Lebanon | Greener Grass

Villages in the Bekaa valley cling to cannabis cultivation as their only means of survival

Lebanese security forces uproot cannabis plants in Yammouneh in September 2012. Locals consider the plants their only reliable source of livelihood. AHMED SHALHA / REUTERS
01 October, 2013

THE STEEP, NARROW ROAD, covered in gravel, led up the mountains, away from the yellow plains. It was late summer in the Bekaa Valley region of eastern Lebanon and I was on the road to the village of Yammouneh, situated in the valley just over the mountains. The road leading to Yammouneh continued through it, with most houses set on either side, made from stone or cement, and the occasional dekkaneh, or corner shop, where cigarettes and basic staples are sold. At the far end were a few small ponds, the water in them ice-cold. A man in his forties, wearing jeans and sandals, served strong coffee and tea in small plastic cups from the back of a minivan parked next to the ponds. The only smell stronger than that of coffee was the sweet aroma emanating from Yammouneh’s plentiful cannabis plantations.

“Yammouneh is famous for one thing: our hashish,” said Fadi Shreif, a man in his fifties who works as a tourist guide at the famous Roman ruins in the nearby town of Baalbek. “If you go to Europe or anywhere else and you come across hashish from Yammouneh, you’re happy. We have good climate for hashish. There’s sweet water from the mountains, the altitude is high and we’re protected between the mountains.”

Shreif’s enthusiasm belies the raging conflict in the region over the crop. Recent decades have seen international pressure force the Lebanese government to crack down on cannabis farmers by destroying crop. But the government’s capacity to act against famers has depended on its involvement, from year to year, in other conflicts in the region. At the same time, locals have not yielded easily—with towns such as Yammouneh sustained almost entirely through cannabis cultivation, and few other livelihood options, farmers and other residents have mounted fierce protests against the government’s efforts to destroy fields.

Cannabis cultivation in Lebanon, which dates back centuries, became organised during French rule in the early 20th century, but it was in the lawless years of the Lebanese Civil War, between 1975 and 1990, that drug production really took off. “With the war, there was an expansion in both hashish and drugs like heroin and cocaine,” said the historian and author Fawwaz Traboulsi in his office in Beirut. “Labs were set up for producing heavy drugs and raw material was imported from across the world. This earned the Lebanese militias that fought each other during the war huge sums, which helped keep the war going. In those years, the drug trade came under Syrian supervision and taxes were collected from the growers and smugglers.”

During this time, drugs were exported out of the war-torn country with ease, and Lebanon came to acquire a key position in the global drug economy. Hashish customers in Europe, as well as in neighbouring countries like Israel and Egypt, were soon smoking varieties like “Lebanese Blonde” and “Red Leb”. In its most productive years, during the civil war, Lebanon’s cannabis industry generated some $500 million annually.

After the end of the war, in 1990, the Lebanese government, the international community and Syria—then in de facto control of Lebanon’s politics—negotiated a complete annihilation of Lebanon’s cannabis fields. International aid programs were introduced to replace the plants with crops like beets or sunflowers. “The fields were completely destroyed, which left some 70,000 families, many of them small-scale growers, out of their yearly revenue,” Traboulsi said. “Meanwhile, the largest smuggling families were compensated with seats in parliament.”

Initially, the campaign was successful at eradicating illegal crops, and the Bekaa Valley was completely drug free for a while during the 1990s. But as international donor money supporting crop replacement fell short of expectations, fields were soon awash with the tall, green plants again. Today, Lebanon is back among the top five hashish producers in the world, along with Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Morocco.

In Yammouneh, few signs remain from the drug free years. There is one concrete reminder, however: an open-air sports court at the outskirts of the village, perched between the blossoming fields. A sign with faded colours reveals that the court was donated in an international aid campaign. Inside the rusty fence that circles the court, kids in colourful T-shirts were kicking around a football.

