Yemen’s own catnip ‘Qat’ becoming a huge burden on already starving land
A Yemeni man harvests Qat, a mild drug used daily by many Yemenis. (AFP/File)
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At Shumaila market, in the southern part of Sana'a, Shayef al-Thibyani, a taxi driver, checks different types of locally grown khat [or qat], the leafy plant chewed as a stimulant in Yemen and the wider Arabian Peninsula.
After rummaging through bundles of the plant, he finally settles on the one that fits his limited budget.
"This is not the best quality, but it suits me because I only have 1,500 riyals (6 dollars). I will spend it all on khat and then I can continue with work until the evening," al-Thibyani says.
The habit of chewing khat leaves is deep-rooted and widespread in Yemen, where a large number of adults and children alike are regular consumers. In the past, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that up to 90 per cent of adult males in Yemen chew khat on a daily basis.
Although his job barely provides for his family of four, al-Thibyani says he cannot abandon his daily dose of the stimulant. He tried and stopped for three years, but, with an ailing economy and an ongoing military conflict intensifying across the country, khat has become the only source of relaxation for him.
"I started consuming more khat as the situation in the country deteriorated over the past two years. Before, we were able to travel or visit parks, but not anymore. Some days, I have to work extra hours to be able to pay for it," he said.
"Khat is what makes us forget all our worries," he added.
Once chewed, khat leaves release chemicals that are structurally related to amphetamines, and the user experiences a mild high. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not consider it to be a seriously addictive drug, but has noted that, in many cases, khat chewers can experience depression, hallucinations and decreased productivity.
Khat trees are usually planted at high altitudes, in the range of 1,500-2,500 metres above sea level. Yet, as demand has been growing over the last few years, farmers in Yemen are now planting them on lower mountains.
Recent figures by the Agriculture Ministry of indicate that khat cultivation has increased by an annual rate of 4 to 6 hectares in recent years, with severe implications for the country's agricultural production and Yemen's already fragile food and water security.
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, Yemen is currently facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with the ongoing military conflict leaving 17 million people suffering serious food and water shortages.
Wagih al-Motawakel, researcher at the government-run Agriculture Research Authority, says the increase in khat cultivation is "alarming."
He says that fighting in the provinces of Taiz, Saada and Hajjah has made it harder for farmers to plant khat at high altitudes.
A few years ago, Yemen's Agriculture Ministry developed a plan to ban planting khat on land allocated for agricultural use, but, according to al-Motawakel the plan was never implemented.
Unlike its wealthy neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which has banned khat cultivation, Yemen has not banned neither the cultivation nor the sale of the plant. It is common to find khat sold at markets, where bundles of the plant are wrapped in cloth or plastic to keep the leaves fresh and tender.
Ali al-Omari's shop is almost always crammed with buyers looking for their favourite kind of khat.
"What will I do if I stop selling khat? Turn to begging?" he asked, through his own mouthful of khat.
"Khat has created job opportunities for many people, such as farmers and traders, even drivers who transport it between cities," al-Omari added.
Economist Ahmed Saeed al-Shamakh said Yemenis spend 7.5 million dollars every year on items such as khat, cigarettes and soda.
He added that the country will only be able to fight the expansion of the cash crop by enforcing strict policies that force farmers to plant coffee beans and vegetables instead of khat.
"Khat cultivation flourished during the war and it is expected to increase more in the coming years as demand grows," Saleh al-Hamadani, a Khat farmer, said.
He says other farmers have replaced vegetables, fruits and coffee beans they used to cultivate with khat, because it has become more profitable.
"It is what makes Yemenis happy amid the bleak conditions we live in. If we didn't have Khat we would have died slowly from the horrors we face," al-Hamadani added.
By Amal al-Yarisi