By Jocelyne Zablit
Bekaa Valley - Standing next to a huge pile of green leaves stored in a barren concrete room at the back of his house, Mohammed is all smiles as he surveys his bumper crop of cannabis. "This has really been an exceptional year," he says with a wide grin ...
... asking that his full name be withheld and that his small village, perched high in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, not be identified for fear of retribution.
"If the state leaves us in peace for the next three years, our agricultural crisis will be over and we should be out of the woods," added the father of three.
Like dozens of farmers across the lush valley, known in Roman times as the breadbasket of the world, Mohammed has taken advantage of the country's political vacuum this year to plant the largest cannabis crop since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
With politicians feuding over who should become Lebanon's next president and the army embroiled for 15 weeks in a deadly standoff with Islamists, the illicit crop proved irresistible for many families in the Bekaa and adjoining Hermel region -- a poor, mainly Shiite area controlled by Hezbollah with a history of smuggling and militancy.
Authorities estimate that between 17,500 and 18,500 acres (7,000 and 7,500 hectares) of cannabis have been cultivated this year. That is by far the largest amount since the end of the war when the government, under pressure by the US, began its eradication program.
Lieutenant Colonel Adel Machmouchi, head of Lebanon's Drug Enforcement Bureau, said that although his agency had intended to eradicate the crops this summer, it was unable to for security reasons.
"We targetted eight sectors in the Bekaa and Hermel region but the army could not fully ensure the security of my agents in light of its battles with the Islamists at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp," Machmouchi said.
He added that the owners of tractors his agency wanted to use to mow down the crops also refused to work at the last minute after they and their families received threats.
And in an episode worthy of a Western movie, Machmouchi and his agents came under fire, including rocket propelled grenades, when they began eradicating cannabis fields in the Bekaa village of Bouday in early September.
"We had managed to find two tractors from the southern Bekaa region and as we were eradicating the hashish they started shooting at us and we were forced to pull back," he said.
"We wanted to go back the next day but we knew that they were waiting for us and we didn't want the situation to escalate so we dropped it."
Mohammed and other locals admit to breaking the law but they say the government and the United Nations left them no choice, saying both failed to live up to their promises to assist them with alternative development schemes since the early 1990s.
"People are fed up and are desperate because of the bad economic situation," said Mohammed, whose family has been cultivating cannabis for the past 50 years. "The entire region is suffering and hashish makes for easy money."
He said a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of hashish, which is derived from cannabis, will sell at between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars, depending on quality.
At this rate, the summer's crop should reap local farmers and drug lords -- both Lebanese and foreign who keep a tight grip on the trade here -- some 225 million dollars. Though a hefty sum, it is still far less than the 500 million dollars brought in annually during the lawless years of the 1980s when Syria, which dominated the country until its troops were forced to pull out in 2005, was actively involved in the trade .
The drug ends up being sold in European markets and even in nearby Israel, officials say.
Jihad Sakr, head of the social services department in the Hermel region, said authorities can continue to drop leaflets threatening farmers with heavy prison sentences but they will go on growing cannabis as long as they remain marginalised and ignored by the central government.
"People need to send their kids to school, they need medical care, they need to eat and they are desperate," he said. "So it's all nice and dandy to make them promises, but if they don't give them any subsidies they have no other option."
Edgar Chehab, head of the energy and environment division at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), said his agency was currently working with the government on a scheme that would provide farmers with industrial hemp, or industrial cannabis, used for clothing and fabric.
"We are in the process of setting up the program and hope to implement it on the ground by next year," he said.
Tags: Bekaa Valley, Drugs, Economy, Farmers, Hash, Hashish, Lebanese Blonde, Weed