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BAALBEK, Lebanon -- Hussein Jaafar, former drug farmer turned dairyman,
struggles to eke out a living from a half-dozen Pennsylvania milking cows
while fervently wishing day and night for just one thing.

He longs to grow cannabis, the crop from which hashish is made, again.

"Let them come and take their cows back wherever they came from," said
Jaafar, a thin man whose furrowed brow and receding black hair makes him
seem older than his 32 years. "I will even forgive them my down payment. I
swear if the government would let me grow just 500 square meters of
hashish, I would sell them."

These are difficult days in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, the season when
farmers in the once lawless valley seeded their fields with cannabis and
opium poppies, now banned. Given the deepening economic problems, farmers
throughout the region are itching to resurrect their outlaw traditions.

The illicit crops, almost literally, made money grow on trees. Farmers had
only to toss out some seeds, sprinkle a little water around if needed and,
without ever bothering to apply fertilizer or pesticides, sit back and
watch their plants grow seven and eight feet tall. After the harvest, they
could walk to the edge of their fields to collect wads of dollars from the

Government promises to find a good substitute have so far proved barren.
Nothing, it seems, compares to the ease and profitability of illicit crops.

The American dairy cows, specifically Holsteins, wandered into this
quandary. They have been introduced slowly during the last four years under
a U.S. agricultural loan program.

The results are somewhat mixed, with perhaps the biggest hurdle being the
mental adjustment of the farmers. Cannabis fields can be ignored, but cows
must be birthed, fed, nurtured and milked.

"Farmers here suddenly find themselves taking care of living souls who need
attention every day," said Mahmoud Dally, an agricultural engineer working
in the program. "Before they were just planting hashish or poppies and they
didn't even have to think about it."

Lebanon's civil war proved something of a golden age for illicit crops.
Hashish and the newly introduced opium poppy melded well with other dubious
activities like training militias, smuggling low-cost electronic devices
into neighboring Syria and, occasionally, hiding kidnapped Westerners.

By the end of the war in 1990, an estimated 75,000 acres, or one-third of
the valley's arable land, was devoted to drugs. Cannabis and opium growing
earned the Bekaa farmers roughly $80 million a year, or some $1,500 per
capita, according to United Nations estimates.

By 1994 it was all gone. The Lebanese and Syrian governments decided after
the war that if they could get off one U.S. blacklist, it was the drug
production list.

But frustration set in quickly, because none of the promised crop
replacements proved viable. "The farmers could sell a kilo" -- 2.2 pounds
-- "of hashish for $300 cash," Sidani said. "How can you compare it to a
kilo of potatoes for 20 cents?"

Enter the American dairy cow. The inspiration was twofold. One, Lebanon
imports up to $300 million annually in meat and dairy products, so any
local production would reduce import bills. Two, given the farmers'
increasing poverty, the cows might at least help feed their families.

Starting in 1997, Lebanon paid $6 million for 3,000 American dairy cows
delivered during four years to 1,000 farmers, a third of them in the Bekaa.
Last year the program was extended for three years, with 5,000 cows coming
for $10 million. The U.S. government has chipped in $1 million for things
like teaching farmers the basics of feeding and milking.

Problems are manifold. Feed, for example, is largely imported and
expensive, so farmers give the cows hay. That lowers milk production, and
the farmers blame the cows. This year has been bad for milk prices -- the
consumption of meat and dairy products has fallen 30 percent because of the
worldwide scares over various bovine diseases.

Jaafar, the erstwhile cannabis farmer, notes that he used to spend almost
no time in his five acres and still earned around $30,000 a year, enough to
build a sturdy two-bedroom house, drive a car and smoke Marlboros. Now he
drives a school bus in the morning and spends the rest of the time with his
cows. He has forsaken Marlboros and cannot afford the $400 he needs to
install tiles over the raw cement floors of his home.

"When I got the first cow, I wasn't terribly happy with the idea of having
a cow, but I thought at least I could live off it," he said.

Burglaries have picked up, and someone killed a gas station attendant a few
weeks ago in an armed robbery, the first in memory.

Newshawk: Jo-D and Tom-E
Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2001
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact: letters@uniontrib.com
Website: The San Diego Union-Tribune - San Diego, California & National News
Details: Overload Warning
Author: Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times News Service
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