Illegal cannabis harvest starts in Lebanon
Salim, a hulking farmer overseeing his cannabis harvest in Lebanon's Bakaa valley, has a handgun on his waist and a machinegun on the back seat of his jeep. But he turns white with fear when his elderly father raises his cane — and angrily shouts at the "foolish" idea to let journalists watch the illegal operation. "Go away, all of you. Leave us alone," says his father, wearing the Arab red-and-white checkered headscarf as he checks on the first week of the harvest. "We need to earn our daily bread."
Under the shade of trees separating two fields of cannabis taller then the average person, about 15 university students from Beirut have gathered. Girls wearing tank tops and young men, protecting their heads from the blazing sun with colorful tie-dye scarves, smile as they pass around hashish cigarettes as workers cut the crop.
The group, switching effortlessly between Arabic, English and French, even includes French and Dutch tourists. "The fields are so green, the mountains are magnificent. It is so peaceful, it must be heaven," says the Dutchman, who asked not to be named.
"We can smoke hashish in Amsterdam because it is legal, but it is not exciting to do it at some sidewalk cafe. We don't have this picturesque scenery and the people here are so hospitable," he says. "Hashish is not harmful," says Salim, whose ultimate goal seems to be setting up a lucrative tourism hotspot despite his father's warnings. "It is allowed in many western and advanced states, even for medical and healing purposes."
Drugs are illegal in Lebanon and the government of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri promised last month that this year's harvest would not take place and that all plantations would be destroyed. Pressed by the international community, the government announced a "speedy" plan to fight the resurgence of drugs farming, but said it would be preceded by a program to economically support farmers.
Drugs were a thriving business during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, bringing in revenues of about four billion dollars each year. In 1992 the government, backed by Syria, launched a crackdown on the drugs trade.
But the business made a comeback again last year after a UN-sponsored crop substitution program failed to receive the needed foreign aid. Drugs farming returned, at first in remote spots but gradually even along busy roads in both Christian and Muslim impoverished areas of eastern Lebanon, where the Syrian army is deployed in large numbers. The region is also a stronghold of the Lebanese Shiite radical Hizbullah guerrilla movement.
Today, cannabis fields are estimated to cover over 45,000 hectares (112,500 acres), or about 20 percent of the area cultivated before 1992. The much less widespread farming of opium poppies remains at 1,500 hectares (3,750 acres).
Mahdi, one of many farmers like Salim who started harvesting cannabis and opium poppies despite the government threats, said he would not even consider stopping the trade as long as the government fails to provide financial aid.
"When we get the long-promised money for alternative crops, we will start discussing. Turkey and Morocco got a lot of money for the eradication of drugs, while we accepted to stop it at once for peanuts. "We will never accept hunger like we were forced to do in 1992. We will use arms if we have to," warned Mahdi, who like most members of the tribal clans of the region owns a multitude of weapons.
Mahdi also has a word of advice for Lebanese authorities who have been silent since the start of the harvest: "Lebanon suffers from a debt of more than $25 billion. Cash from drugs is the best way to help pay it back." — (AFP, The Bakaa Valley)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)