You will find broad smiles on the faces of farmers in the northern Bekaa this autumn after they successfully brought in the largest hashish harvest since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The grinding political crisis between the government and the opposition as well as the additional security commitments of an overstretched Lebanese army encouraged the farmers to return to old ways this year to supplement their meager income from legitimate crops by growing hashish which they process into cannabis resin and sell to local dealers for a hefty profit.
The Internal Security Forces (ISF) estimates that some 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres) of drug crops — mainly hashish with a small amount of opium poppies — were planted this year in remoter stretches of the northern Bekaa. Farmers normally can sell the cannabis resin for about $1,000 a kilo although they expect the price to drop to about $600 to $700 this year due to the glut.
One farmer, Ali, said his eight dunam field of hashish plants with their distinctive spiky saw-toothed leaves will produce about 15 kilograms of cannabis for which he expects to earn $10,000. With one crop planted in March and harvested in July followed by another harvested at the end of October, Ali expects to make about $20,000 this year from hashish. That’s a considerable sum for this area and for almost no work at all.
“All I have to do is throw the seeds on the ground, add a little water and that’s it,” Ali said, sniffing the hop-like scent of a knee-high hashish plant. “I would be crazy not to grow hashish.” That is a common sentiment among the farmers living in the dusty villages flanking the northern Bekaa, most of whom anticipate growing more hashish the longer the political crisis lasts. “The worse the security situation is in Lebanon, the more we can grow,” Ali said.
The cannabis sativa plant has been planted for centuries in the Bekaa Valley, but cultivation reached its apex during the lawless 1980s when it generated a local economy worth at least $500 million a year, turning simple farmers into multi-millionaire drug barons.
With the end of the war, the government, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program, launched an initiative to replace the hashish and poppies with legitimate crops. The UNDP estimated that some $300 million was required for its rural development program which included improving the infrastructure, building new schools and clinics, extensive irrigation projects to harness the waters of Mount Lebanon along the western edge of the valley and terracing the hillsides. Lebanon was removed from the US government’s list of major drug producing countries in 1997, but, between 1994, when the project was launched, and 2001, only $17 million of the $300 million was received. The project fizzled out a year later as the farmers began growing hashish again.
The UNDP continues to try and implement new programs to steer farmers away from hashish, but it’s slow progress. One pilot project about to be launched is a year-long assessment of the viability of growing industrial hemp, a similar product to hashish but without the narcotic properties. The fibers from industrial hemp are used to make bank notes, rope, paper, animal feed, building materials and clothes worn by eco-fashionable Europeans. Hemp oil is used to make a wide range of cosmetic products.
Still, the allure of easy cash from growing hashish is hard to beat, and farmers are prepared to turn violent to protect their crops. Each August, the ISF, accompanied by troops, raids the hashish fields, ploughing them with locally-hired tractors under the glaring eyes of aggrieved farmers.
This year was different, however. The owners of tractors were warned that if they allowed themselves to be hired by the ISF to destroy hashish crops, they would find their houses burned down. The ISF also faced its own security problem with the army unable to provide the same level of security as in past years. The army was stretched to breaking point with security commitments in the southern border zone, along the Syrian frontier, policing Beirut and not least battling Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared camp throughout the summer.
When an ISF drug squad team stormed hashish fields near Boudai, supported by only 10 soldiers, they came under fire from machine guns and rocket propelled grenades from nearby woods and houses. With RPG rounds exploding in the air above them and bullets cracking by, the team leader decided discretion was the better part of valor and beat a hasty retreat. The ISF was concerned that another attempt to eradicate the crops could provoke civil unrest which inevitably would become politicized with the government and the ISF on one side and Hizbullah (which disapproves of drug cultivation but turns a blind eye) supporting the farmers on the other.
The hashish harvest was all but over by the end of October, and in November the farmers will be busy processing the dried hashish leaves into the dark brown bricks of cannabis so beloved by generations of university students. The ISF is hoping that it will be able to seize the finished product in the farmers’ workshops before it is sold to local dealers and either exported or sold on the domestic market. If the raids fail, expect to see the northern Bekaa awash with green hashish next year.