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Weed Again Crop of Choice Among Lebanese Farmers

July 19, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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