HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Struggling Lebanese Farmers Return To Illegal Crop
Pubdate: Wed, 06 Jun 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Kim Ghattas


A cannabis-eradication campaign worked. But nothing offered as an 
alternative has been as lucrative as the drug plant.

HERMEL, Lebanon - Eight years after international pressure pushed the 
Lebanese government to eradicate cannabis farming, the illicit crop has 
made a strong comeback here in the fertile, sun-drenched Bekaa Valley. 
Cannabis is the hemp plant from which marijuana and hashish are made.

"People are hungry; we need to feed our families. We know drugs are haram 
[forbidden by God], but isn't starving your children haram too?" asked one 
mother of six from the town of Hermel. For the first time in eight years, 
she has planted 12 acres of marijuana. She knows she might go to jail for 
this, but is willing to take the risk so she can afford to send her 
children to school again.

Since 1992, the government has introduced all sorts of alternatives, from 
sugar beets to dairy cows, but nothing has been as lucrative as cannabis. 
Cannabis farming in the Bekaa Valley goes back centuries, but it boomed 
during the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975.

In the mid-1980s there were 150,000 acres of illicit crops here, and 
Lebanon was high on the United States' list of drug-producing countries. 
The eradication campaign eliminated an important source of illegal drugs 
for Europe and the United States; it also left 25,000 families without an 
income and cost the region about $500 million a year.

Nasser Ferjani, head of the U.N. program for Integrated Rural Development 
in the area of Baalbeck-Hermel in the northern Bekaa, blames foreign donors 
for failing to help support the farmers after getting rid of the marijuana. 
The Lebanese government, burdened by a $25 billion debt, has little money 
to offer.

"I warned the international community since we started in 1994, that in the 
absence of substantive support to development efforts, farmers will return 
to the illicit crops," Ferjani said.

This summer, an estimated 37,000 acres are planted with marijuana as 
farmers give up on potatoes, which sell for 9 cents a pound, and revert to 
cannabis, which can bring them up to $130 a pound.

Farmer Ali Hajj Hassan, 50, was hired by the U.N. program to guard a new 
irrigation system for the fields around the village of Shaat in the Bekaa. 
Although he is full of praise for the project that tries to encourage 
farmers to stay away from cannabis, Hajj Hassan has planted some himself.

It is easy to understand why. Hajj Hassan paid $1.50 for a bag of birdseed, 
from which he fished the cannabis seeds. His 9-by-22-foot plot will bring 
him $200. In comparison, he says, he spends $175 on seeds, water and 
plowing for a wheat crop that will bring him a mere $47.

"This little plot of hashish that you see will bring me more money than a 
few hectares of wheat," he said. "This year, everybody is planting cannabis 
again. If there is another eradication campaign this summer, there will be 

The farmers are clinging to one last hope: a project started in 1999 by 
Hassan Makhlouf, an agronomist who has done extensive research on 
alternative crops. He proposes replacing cannabis with profitable crops 
such as pistachios, saffron and capers. For an investment of $10 million, 
he says, the crops could bring an annual revenue of $200 million into the 
area. More than 700 enthusiastic farmers have participated in the project, 
which has relied mainly on donations of saplings and seeds.

"One hectare [2.5 acres] of cannabis can bring as little as $2,000 to 
$3,000, if there is a lot of supply," said Makhlouf, who grew up in the 
Bekaa and whose father planted cannabis. "Saffron is very important and 
expensive like gold. One hectare can give one kilogram [2.2 pounds] of 
saffron, which will sell between $4,000 and $8,000. This is extraordinary 
for a family of farmers."

Makhlouf, who lived in Paris for 12 years, was invited back by the Lebanese 
antidrug squad, which was interested in his ideas and asked him to 
implement them in Lebanon. Two years later, he says he is still waiting to 
be officially hired and allowed to approach international donors.

Some farmers say they have been told the authorities will permit the 
illicit crops this year because influential people are involved in the trade.
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