For hundreds of years, the Bekaa Valley on the Lebanese-Syrian border was known for its luxuriant cannabis crops, most destined to end up as hashish in the pipes of European aesthetes. When Lebanon collapsed into civil war in 1975, the Bekaa's cannabis crop exploded, joined by opium production, and both hash and heroin made their way into the global market. The dope business even trumped politics, with some of that hash and heroin flowing across the borders of invading enemy Israel to supply the denizens of Tel Aviv's nightlife scene.
By 1990, hash was a $500 million per year industry in the Bekaa, according to Dr. Mohammed Ferjani, the Tunisian head of a UN-sponsored rural development program in the valley. He told the San Francisco Guardian that 75,000 acres -- one-third of the valley's arable land -- worth of illicit crops in the valley put roughly $80 million in the hands of farmers each year, with another $400 million generated by associated processing and distribution.
Four years later, it was all gone. With the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Lebanese and Syrian military forces moved into the lawless Bekaa with a vengeance, burning crops, arresting farmers, and driving the 250,000 person region into deep poverty. Some 25,000 families depended directly on the hash crop. After a hash-free decade, the Gross Domestic Product in the northern Bekaa is $500 per person; the Lebanese national average is $3,500. But by 1994, a UN mission could find no hash production in the valley and a couple of years later the country was rewarded by being removed from the US list of drug trafficking nations.
That was little solace to the farmers of the Bekaa or to the merchants who depend on them. "Butchers in Baalbek used to sell 20 lambs a day," said Ferjani, "though today they are lucky to sell two or three."
That may change this fall, if early reports from the valley are any indication. Fed up with ill-financed and perhaps ill-advised alternative development schemes -- UN experts have advocated substitute crops such as capers, walnuts, walnuts, saffron, and cattle -- farmers are returning to hash production with a vengeance, and they are prepared to fight. Last year, with only a few hundred acres under cultivation, armed clashes broke out when authorities arrived to eradicate the crop. This year, the hash crop has expanded to an estimated 37,000 acres, and farmers are vowing trouble if the government intervenes. "We are ready to fight the government and anyone who comes here," farmer Ali told the Guardian. "We will fight to feed our children." In his village, he added, there are 460 adults and 400 guns.
Another Bekaa farmer, Ali Hajj Hassan, is also planting cannabis this year. Hassan, who works for a UN development program, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he would go broke growing only wheat. He has a 9-by-22 foot cannabis plot. "This little plot of hashish that you see will bring me more money than a few hectares of wheat," he explained. "This year, everybody is planting cannabis again. If there is another eradication campaign this summer, there will be riots."
A mother of six from the town of Hermel chimed in to tell the Inquirer that she, too, was planting cannabis this year. "People are hungry, we need to feed our families," she said. "We know drugs are haram [forbidden by God], but isn't starving your children haram, too?" she asked.
The Lebanese government, for its part, oscillates between blaming recalcitrant foreign aid donors for lack of successful alternative development programs and threatening the Bekaa's farmers with dire fates if they plant cannabis. As spring planting season got underway in March, the Interior Ministry sent army helicopters over the valley to drop leaflets warning the farmers they faced possible life sentences for growing cannabis. They also threatened village leaders with large fines if they failed to turn in local growers.
Villagers reacted with a mixture of anger and disdain, according to press reports. They either tore up the leaflets or handed them in to local Hezbollah leaders. The Bekaa is a bastion of support for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that drove occupying Israeli forces from south Lebanon last year.
In fact, the Bekaa has become something of a zone of rivalry for competing Iranian and US alternative development schemes. The US Agriculture Department has introduced Holstein cows at $1,900 a head; the Iranians came back with cows for $1,000. Hezbollah has run ads suggesting the US is dumping inferior cattle, and those ads play well with farmers frustrated by low levels of milk production in the American heifers.
"Let them come and take their cows back wherever they came from," an embittered Hassan Jaafar told the New York Times. "I will even forgive them my down payment. I swear if the government would let me grow just 500 square meters of hashish, I would sell the cows."
Even the Lebanese government understands that economic necessity is proving inexorable. "This year the farmers won't leave any piece of land free of hashish," Lt. Michel Chakkour of the Internal Security Forces told the New York Times.
"If there isn't an alternative crop, then I am going to grow hashish even if the whole government shows up," added one farmer. "In the days of hashish we were so happy. I once owned a car, but now, thanks be to God, I own a cow."
July will be a key month, if past practice is followed. That is when the Lebanese government typically goes after the cannabis crops, as they near harvest and too late in the season for farmers to plant replacement crops.