses, as they do for 
tobacco cultivation, we would abide by that, and the state would 
receive (revenues) from us."

Regardless what stance officials take, Shamas said he will continue 
sowing more and more.

"Every year we've planted cannabis and every year we've increased the 
area which we've planted. The year they destroyed it we promised them 
we would plant five times that amount."

"If they want to legalize it, we'll thank them. If we knew that the 
state was looking after us we wouldn't lift a gun towards a soldier," 
he said "But if anyone from the state's gangs fights us, we will fight back."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom