Yammouneh, Lebanon – Issam’s house lies on a hill overlooking the town of Yammouneh in the Beqa’a Plains, where the cultivation of the cannabis plant (hashish) has resumed in force due to political tension and the failure of the United Nations Project for Rural Development that was supposed to provide an alternative for this marginalized society.
The sun shines into the house from every direction, touching the huge armloads of hashish stored on the lower floor, where three large rooms are dedicated to the preparation and packing of hashish– also known as “Indian hemp”.
The first room contains sacks full of hashish ready for sale. The second room holds small amounts of unprocessed dry hemp, and the third room houses the hashish plant, still rough and not separated — in between the two phases waiting for someone to order.
Issam who is in his forties has been planting hashish since he left school at 15. He does not fear for his crop. A cribble, a straw broom, and a dustpan are the primitive tools which he uses to prepare the hemp before it goes out for sale. Hemp is planted in April, harvested towards the end of summer, then dried in the sun before being packed in cloth in the Autumn.
He does not seem worried about owning amounts of Indian hemp, the cultivation of which is banned in Lebanon and is subject to legal consequences.
“I have nothing to lose,” he said in an interview with al-Hayat newspaper. Poverty has eaten up years of my life and that of my children. “Every year they (authorities) promise us better times, but our economic situation is getting worse,” he said. While talking, he played with his black revolver as a sign that people of this village can protect themselves.
This situation is no secret to any of the villagers, to their relatives and neighbors, as well as to visitors. Hemp, which in the 1980’s was used to provide an income of $500 million a year for the Baalbek-Hirmel area, is being cultivated in an organized manner once again.
The swathes of land, which the town’s people own and cultivate with hemp, vary from one area to another. Last year, the hashish plants were moved down to the easily-accessible green plains from the barren hilly areas, where it was secretly planted in past years. From 1992-2006, the Lebanese government punished those who cultivated hemp, and security forces annually destroyed between 1000 and 8500 hectares in the Baalbek-Hirmel area, according to Lieutenant Colonel Adel Mashmoushi, head of the Narcotics Bureau.
But approximately 180,000 people of the Baalbek-Hirmel area; forming 28% of the total area of Lebanon, are not deterred by these measures. In their eyes, the state is not a source of power. Each year they plant hashish in defiance of the Internal Security Forces and the anti-Drug Bureau. These forces often destroy what they find in the plains, but they are unable to flex their muscles in the hilly area, which is protected by tribal leaders and armed residents.
In response to international pressure, the state began to combat the cultivation, processing and marketing of hashish in 1992 – after two decades of civil war.
The security forces and the army, in cooperation with the Syrian army, began to destroy cultivated areas. This campaign was fruitful, he stated. Farmers did indeed abide by the ban throughout the period that the United Nations Project for Rural Development performed in the Baalbek-Hirmel area, that lasted from 1994 to 1999.
When the international program ceased its operations in 1999, due to the lack of funding by the Lebanese government, farmers went back to growing the hashish plant. The Security Forces deliberately destroyed much of the crops in the year 2000, or left the farmers alone, as they did the previous year, encouraging them to sow hemp seeds in around 100,000 dunums of arable lands.
The Yammouneh farmers alone, were able to plant 5,000 dunums of the 70,000 dunums that were planted with hashish, generating an estimated revenue of $225 million, according to the Narcotics Bureau. The 2007 crop was exceptional because most of the fields had rested for years, “as they lay empty with no crop whatsoever,” said Issam’s neighbor Salim.
Any visitor these days can clearly see the fields on both sides of the main road throughout most of the villages dotting the Baalbek-Hirmel district, even after the end of September, when farmers harvested their crops, leaving behind barren, dry and yellow fields.
These fields, Salim says, could be cultivated with crops of every season of the year, had there been any interest and support from the Beqa’a Valley’s agricultural sector. He spoke while going from house to house to promote the need to support the cultivation of alternative crops.
But Issam, like most of the villagers, is irritated by the phrase “alternative crops”. To them, it remains “an illusion invented by the state, and the United Nations, to impoverish hemp farmers.”
Fouad emphasizes that he has tried every kind of alternative crop, including barley, potatoes, apples, beans, figs, almonds, lentils and wheat. But there is no alternative to cultivating hashish. For example, he stated he has sold 1kg of beans for 500 LL ( Lebanese Lire), where it cost him over 1000 LL to cultivate. Furthermore, growing alternative crops cost him, and his brother, all the savings they made over the past few years.
“No one can blame us for returning to the cultivation of hemp.”
Sustainable development specialist Dr. Ahmad Baalbaki, said that the soil of the Baalbek-Hirmel area is dry and infertile. The area lacks sustainable irrigation water sources, as well as irrigation systems. Agricultural conditions are difficult and unproductive, despite the fact that it is the sector that the residents depend most on for their survival — hardly any industrial or tourism investments exist there.
Issam and his colleagues boast over the high quality of their crops, as they wait for the “merchants”. They prefer the Dutch merchants because their country has legalized the use of hashish. They also like to deal with merchants from Italy, France, Germany and Turkey.
In the worst cases, the traders will be from Lebanon, Egypt, or the Arab Gulf states. But the people of the Beqa’a Valley prefer Westerners because they pay in Euros “and the Euro has become stronger than the US Dollar. Furthermore, they do not haggle over the price as they fully appreciate the quality of our product, which cannot be compared with any of the other narcotics available elsewhere in the world”.
The farmer sells each kilogram of hashish to the merchant for $500-1000, depending on supply, demand and security conditions across the country. According to official data, the net profit of the Beqa’a farmer per irrigated dunum is between $800 to 1000, and between $350 to 450 for each dunum that is not irrigated.
The nationality of the merchant, how to sell the product, and how to smuggle the crop out, are key issues occupying the minds of local farmers. More so after political instability prevented security forces from destroying the fields, stated Mashmoushi.
“The Anti-Narcotics Bureau designated 8 areas in the Beqa’a and Hirmel, as areas where hashish crops were supposed to be destroyed,” he said. “But the involvement of the army in the Nahr Al-Bared battles at the end of the summer last year coincided with the scheduled date for the destruction of the crops. This prevented the army from providing security for our staff,” he said. In addition, private owners of bulldozers refused to join the campaign because they were threatened by farmers.
Mashmoushi said that when the Bureau staff last attempted to destroy Indian hemp seedlings in some villages, they were forced to withdraw because they were fired at with machine guns and anti-tank weapons (RPG.’s).
“We did not want to provide the opportunity for anyone to utilize the situation and stir up confusion and chaos, disturb security or create animosity among the people,” he said. “The government is insisting on confiscating these quantities of narcotics everywhere, but the critical political situation Lebanon is passing through requires deliberation and necessary precautions, particularly before the election of the president of the republic.”
It was the first time last year, since 2002, that this confusion occurred as the government insists on destroying the banned crops and bringing the violators to justice.
But for the locals, the discussion of the disposal of the crops never stops, whether at morning or at evening gatherings, during lunch and around the card tables. Some talk about the necessity of disposing the crop before the election of a president, since the state is caught in a political tug-of-war between the “loyalists” and the “opposition”, amid renewed fear of bombings and assassinations.
“But as soon as the election is over, they will make time for us and our crops,” Ali says.
Majd adds: “The security incidents in the country may be helpful to us in disposing of our product, but when the situation settles down, we don’t know what will happen to us.”
Majd, and those who agree with him will not wait too long this year for the merchants. So they have begun to dispose of their “wares” through local dealers, selling 250 grams, or the “hou-a” (popular appellation for 1,200 grams) or by 1kg, as they did last year when the price per kilo rose to $1200 due to insufficient supplies.
These dealers may not be professionals, Majd stated, “so we are sometimes forced to go down to Beirut and sell directly to the users”.
His brother Mohammad adds: “But there are known dealers in the local market, who come from Baalbek, Hirmel and Yammouneh, from Tripoli, from the mountains and from Beirut, who can easily dispose of our crops”, and surely they will not leave us this year to starve to death or to be unable to send our children to school.”
Some farmers advise against the quick sale of the crops as the price per kilo may rise. If all hemp cultivators sell their supply at 1 go, the price will drop from around $1000 per kilogram of Hashish to $650– similarly to what happened last year.
Poverty and Deprivation are the Causes of Resorting to Banned Crops
The history of poverty in the Beqa’a Valley forced residents to take up work of any kind to make a living, particularly during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Most of the farmers are poor, and the cultivation of hashish only provides them with the bare minimum for food and clothing. It is the merchants, and not the farmers, who make the most profit from selling Hashish. But what is the reason behind the fact that only the Baalbek and Hirmel area has resorted to the cultivation of banned crops, while other impoverished areas that are neglected by the state, such as the South, the Upper Shouf, Akkar, Western Beqa’ a and Jbeil do not grow the crop?
Baalbaki explains that the cultivation of hemp in the Northern Beqa’a spread because of the existence of a tribal system. “This type of cultivation requires fortification, in order to confront the state. The tribal system in the barren badlands of Baalbek and Hirmel is able to protect them.”
