Lebanon Agriculture: Hashish Remains the Answer
By: Rameh Hamieh
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012
State neglect, high costs, low prices, and market manipulation by big traders makes it hard for farmers in the Baalbeck-Hermel region of lebanon to make ends meet growing traditional “legal” crops.
Thirty-five dunums (3.5 hectares) of hashish for $60,000. That was the gist of the verbal deal done between Abu-Ali and the dealer, one of the many who roam the Baalbeck-Hermel district at this time of year looking for hashish crops to purchase. The Indian hemp harvest is just days away, the plants have grown to over a meter and a half high and “every field has its price,” as he says.
Abu-Ali explains that irrigated fields like his are the most productive and sought-after by dealers. He took good care of his crop, though he says cultivating the 35 dunums did not cost him more than $2,000. Abu-Ali did not look for a dealer. The dealer came to him, “and if I didn’t like the price he offered I’d send him away. There are plenty of them, and another will turn up tomorrow.” He adds: “Why give yourself a headache with traditional crops and with diesel, workers, plastic sheeting, transportation, and commissions? This way it’s easier and more profitable?”
The handshake in the hashish field cemented the deal for $1,750 per dunum. Being a gracious host, Abu-Ali later gave his guest the dealer a five percent discount.
A few meters from Abu-Ali’s plot are fields planted with potatoes and tobacco. They are equally lush, but otherwise the two types of crop do not compare, either in farming or financial terms.
“We, with our traditional farming, are a joke. Hashish growing is something else,” remarks Ahmad, who works the potato field. He does not speak out of envy for his neighbor, but anger and frustration with the state, “which has ‘dissociated’ itself for years from caring about its farmers.” The joke, as he sees it, begins with the high cost of leasing land, especially with access to water, and extends to damaged or diseased supplies of seed, the expensiveness of fertilizers, pesticides and other farming inputs, the way the market is monopolized by a handful of big traders, and not to mention the uncompensated losses sustained by farmers during the July 2006 war, or due to snow storms and freezing weather.
Ali Zeaiter invested a great deal in his 50 dunums of potatoes. It cost him 1.3 million Lebanese Lira (LL) ($867) per dunum – in seeds, fertilizer, diesel fuel for irrigation, and labor costs – to produce a crop of between 2.5 and 3 tons, fetching LL450 ($0.30) a kilo. “In other words, we farm and we work at a loss,” he says. At current prices, he expects to make no more than LL100,000 profit per dunum, “and that’s a blessing. A month ago it was a disaster, at LL250 a kilo.” And he could still encounter problems, “like the bad seed supplies we got last year. We raised our voices, but it seems nobody heard us.”
Hassan Jaafar grows a variety of crops such as potatoes, onions and garlic on his 100 dunums. While he feels fortunate that he has access to water, it still costs him LL87,000 per hour to irrigate it because of the cost of diesel to run the generator, and the official fuel price has gone up in the Bekaa. He shares Zeaiter’s grievances, but adds that fertilizers are sometimes doctored too, and tobacco-planting licences “are handed out depending on who you know.” Tobacco can also cause farming problems, such as a disease which infests the next crop in rotation which is hard to treat and stunts the growth of potatoes and other vegetables.
The single biggest problem for conventional farmers, as Jaafar sees it, is “marketing the produce, and the fact that it is not protected from the market being flooded with foreign produce just as our production is at its height.” This happens because “four or five big traders monopolize the potato market, and there is no control. They push the prices down until they become very low, and then they sell in the market at many times what they pay us. So they make huge profits at the expense of our children’s daily bread.”
Jaafar say that while he has complied with the ban on the cultivation of prohibited substances since 1993, he has yet to find a viable alternative, despite the large amounts of money earmarked for helping farmers switch to other crops. “Why is it that in 19 years, the state has not managed to get a single agro-industrial plant set up in Baalbeck-Hermel?” he wonders. “We are fed up with the talk and promises we’ve been hearing for years about subsidies, substitutes, projects, reservoirs, and dams. When we see with our own eyes that there is a beet-sugar factory, we will grow sugar-beet. When we see dams and reservoirs, we will make do with our traditional crops. Otherwise, we as families in Baalbeck–Hermel are agreed on continuing to plant hashish.”
Mariam Murtada, from Hermel, has been trying in recent years to make a living from one of the substitute crops provided by the state and the UN programme to former hashish growers, saffron. But she is struggling. The cost of saffron bulbs is high, and she has been stockpiling her produce for two years because she has no market for it, despite the state having promised to provide one when it persuaded her to switch.
Agriculture minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan recently detailed a list of schemes undertaken by the government to bolster the agricultural and animal husbandry sectors. These include one to encourage grain production by paying farmers subsidies of LL590 per kilogram for wheat and LL500 for barley, and supplying them with 6,000 tons of seed at half-price, at an annual cost of LL28 billion. Another LL50 billion is being spent over five years to boost fodder and milk production, involving the provision of subsidized feed and equipment to dairy farmers, and a similar sum on developing agricultural exports. Agricultural cooperatives have been supported to the tune of LL3 billion. The minister also said the state would provide half the underwriting costs of a new mutual support fund to insure farmers against natural disasters. In addition, LL5 billion has been earmarked in each of the Akkar and Baalbeck-Hermel districts for a five-year scheme to develop small ponds and irrigation networks to support small livestock (sheep and goat) breeders.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.