“USAID built the court for us,” said Noor, a man in his early twenties with short hair and jeans, whom I met near the court. “They first gave us a basketball field, but we don’t really play basketball, so we removed the hoops and replaced them with football goals.” I walked with Noor through the village. Like most other residents, he lives in Beirut and spends only the warm months in Yammouneh, when the village fills with people busy tending to their crops in preparation for the harvest, which starts in September or October. “My grandfather owns several fields, as do my uncles and cousins,” Noor said. “Most people in Yammouneh grow cannabis. What else could we do? The government couldn’t care less for us. It’s as if we’re not even on the map. The only time they come here is to arrest someone.”

It’s true that there’s little to do in Yammouneh but grow cannabis. The village school closed a few years ago, and electricity comes and goes every six hours. Much of rural Lebanon faces the same conditions. Agriculture, once an important source of income, gets little support. “Only 0.1 percent of all bank loans in Lebanon go to agricultural projects, yet between 20 and 25 percent of the population live off farming,” Traboulsi said. “The Lebanese state is not interested in sustaining farmers. It’s become very difficult to make a decent living that way.”

There have been many attempts to convince farmers to grow crops other than cannabis varieties high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound responsible for the drug’s effects. Since 2007, a UNDP project has aimed to replace the THC-high plants with other cannabis plants, low on THC, and eventually set up units to manufacture industrial hemp. But it’s a difficult task. “It’s hard convincing cannabis farmers to switch crops,” said Dominique Choueiter, who has worked with the UNDP Project for several years. “It’s like asking car thieves to stop stealing—what else can you offer that pays the same?”

Lebanese authorities resort to force to try and stop cannabis cultivation in the region. “Over and over, the police and the military go to the villages to destroy the crops,” Choueiter said. “But the plants are back soon. If eradication is to work, there has to be a sustainable alternative.”

The intensity of the government’s efforts depends on the overall security situation in the country. Choueiter showed me a chart detailing the number of raids in recent years, and the number of acres of crop destroyed. In 2006, when there was a war with Israel, and in 2007, when there was a deadly conflict in the refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon, hardly any crops were eradicated—the military was preoccupied elsewhere. Other years, when the situation was more stable, there were more aggressive clearing efforts.

Last year, the villagers in Yammouneh literally fought back. The only two roads leading down to the village were blocked with burning tires, and soldiers attempting to enter the village were injured as armed farmers and hashish producers shot at them. “After that happened, we harvested early in order to save as much of the crops as possible before the police came back,” Noor said. This year, with the war in Syria having an increasing impact on Lebanon, the farmers are likely to see little police action. “The worse the security situation is in Lebanon, the more we can grow,” Noor said.

We took a small road back towards where the kids were playing football. Rows of makeshift tents were set up opposite the court, on a large open field. While children played in the afternoon sun, their mothers and fathers sat outside, preparing dinner; they were workers from Syria, who come each season to tend the fields. They typically return every winter, but since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, many have no option but to stay on in Lebanon. Among them was Khalil, a young Syrian who works as a supervisor of other field workers. “We earn around $200 to $300 per month,” he said. “That’s more than in Syria, but much less than what Lebanese are paid here. Lebanon’s entire farming industry is dependent on cheap Syrian labour, not only the cannabis industry.”

Those who own the fields earn a lot more than that. Cannabis growers who have several large fields can make $30,000 to $50,000 per year; those at the top of the smuggling chain, much more. But in Yammouneh and other cannabis-growing villages in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon, most growers are small-scale. “Obviously, those who make big money from the drug industry are the smugglers and dealers,” said Traboulsi. “The difference between them and the peasant who makes $5,000 a year is like night and day.”

The feeling of being disadvantaged is shared by Noor and his friends. One of them, who introduced himself as Chehab, and is about the same age as Noor, cannot leave Yammouneh. He is wanted by Lebanese authorities for selling drugs and has no option but to stay in the village, where he feels protected against the police. “If you ask me about my dreams—sure I’d like to do something else,” Chehab said. “We all have dreams for the future. But I know it’s not realistic. What else can I do other than this? This is what I’ve learnt.” Noor himself would like to work as a tourist guide—“to put Yammouneh back on the map”—but realises that his options are limited. “I might get a field for myself next year,” he said. “Here in Lebanon, what else could I do, really?”