When Lebanon wiped out the Bekaa valley's $500m-a-year cannabis industry in the 1990s, it was a catastrophe for the impoverished area. Its people are now returning to drug production to survive - and are ready to fight the government to protect their crops. Brian Whitaker reports.
This article was originally published in the Guardian, 11 June, 2001
High in the Bekaa valley, relaxing under a fig tree's shade, farmer Ali pours glasses of tea. This year, God willing - and the Lebanese army permitting - his harvest will be good. The spring rains have been generous and now even the gravel at the roadside is flecked with green.
Hundreds of wind-blown seeds are germinating among the stones, and those with a second pair of leaves have the distinctive saw-toothed shape of cannabis sativa. "God planted them," Ali says with a grin. But God did not plant what is growing further up the hill.
The two lower terraces have potatoes, but the rest - less easily seen from the road - are packed with cannabis plants, still only a few inches tall, but sturdy and growing well. It is on these fields that Ali, his wife, his parents and his six children pin their hopes for the coming year. Elsewhere in the valley, for thousands of other families, it is the same story. The Bekaa - noted also for smuggling and Hizbullah militancy - is returning to drug production on a grand scale.
According to reliable estimates, 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of cannabis have been planted this year - by far the largest amount since the Lebanese government began its eradication programme 10 years ago at the end of the civil war.
For the farmers, illicit crops are a huge but irresistible gamble: the difference between a comfortable existence and financial ruin. Last year, Ali's neighbour got away with it and made $20,000 (£14,000) from a single hectare of cannabis. Now everyone in the village is trying to copy him. The risk is that the army will come with tractors to uproot their crops and burn them. This usually happens in July - a month before the cannabis is ready and too late in the year for farmers to plant a second crop and harvest it before winter.
Last year, with only a few hundred hectares of illicit crops under cultivation, there were armed clashes when the authorities came to destroy them. This year, with thousands of hectares planted, there could be serious trouble. "We are ready to fight the government and anyone who comes here. We will fight for the food for our children," Ali says.
Dressed in combat trousers and a psychedelic shirt, with a chequered keffiyeh wrapped around his head and a week's growth of beard on his face, he looks as though he means it. There are 460 adults in the village, he says, and they have 400 guns.
Dr Mohammed Ferjani, the Tunisian head of the Bekaa's UN-sponsored integrated rural development programme, predicts a full-scale rebellion if the illicit crops are destroyed. "The people are obliged to search for a cash crop to ensure a respectable income," he says. "This year, I'm sure they will fight."
So far, the government's response has been to drop leaflets from helicopters. These threaten life imprisonment with hard labour, plus a fine of 100m lire (£50,000), for anyone found cultivating illicit plants. In addition, any male or village guard who fails to inform the police about the cultivation of illicit crops risks imprisonment for one year and a fine of 2m lire.
The villagers' disdainful response has been to destroy the leaflets or hand them in to Hizbullah officials. Despite being bombarded with aerial warnings, the Bekaa's farmers are betting that this year, with so much cannabis under cultivation, the authorities will not take the political risk of trying to destroy it. But if the authorities take no action there will not be a mere 6,000 hectares of cannabis in the valley next year: there will be many times more.
Cannabis first came to the Bekaa from south-east Anatolya in the days of the Ottoman empire, but the valley's subsequent worldwide fame as a drug production centre was not based on any magical properties of the soil or climate. Cannabis, as anyone who has experimented on British windowsills will attest, is not a fussy plant. In the Bekaa, it grows readily on hillsides without irrigation and with very little human intervention.
It became a major crop in the Bekaa mainly for social and economic reasons. Most of the inhabitants are Shia Muslims - a group marginalised by Lebanon's Sunni and Christian elements over many years. Ignored by central government, and with little in the way of public services or policing, they did more or less as they pleased. Then, when demand for cannabis mushroomed in Europe and North America, they struck gold.
The first government clampdown came in 1963, with the ill-fated sunflower seed project. The idea was to replace cannabis with sunflowers, but without irrigation the yields were extraordinarily low and the production costs extraordinarily high. To keep the cannabis at bay, the government then had to buy up the sunflower crops at twice the normal price. This continued until the outbreak of civil war in 1975, when, with the collapse of central government, the subsidies stopped.
During the war, the farmers reverted to cannabis growing (heroin poppies also appeared for the first time) and the valley enjoyed a boom, the like of which it has never seen before or since. Around 30,000 hectares of illicit crops brought in $80m a year for the farmers themselves, but associated businesses such as processing and distribution brought the valley's total earnings from drugs to an estimated $500m a year.
