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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

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

"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."

Newshawk: Starband
Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jul 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Contact: letters@latimes.com
Website: Los Angeles Times
Details: Overload Warning
Author: Michael Slackman, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: Overload Warning (Cannabis)
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