20 October 2007

In Lebanon, a Comeback for Cannabis

Ali plucks a sprig of the cannabis sativa plant and sniffs its distinctive leaves with appreciation. This Lebanese farmer's field of marijuana, a splash of bright green on the sun-baked plains of eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, will yield around 33 pounds of cannabis resin, or hashish, which he will sell for about $10,000, many times more than he could hope to earn from legitimate crops and for almost no work at all.



"All I have to do is throw the seeds on the ground, add a little water, and that's it," says Ali, who spoke on the condition that his full name was not used. "I would be crazy not to grow [marijuana]."

It has been a bumper year for marijuana cultivation in the Bekaa Valley, the largest, growers say, since the "golden years" of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, when marijuana and heroin grown and processed here flooded the markets of Europe and the United States.

Hashish production is illegal in Lebanon, and each year since the early 1990s police backed by troops bulldoze the crops before they can be harvested, leaving farmers penniless. But the failure of United Nations and government programs to encourage the growth of legitimate crops, coupled with months of political crisis, deteriorating economic prospects, and a frail security climate have encouraged farmers to return to large-scale marijuana cultivation.

"The worse the security situation is in Lebanon, the more we can grow," says Ali.


Worth the Risk, Farmers Say

Despite the threat of police raids destroying their crops, farmers say the financial returns justify the risk. This year they were lucky, however. The Army was unable to spare troops to provide security for the police raids because of the raging battle during the summer growing season against Islamist militants in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Furthermore, the heavily armed local farmers made it clear to the police that they would resist attempts to wipe out their marijuana crops.

"We told the police that for every [marijuana] plant they cut down, we would kill one policeman," says Ibtissam, the wife of a marijuana farmer in the village of Taraya.

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.