Leaving behind the illegal but rewarding cannabis and opium farming, farmers in the Bekaa valley started new lives under the sovereignty of the law, raising cattle and producing dairy products. However, it isn’t working, according to these farmers who have begun to nostalgically miss those days, according to a report by New York Times.
One of them, Hussein Jaafar, longs to grow cannabis, the crop from which hashish is derived, again.
"Let them come and take their cows back wherever they came from," said Jaafar. "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, said the report.
“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 brokers.”
Government promises to find a good substitute have so far proved barren, the farmers complain. In addition, taking care of cows is not a pleasant job.
"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.”
The daily referred to a report by Hizbollah’s television station, Al Manar, which recently ran a segment suggesting that the United States was dumping inferior cows, and pictures of sick American cows are a staple of local press coverage.
"We hear a lot of complaints from the farmers, mainly that the American cows are not acclimatizing and not producing milk at the promised level," said Muhammad al-Khansa, the director of an experimental farm in Baalbek set up by the Jihad for Construction, Hizbollah’s public works arm. "Many people say that the Americans would obviously not send their best cows to Lebanon.”
Those on the American side are quick to dismiss the Jihad farm outreach program. They also point out that Hizbollah is on the United States government's list of terrorist organizations.
"They help a limited number of farmers who are their political supporters," said Marwan Sidani, the director of the dairy improvement program, serving as the liaison between the Agriculture Ministry and the United States Agency for International Development. "All they really want to do is to show that the US cows are no good.”
The Bekaa region's drug-growing tradition stretches back at least to the start of last century, when Lebanon's Ottoman overlords, themselves not immune to the allure of hashish, encouraged its cultivation.
Before Lebanon's civil war erupted in 1975, an effort was made to supplant the cannabis with sunflowers. To collect the offered subsidies, many farmers circled their drug fields with a few rings of sunflowers.”
Farmers still relish the lore of it all. They talk of the piles of dollars or the time when some Americans built a temporary runway in the valley, landing single-engine planes crammed with Smith & Wesson revolvers and leaving laden with hashish.
The 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 Syria and, occasionally, hiding kidnapped Westerners, according to the report.
By the end of the war in 1990, said the Times, 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 American 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," Mr. Sidani said. "How can you compare it to a kilo of potatoes for 20 cents?” – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )