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The Bekaa gears up for cannabis crops Farmers rush to replant their fields May 06, 2005 dailystar.com
BEKAA: This is Baalbek, the city of the sun, where ancient Romans engraved images of opium poppies on the walls of their temples. Nowadays, following the recent Syrian troop withdrawal, local farmers are hoping the area can once again return to its former glory as the country's narcotics nerve center.
Despite missing the planting season this year, farmers in the Bekaa Valley are rushing to replace their chickpeas, lentils, wheat and barley - many of which have already sprouted - with fresh cannabis seeds hoping to obtain a successful hashish harvest next September and October.
Many farmers say growing hashish is their only hope of rescuing their family from poverty, and are fed up with hearing "empty promises" that new technologies will bring them success and prosperity.
In Yammouni, Hadi Shreif said: "Following the Syrian pullout, farmers seem to be bolder and more open to talking about their intentions to grow hashish. They have had enough miseries and frustrations."
"Yes," one farmer whined, "technology seems luring and highly attractive but growing cannabis was, and still is, simpler, less risky and more lucrative."
To many Bekaa farmers the issue is one of survival, plain and simple.
In Deir al-Ahmar, farmer Tannous al-Fakhry said: "We have been starving since they put a ban on illicit plantations. We are on the verge of bankruptcy with all our land assets held in banks as collateral for heavy debts."
But he also did not hide his concern the army, which has been patrolling the newly planted lands, would destroy any hashish fields as soon as their plants become visible.
He said: "I do not believe they would. Besides, they need too many troops and plenty of equipment to cover these vast areas, of which more than 90 percent is planted with cannabis."
However, Fakhry added even if the army does destroy the plants, destroying a field of cannabis is still cheaper than losing an entire season of potatoes or wheat to bad weather.
And according to Fakhry, "Losing has been the rule not the exception during the last 15 years."
In the Bekaa, the question of whether to grow cannabis is one farmers have been wrestling with, and losing, for a long time. So much so, in fact, that Lebanon has earned a reputation in the international community as a major supplier of the region's hashish.
Local dairy farmer Qassem al-Menini said: "In the early 1990s, the Lebanese authorities struck a deal with the U.S. and forced farmers to give up all illicit plantations in return for compensation in cash and kind in the form of providing alternative new crops."
The U.S. commissioned the Syrian Army and its intelligence agencies, which represented the authorities at the time, to monitor the deal.
But, Menini added, due to extensive corruption, "The cash went to powerful officials and the alternative crops did nothing but put farmers under heavy debt, turning them into easy prey for bankers, suppliers and wholesalers."
Ali Hajj Hassan, a schoolteacher in Shaath, said his village grew from 3,000 residents to 30,000 during the 1990s because of the hashish and opium seasons
He added: "With the new hope to grow illicit drugs young people might return to Bekaa in the thousands just to try their luck."
One young minivan taxi driver, who said he was from the Msheik family, said he was excited by "the good news" his brother had sewn their land in the Bekaa with cannabis.
He said: "Of course I am going back. At least I will be able to earn a living. I have been wasting my time [in Beirut] working for pennies and unable to pay the rent."
He added that with 10 dunums of land planted with cannabis, he could make more than $10,000 per harvest.
"Imagine how much money we could make if we planted the 500 dunums that we possess," he said.
In the Bekaa, farmers can sell a truckload - approximately 1,500 kilograms - of raw cannabis for $1,500, compared to receiving a $200 fixed price for the same load of wheat from the government.
Of course, that is only if they don't get caught. A long list of drug dealers from the Bekaa are currently serving sentences in Lebanese, European and American prisons.
In perhaps a sign business may soon be booming once more, several demonstrations have been held recently in the Bekaa, demanding the release of all prisoners from the area and the canceling of all warrants issued against local fugitives. The protests come following proposed amendments to the General Amnesty Law of 1991, which mainly call for the release of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
Under normal conditions, farming is a very risky business in its own right, dependent on weather conditions and demand; in the Bekaa, farming is also dependent on political and international politics.
But according to Fakhry, "The people will fight back if the army tries to destroy our new harvest."
Shreif added: "Any confrontation with the poor farmers would cause another bread-uprising similar to Sheikh Sobhi Tfeily's uprising in the late 1990s."