Cannabis cultivation has been spreading in Lebanon for more than a century, especially in the Bekaa Valley, which has special environmental and soil advantages that allow the production of a high quality Cannabis.
Cannabis cultivation in Lebanon has witnessed several stages of development in terms of cultivated area and prevalence of production. This development was directly linked to the deteriorating economic situation of rural families in the Baalbek-Hermel region on the one hand, and to the political situation in the country, in particular the ability of the central authority to impose its security and administrative control over this area, on the other hand.
A pivotal date in the development of Cannabis in the region is the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, which resulted in the near disappearance of the Lebanese organs entrusted with the fight against the banned crops. This led to an unprecedented expansion of Cannabis cultivation in the Bekaa Valley, where the cultivated area reached more than 20,000 hectares in 1983. Despite some attempts by Syrian forces, that had entered Lebanon in 1976, to control this cultivation, the widespread of Cannabis and the introduction of white poppy cultivation from Turkey could not be prevented, thus turning the Bekaa Valley into a region specialized in the cultivation and production of drugs on a very large scale.
It was not until the end of the civil war, in 1990, that the Lebanese central authorities resumed their role in the fight against drug cultivation, leading to an end in poppy cultivation by 1995 and to a significant decline in Cannabis cultivation. However, drug cultivation remained in some isolated areas such as Yamouneh and Hermel, where the central authority could not impose its control over the land for political, social and economic reasons.
The Lebanese experience has shown that the policy of suppressing drug farmers and destructing the cultivated fields of Cannabis does not lead to the retreat of farmers from the only lucrative agriculture that allowed them to live with dignity from the work on their lands. It was then evident that the central authorities should work on implementing development projects based on alternative crops that would allow rural families to live with dignity and that would take into account the environment conditions of the region, as well as the economic and social situation. We took over management of the Alternative Cultivation Project in 1999 and introduced new crops that met the aforementioned requirements. Farmers responded positively to these attempts and placed high hopes on this project to get out of illicit cultivation and move towards a type of legal cultivation with good economic feasibility, which would allow the creation of an economic cycle leading to a decent life for them and their families.
Amongst the proposed crops was the cultivation of saffron, one of the most important plants in the world, offering a profit comparable to that of drug cultivation. Unfortunately, we did not receive any support from the Lebanese government for this initiative, as the government did not provide us with what was required to develop this agriculture swiftly in order to meet the demand of farmers. We were indeed in need of a laboratory to plant tissues for the production of saffron bulbs and a laboratory for quality control and certification of origin.
The direct result of the absence of serious support from the central government for the Alternative Cultivation Project was the continuation of Cannabis cultivation until 2011. After the start of the civil war in Syria, which resulted in the displacement of more than 1.5 million refugees towards Lebanon, the security and the economic situation in the country in general and especially in the Bekaa region deteriorated. The authorities’ main concern was to protect Lebanon from Islamic State militants stationed in the eastern mountains of Lebanon on the Syrian border. Under these conditions, Cannabis cultivation has expanded significantly in the Baalbek-Hermel area, where it has reached more than 30,000 hectares, for a production of about 120 tons of Cannabis resin annually, valued at $ 300 million on the local market.
Throughout the extremely difficult and complicated economic, social and security conditions Lebanon has gone and is still going through, Cannabis cultivation has allowed a large number of rural families in the Baalbek-Hermel region to secure sufficient resources for the necessities of life. In Lebanon, the most expensive country in the region, where there is no health coverage and where the cost of education in private schools and universities is very high, families are forced to bear significant financial burdens to provide the necessities of life for their children, such as food, education and health coverage. In these circumstances, the money gained by Cannabis cultivation played an important role in the economies of rural families. These Cannabis-producing families in the Baalbek-Hermel region were able to cope with the economic crisis and secure their needs. The money earned from growing and selling Cannabis was instrumental in securing an economic cycle in the region that led to a minimum level of social stability in light of the great decline in social services that are supposed to be provided by governmental institutions.
In order to determine the role played by the money obtained from the cultivation of Cannabis in the economy of rural families, we conducted a survey of 127 families who produced Cannabis during the 2019 season. We studied the professional situation of these families, the size of their exploitations, the cost of Cannabis plantation, the quantity of the yield and its sale price in the local market, the net profit per hectare of Cannabis and the area of disbursement of the money derived from this product.
The families of the sample were divided into a number of professional activities. Seventy-three families practiced agriculture as their primary occupation and had no income from outside the agricultural sector. In addition to agricultural work, 38 families had another occupation as traders, taxi drivers or as private sector employees. The remaining 16 families were public servants but grew Cannabis in order to increase their income and to secure the necessary needs for their families.
As for the cultivated area of Cannabis, it varies from year to year according to several factors, the most important of which being the sale price. When there is hope that the price will be good, farmers increase the amount of land allocated for Cannabis cultivation. However, increasing the area can lead to an increase in supply, which puts pressure on the price and causes a decline. In general, the average cultivated area is 2 hectares, with small fields at less than half a hectare and large ones exceeding 10 hectares.
The cost of producing hemp varies from one area to another. This is due to the different factors of the culture (irrigation, maintenance, cutting of male and female plants …) but mainly to the cost of irrigation, which is much more important in the north of Bekaa valley than in the other areas of production. Based on the above, the cost of planting one hectare of Cannabis ranges between US $ 500 in fields that do not need irrigation and $ 2500 for fields that need about 10 irrigations to complete the season. Thus, the average cost is about $ 1,500 per hectare planted with Cannabis.
