Cattlemen in Lebanon Miss Lucre of Hashish

Cattlemen in Lebanon Miss Lucre of Hashish
Posted by FoM on April 05, 2001 at 17:41:34 PT
By Neil MacFarquhar
Source: New York Times
Hussein Jaafar, former opium poppy farmer turned dairyman, struggles to eke out a living from a half-dozen Pennsylvania milking cows while fervently wishing day and night for just one thing.He longs to grow cannabis, the crop from which hashish is derived, again. "Let them come and take their cows back wherever they came from," said Mr. Jaafar, a thin man whose furrowed brow and receding black hair makes him seem older than his 32 years. 
"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 them."These are difficult days in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, the season when farmers in the once lawless valley seeded their fields with cannabis and opium poppies, now banned. Given the deepening economic problems, farmers throughout the region are itching to resurrect their outlaw traditions.The illicit crops, almost literally, made money grow on trees. Farmers had only to toss out some seeds, sprinkle a little water around if needed and, without ever bothering to apply fertilizer or pesticides, sit back and watch their plants grow seven and eight feet tall. After the harvest, they could walk to the edge of their fields to collect wads of dollars from the brokers.Government promises to find a good substitute have so far proved barren. Nothing, it seems, compares to the ease and profitability of illicit crops.The American dairy cows, specifically Holsteins, wandered into this quandary. They have been introduced slowly over the last four years under a United States agricultural loan program.The results are somewhat mixed, with perhaps the biggest hurdle being the mental adjustment of the farmers. Cannabis fields can be ignored, but cows must be birthed, fed, nurtured and milked."Farmers here suddenly find themselves taking care of living souls who need attention every day," said Mahmoud Dally, an agricultural engineer working in the program. "Before they were just planting hashish or poppies and they didn't even have to think about it."The cows have also become the hapless agents of one of the region's quiet but intense political rivalries, that between the United States and Iran. The Iranians back Hezbollah, or the Party of God, the guerrilla movement that has flourished as a militant political party partly by championing the concerns of the impoverished, like Lebanon's long-neglected farmers.Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar, recently ran a segment suggesting that the United States was dumping inferior cows, and pictures of sick American cows are a staple of local press coverage."We hear a lot of complaints from the farmers, mainly that the American cows are not acclimatizing and not producing milk at the promised level," said Muhammad al-Khansa, the director of an experimental farm in Baalbek set up by the Jihad for Construction, Hezbollah's public works arm. "Many people say that the Americans would obviously not send their best cows to Lebanon."Those on the American side are quick to dismiss the Jihad farm outreach program. They also point out that Hezbollah is on the United States government's list of terrorist organizations."They help a limited number of farmers who are their political supporters," said Marwan Sidani, the director of the dairy improvement program, serving as the liaison between the Agriculture Ministry and the United States Agency for International Development. "All they really want to do is to show that the U.S. cows are no good."The Bekaa region's drug-growing tradition stretches back at least to the start of last century, when Lebanon's Ottoman overlords, themselves not immune to the allure of hashish, encouraged its cultivation.Before Lebanon's civil war erupted in 1975, an effort was made to supplant the cannabis with sunflowers. To collect the offered subsidies, many farmers circled their drug fields with a few rings of sunflowers.Fayrouz, a famous Lebanese diva, celebrated that particular endeavor in a 1973 musical. The lyrics went in part: "I'm being persecuted by the government. I planted sunflowers, which grew into cannabis."Farmers still relish the lore of it all. They talk of the piles of dollars or the time when some Americans built a temporary runway in the valley, landing single-engine planes crammed with Smith & Wesson revolvers and leaving laden with hashish.The civil war proved something of a golden age for illicit crops. Hashish and the newly introduced opium poppy melded well with other dubious activities like training militias, smuggling low-cost electronic devices into Syria and, occasionally, hiding kidnapped Westerners.By the end of the war in 1990, an estimated 75,000 acres, or one-third of the valley's arable land, was devoted to drugs. Cannabis and opium growing earned the Bekaa farmers roughly $80 million a year, or some $1,500 per capita, according to United Nations estimates.By 1994 it was all gone. The Lebanese and Syrian governments decided after the war that if they could get off one American blacklist, it was the drug production list.But frustration set in quickly, because none of the promised crop replacements proved viable."The farmers could sell a kilo"  2.2 pounds  "of hashish for $300 cash," Mr. Sidani said. "How can you compare it to a kilo of potatoes for 20 cents?"Enter the American dairy cow. The inspiration was twofold. One, Lebanon imports up to $300 million annually in meat and dairy products, so any local production would reduce import bills. Two, given the farmers' increasing poverty, the cows might at least help feed their families.Starting in 1997, Lebanon paid $6 million for 3,000 American dairy