Some of the money went on fast cars and flash clothes, but almost everyone among the Bekaa's 250,000 inhabitants benefited - even the conventional farmers on the valley floor. "High purchasing power brought high consumption," Dr Ferjani says. "Butchers in Baalbek used to sell 20 lambs a day - though today they are lucky to sell two or three."
Despite the war, the cannabis trade also crossed the political divide. One trail led from the Shi'ite farmers to Hizbullah's enemy, the Israeli-sponsored south Lebanon army, and then to Israel itself, providing many a happy daze in Tel Aviv.
After the boom came the bust. With the end of civil war, the Lebanese and Syrian governments (since the Bekaa borders Syria) decided jointly to eradicate the illicit crops - this time by force. In 1991 they destroyed 80%. By 1993 the illicit crops were down to a mere 300 hectares, and in 1994 a UN mission to the area found none at all. The government did not repeat its sunflower blunder, and gave the farmers "education and information" instead. The ministry of agriculture also provided some cows.
"They promised the cows would give 20 litres of milk a day," says Hassan, another farmer in Ali's village. "But after two months we were getting only five." The ministry's calculations were for cows fed on fresh grass, but there is little of that in the Bekaa, and the farmers, far from being grateful, believed they had been lumbered with defective cows.
The crop destruction programme may have pleased foreign governments, but over the past 10 years it has succeeded in making the Bekaa one of the most impoverished parts of Lebanon. The gross domestic product in the northern part of the valley, where most of the drugs are grown, is only $500 per person, while the national average is $3,500.
While the people look to drug production for their economic salvation, for political and religious salvation they turn to Hizbullah. Along the road into Hermel, at the northern end of the valley, instead of the usual advertising hoardings there are larger-than-life portraits of Hizbullah "martyrs" (men killed in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon), six to a billboard. These are interspersed with even larger pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, the party's leader. Even the telegraph poles are painted in Hizbullah colours and carry its God-and-gun logo.
In Baalbek, the regional capital, the best and cheapest hospital is run by Hizbullah, and the hottest nightspot is a Hizbullah-owned cafe by the river where young men and women sip non-alcoholic drinks or smoke hubble-bubble pipes (tobacco only, though it comes in three flavours: apple, strawberry and honey).
Officially, Hizbullah disapproves of drugs and encourages alternative crops. To limit unemployment (and possibly to prevent mischief) it continues to pay the salaries of 9,000 guerrillas who returned - jobless - to the Bekaa after the Israeli withdrawal from the south last year. But to confront its core supporters head-on over the drugs issue would be suicidal for Hizbullah.
At the UN office in Baalbek, Dr Ferjani displays a flowchart showing that the valley's drug production and its political extremism are part of the same problem. Marginalisation, poverty and frustration are the causes. Tackle them, he says, and the extremism and illicit crops will wither away. The key, he believes, lies in soil conservation; better use of water resources; infrastructure such as cold stores and grading centres for produce; and loans for farmers at reasonable rates.
Water, people constantly point out, is the most expensive liquid in the Bekaa valley. Bottled spring water costs 1,000 lire (50p) a litre, petrol 850 and Pepsi 750. With Pepsi, you also get a free digital watch if you buy 12 litres. In fact, there is plenty of water: 40m cubic metres of rain runs off the mountains every year - mainly in short, sharp deluges - and flows, unused by the local farmers, into Syria, Turkey and Israel. "Under irrigation," Dr Ferjani says, "any crop is more profitable than cannabis or poppies."
The solution may be obvious, but it costs money. In 1993 the UN estimated that an investment of $30m a year for 10 years would solve the Bekaa's problems permanently. "We would be able not only to replace illicit crops but let the region return to the control of central government and become developed without any prospect of a return to illicit crops," Ferjani says.
But foreign governments are reluctant to provide aid to an area controlled by Hizbullah. In the seven years since the development programme started, it has received less than 7% of its total needs - almost all from the Lebanese government and the UN. "Colombia has had hundreds of millions of dollars to fight drugs, but the Lebanese government is not getting support from the international community," Ferjani says. "It's the wrong approach. The international community think they are fighting Hizbullah, but they are pushing the people to be more extremist. We tried to explain to the Americans: if you refuse to support this programme you are indirectly supporting extremism. They didn't understand."