He stated that the hashish plant came into the areas of Riyaq and Ablah in the Central Beqa’a Valley through the French army, whose camps were based there during the occupation.
“It was feared that its use would spread among the French soldiers, so it developed as a plant and a substance, and at the time it could not be utilized except in a tribal environment, far from and difficult to access by the occupation army.”
Hence, the cultivation of hemp became common in the area during the 1920s, thus changing the locals’ way of life. Their special occasions, such as weddings, holidays and feasts were all linked to the production cycle, which is still followed.
Saada, a female resident of Yammouneh, is careful to dress well before going downstairs to the storeroom to watch over the workers as they prepare the crop from 10 dunums of hemp, which her ailing husband inherited from his family.
“We plant it, harvest it, and prepare it in order to provide ourselves with food and clothing and to send our children to school,” she stated.
She complains of the high costs of cultivating the hashish, starting with the wages of workers who plant and harvest, to the rental of tractors and trucks that carry the crop from the plain to the storeroom. She thanks God after the crop is dried and stored for many long nights under cold and humid conditions until it is ready for use.
Saada, who is in her thirties, allows this reporter to enter the storeroom, but without our camera. She quickly shut and locked the door to prevent neighbors from seeing her demonstrate the hiding places of the product to strangers. “If anyone notices that you are here, they may shoot you,” she said.
She recalled the story of a young man from Yammouneh, who almost got killed because he was photographing the fields in the village last August when the hemp plant was still green. He had been away for several years and was spotted by villagers videotaping the green plains. The villagers contacted the local guards who were on duty in the field. They rushed to the scene and surrounded the visitor, who started shouting: “I am Hussein, the son of Abu Mohammad!”. He was let go after the villagers came closer and recognized him.
Saada claims she is a pious woman, but she sees no harm to Islam in cultivating hemp on the basis that she is not a user. She said that the holy Quran does not contain a verse or chapter specifically banning the cultivation or use of hashish. However, according to the Islamic Fatwa House and the Shiite scholar Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, there are verses and sayings by Prophet Mohammad that forbid a Muslim from using, trading or working with materials harmful to him or to others. For example, there is a verse that says “Do not throw yourselves into hell”. Another verse says do not do harm to yourselves or to others.
Saada adds: “Since my childhood, I have known that people here cultivate hemp because they have no other source of income”. People just planted what they needed of wheat, potatoes, lentils and apples.”
But Saada, like her husband, refuses to plant the more-profitable opium plant. “Most of the people here do not plant opium because it is more harmful than hashish”.
In addition, the cultivation of opium is new and an alien to the people of the Beqa’a,” she said of a plant that has reached the area from Afghanistan.
In winter, Saada and her four children move to Baalbek, leaving her husband alone in the village, because snow cuts off the village from the outside world. In addition, there are no public facilities in town, including hospitals and schools – excluding a small public school and two clinics that are closed for most of the year.
The area’s district officer says that 80% of the town’s 3,000 residents move to Beirut during the winter season.
Abu Ja’far, who used to own huge tracts of cultivable land in the barren areas of Hirmel, said: “Hashish used to bring into Lebanon about $500 million annually”
“But now most of us have hardly enough to feed and educate our children.”
This man, in his 50’s, has not totally submitted to the orders of the state. “We used to attempt to plant some of the barren lands in the hills every year, hoping that the state would overlook or forget that”.
“Sometimes we used to succeed in harvesting a few dunums. At other times, the Security Forces would wipe out everything. It seems that the concept of law and order in the minds of our politicians is only to destroy the hashish crops!”
The living conditions of people there differ from one-quarter to another. Some are able to emigrate and improve the conditions of their homes and families. But most of them have inherited the profession of agriculture from their ancestors and have not been able to exchange the cultivation of narcotics with alternatives, in order to alleviate their poverty.
Abu Ali, a village notable agrees. “Half of those who cultivated potatoes, tomatoes, corn, sugar cane, beans, and other crops have lost millions of dollars,” due to the failure of local marketing and export programs. “Most of the agricultural areas have no roads that can facilitate access to their owners, and no water for irrigation reaches them”.
The younger generation of villagers there is almost extinct. Some have immigrated, a large number joined the opposition resistance group Hezbollah, and others live in the poverty belts around Beirut. The region has been abandoned. The arable lands that used to bring in gold are now barren .
This report, made possible with the help of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism,
www.arij.net was coached by Hazem al-Ameen.