Weed Again Crop of Choice Among Lebanese Farmers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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, Beirut.

"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 starve."

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 regions.

"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 stupid."

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