cows delivered over four years to 1,000 farmers, a third of them in the Bekaa. Last year the program was extended for three years, with 5,000 cows coming for $10 million. The American government has chipped in $1 million so far for things like teaching farmers the basics of feeding and milking.Problems are manifold. Feed, for example, is largely imported and expensive, so farmers give the cows hay. That lowers milk production, and the farmers blame the cows. This year has been particularly bad for milk prices  the consumption of meat and dairy products has fallen 30 percent because of the worldwide scares over various bovine diseases.Mr. Jaafar, the erstwhile hashish farmer, notes that he used to spend almost no time in his five acres and still earned $30,000 a year, enough to build a sturdy two-bedroom house, drive a car and smoke Marlboros. Now he drives a school bus in the morning and spends the rest of the time with his cows. He has forsaken Marlboros and cannot afford the $400 he needs to install tiles over the raw cement floors of his home."When I got the first cow, I wasn't terribly happy with the idea of having a cow, but I thought at least I could live off it," he said.Burglaries have picked up, and someone killed a gas station attendant a few weeks ago in an armed robbery, the first in memory.Mr. Jaafar's neighbor Moheeb Lakis points out that in the hashish days the farmers had never heard of secondhand clothes. "Now everybody is buying secondhand clothes," he said, "no more Armani and Versace."A main complaint about the United States program is that the cows cost too much. Although American officials say the $1,900 price tag per cow represents no profit, the Lebanese believe that the United States is being miserly, given that Washington demanded that the drug cultivation be eradicated."The United States program is too small, too diffuse, too expensive and needs better auxiliary services like vets," said Ali Osseiran, a member of Parliament and himself a farmer.Enter the Iranian government. An Iranian delegation showed up in Beirut last month offering $50 million in farm aid, including a farm credit program, technicians to train the Lebanese in fish farming, beekeeping and improved mechanization, and food processing factories. Plus they have cows at $1,000 a head."It is a tempting proposal," said Ali Abdullah, the new agriculture minister. "I wish all nations would compete to help Lebanese farmers, not just the Americans and Iranians." Officials on the American side are dismissive, muttering darkly that Iranian cows carry Rift Valley fever and produce far less milk.Farmers give both sides average marks. One of his American cows died, Mr. Jaafar noted. On the other hand, an engineer from the Hezbollah arm that the Iranians work through came and told him his cow shed needed better ventilation and a water trough."I told him I couldn't afford it, so if he wanted to do it, God bless him," Mr. Jaafar said, "But nobody has any money to do anything."Poverty is driving many back to cultivating drugs. Some limit it to garden plots, telling the police they are growing canary food to make the birds sing better. Last year the army, preoccupied with the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, skipped the eradication campaign."This year the farmers won't leave any piece of land free of hashish," said Lt. Michel Chakkour of the Internal Security Forces. Helicopters have been dropping leaflets warning farmers that growing drugs carries a maximum sentence of life at hard labor and a $4,000 fine.Farmers respond by saying they will plant hashish as soon as the snow melts in the high fields lying hidden behind the foothills."If there isn't an alternative crop, then I am going to grow hashish even if the whole government shows up," said one farmer."In the days of hashish we were so happy," he said, adding, "I once owned a car, but now, thanks be to God, I have a cow." Newshawk: observerSource: New York Times (NY) Author: Neil MacFarquharPublished: April 5, 2001Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Website: 
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Comment #2 posted by Juan Costo on April 05, 2001 at 20:35:08 PT
The sad thing 
The Koran condones the use of hashish but condemns the use of alcohol. Hashish has been part of Middle Eastern culture for centuries. Lebanon is cutting down their hashish fields to appease culture warriors in the U.S. It amazes me that these people can't see through this. Alcohol is clearly far more dangerous than hashish and anyone who has overindulged in both drugs knows why. So cut down all your hashish chumps and, by the way, can I interest you in some Kentucky bourbon and Virginia tobacco? The Taliban cut down all their opium and they're still the world's pariah. The Lebanese are fools to think that flushing their cultural heritage down the toilet will win them friends in the U.S. I'd go off an anti-Israel rant but it would be both offensive and irrevelant. 
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on April 05, 2001 at 18:41:32 PT:
Now, class, repeat after me
"Crop substitutions don't work". Repeat until you are blue in the face.A pound of beans gets you maybe 30 cents. A pound of Double 00 Lebanese Red got the farmer the lordly sum of $150 USD. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out.But you have to be a brain dead-pol to think that crop substitution could ever alter the basic facts of economics...which these farmers seem to have a much better grasp of than all the high-priced DrugWar 'experts' we are supporting with our tax doillars.Maybe we should hire the farmers, instead? They seem a fairly straightforward, honest bunch who tells it like is. 
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