Hashish grows again in the fields of Lebanon (Independent UK)
Hashish grows again in the fields of Lebanon
Why farmers in Hermel have more faith in 'Gold' than government
By Robert Fisk
01 July 2001
At first, it looks like a cornfield. But step a few metres into the corn
and the stooks turn into little bright-green trees with spiky leaves, all
swaying in the breeze up the narrow mountain valley. When my guide started
gesticulating towards another, smaller field, I pleaded with him not to
point. There are gunmen aplenty in these hills in the same dark Mercedes
they used in the civil war but the man laughed.
"You're perfectly safe with me here," he said.
That's when I realised this was his hashish field. "You know what we are
doing?" he asked. "It's a kind of challenge from us to the Lebanese
government, a challenge from an impoverished people.
The Beirut government boasted back in 1994 that it had eradicated the drug
fields of Lebanon, burning and poisoning the thousands of acres of hashish
and the smaller though more lethal dunums of poppies that produced
Lebanon's heroin exports.
The Americans and the UN's anti-drugs units clapped their hands. We were
even invited to watch the army burn the fields. But today "Lebanese gold"
the finest hashish grown in the country is back, albeit in comparatively
small quantities. "This is not 1 per cent of what we used to grow in the
civil war," the Hermel landowner insisted, a point he rather spoiled by
inviting us to see a larger field a few miles down the road.
The air is clear up here, the midday sky pale-blue against the hot grey
mountains, a tributary of the Orontes river, green and cold, irrigating
"What can we do?" the man asks, opening his hands. "We were promised aid
from the government in return for destroying our fields, new agricultural
projects, new crops to take the place of hashish. But my four sons and
three daughters, some of them married, are all living in my home because
they have no money for a house of their own. We live off the only one of
my sons who has a job and he brings home just 500,000 Lebanese pounds
(243) a month." Which is true. The dealers make the money; the growers do
Nor does his assessment meet with any surprise in the office of the United
Nations Development Project chief technical adviser down the Bekaa Valley
in Baalbek. Mohamed Ferjani hands me a document he sent to his superiors
in 1994, the year the Lebanese announced the end of illicit crop
cultivation and the start of a programme to encourage alternative crops.
"The absence of development efforts and international community support
will mean the return of illicit crops and border traffic," Ferjani had
presciently written. His voice rises as he explains his frustration.
"There was no regional development plan and the government's programme for
the area was launched with high expectation on the part of the
beneficiaries [the farmers] but with less than 6 per cent of the
estimated required funds."
After the civil war, the Hermel men at first believed in their new role as
legal farmers, cultivating tomatoes, tobacco, wheat and water melons. A
Hermel schoolteacher and his wife told me of the outcome of broken
promises: "First the government gave us a ton of seed potatoes and then,
without warning, it became half a ton," the teacher said. "Then many of
the families who applied for licences to grow tobacco were refused
permission. I don't know why."
On its near-desert plateau, Hermel got a bad name. It became known
unfairly, according to its 83-year-old mukhtar (town leader) as a drugs
town and, because of the location of nearby Hizbollah guerrilla training
camps, as a town of "terrorists" and gunmen. Old Haj Asaad bin
Daibis-Jouheri, smoking a cigarette from a holder in his thin wiry hands,
tried to explain his town's story. "We used to survive on wheat, barley,
chickpea growing, and we were simple people. Then there came schools and
new clothes and people needed money. People became more reliant on
earning. But we got no real help. People really go hungry here. And now
the media have started a war against this region."
Nor are things going to get better. "At the time of the government's new
programme, Lebanon was an exporter of vegetables and fruit, especially to
the Gulf and Iraq," Mr Ferjani says. "Then came the Second  Gulf War
and Iraq was sanctioned and the Turks, Egyptians and others started
exporting to the Gulf. And the people here grew much poorer."
You only have to drive round the Hermel area to understand what this
means. There are patches of wheat and a few watermelon farms. But much of
the landscape I passed through was sand and rock and acres of rubbish, the
ground, even along the banks of the Orontes, blossoming with old plastic
bags and rusting car parts. Up in the hills, the gunmen follow all
visitors "they have no ideology," Mr Ferjani warned and I suspect they
are working for men in Amsterdam rather than Beirut. So far, the
government has done nothing and the police turn a familiar Lebanese blind
eye. Because, I guess, the fields are still few and far between, scarcely
10,000 dunums in all, according to a foreign aid worker. And after all,
the farmers are not growing poppies for heroin and opium. Not yet.
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