The yield of a Cannabis plantation varies between areas according to the ecological conditions of the plantation (soil, irrigation, maintenance), but in general the average is around 12 tons of fresh female plants per hectare. According to producers, hemp grown in the Yamouneh area, west of Baalbek, is more quantitatively productive in raw green plants (the plants are bigger in size) than that grown in the Hermel area. This is mainly due to ecological conditions that are more favorable in the first zone than in the second. However, the resin quality obtained at Hermel is better than that obtained in Yamouneh. According to the producers, the climatic conditions prevailing in the North Bekaa, and particularly in the region of Hermel with its silty clay soil, are at the base of this difference. Indeed, the average temperature during the growing season is higher than that of the other zones by 2oC, which favors obtaining plants richer in Cannabinoids and specifically in THC, the main psychoactive agent of Cannabis. It is traditionally known that the best quality of resin is obtained from plants of dry cultivation (without irrigation) practiced in the high mountains over 1200 m of altitude in the region of Hermel. The next table shows the difference of yield of green female plants between the regions.
It should be noted that the farmers of the region know very well the profitability reports of the different areas of Cannabis production throughout the plain. So they choose their plots to cultivate Cannabis according to their means. Low-income producers often seek to cultivate crops in areas where plant watering is not required to save on irrigation costs. On the other hand, large producers, who still have considerable financial means, seek, first and foremost, large fields with good land, located in irrigated areas to ensure good production.
As for the selling price, it fluctuates according to supply and demand. The years when the competent authorities destroy the cultivated areas of Cannabis, the quantity supplied decreases and the price goes up. The opposite is also true, with prices falling in the years when Cannabis crops are not destroyed and the supply is high. Thus, the price fluctuates by years between $ 500 and $ 1,500 per ton of green female plants. This price, even when at its lowest, provides a good profit for Cannabis producers, which they could not possibly get in the case of traditional crops known in the region such as vegetables, fruit trees and cereals of all kinds.
If we perform a simple calculation between the average planting cost and the average production quantity per hectare of cannabis and the average selling price, we find that cannabis cultivation provides a good profitability for the farmer, estimated at about US $10,000 per year. On this basis, it is possible to imagine the amount of money that Cannabis cultivation provides for the northern Bekaa region annually. As we have seen, the cultivated area of Cannabis has been estimated at 30,000 hectares per year over the past eight years. By calculation, we can conclude that Cannabis cultivation provides Baalbek-Hermel around US $ 300 million annually. With this amount, a large number of rural families have been able to secure a decent living for their members, especially after the deterioration of economic conditions in Lebanon as a result of the geopolitical crises that have been going in the region for more than ten years.
As mentioned above, peasants in the Cannabis producing regions of Lebanon, often poor and exhausted by the successive economic crises that are shaking their regions, have had to rely on the income provided by this crop to survive.
There was a time, during the war in Lebanon (1975-1990), when only drug plants (Cannabis and Poppy) were able to assure a guaranteed profitability for the concerned families, becoming thereafter the essential source of income of a large majority of peasant families. Then, for the 1991-2011 period, although the cultivation of drug plants was subject to repressive campaigns, the fields that persisted in some families generated some financial resources. These much needed resources had contributed to the maintenance of an economic cycle. Albeit a weak one, it was able to prevent Cannabis producing areas from falling into total economic recession. Indeed, with the tightening of the repression between 1991 and 2010, the cultivated areas of drug plants were drastically reduced. However, this decline in production was accompanied by a significant increase of prices of hashish. This rise in prices had a financial impact that was very important for the economy of the Baalbek-El Hermel region during this period.
After 2010, and with the weakening of the central power of the Lebanese government due to the war in Syria, the re-emergence of hashish cultivation took place on a large scale and the sums of money released by cultivation, processing of the crop and the sale of its products, provided important financial resources for the region. Peasants in the North Bekaa region took advantage of the deteriorating situation to increase their Cannabis cultivated areas. Indeed, the return of political and security tensions to the country has been a boon for peasants, as it guarantees them the comeback of a flourishing business. That is the golden rule: illicit business flourishes only at the expense of security.
The amount of income derived from the cultivation of Indian hemp and its percentage in relation to the income of the peasant family varies according to the area which the latter devotes to the production of Cannabis. For some families, especially those who turn Cannabis resin into hashish resin, this income reaches tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, an income that would be impossible to achieve from traditional harvests, even over several years.
To determine in which area the peasant families spend the money procured by the cultivation of hemp, we questioned the peasants of the sample studied. We found out that among low-income families, Cannabis money is often spent on basic needs of the family, such as food, which absorbs nearly 35% of this income, schooling children with 20%, followed by health care with 16%. The remainder is devoted to the renovation or rebuilding of houses (11%), the development of the farm (10%), the purchase of a means of transport (5%) and other expenses, such as those resulting from the marriage of children or parent support (3%).
Thus, for decades, Cannabis money has allowed the most deprived women farmers to meet their food needs, to educate their children, often in private institutions, and to improve their living conditions, particularly with regard to food, health care and housing.
It should be noted that the first signs of wealth appear in families cultivating Cannabis continuously for at least five years. In the beginning, the farmers spend all the money collected from this culture on their essential needs, and only after will they spend on housing and a car, which are he signs of wealth in the region’s culture.
It is probably poverty that prevents modest families from devoting large shares of the money provided by growing hemp to the development of their farms. Indeed, only 10% of the revenues collected from the sale of Cannabis are invested in the development of the family farm, either for the purchase of new agricultural machinery, or for the implementation of development and irrigation projects. These sums granted to the farm increase significantly in the case of families having completed the renovation of their habitats, the purchase of cars and not having large expenses derived from schooling their children.
For wealthier families, Cannabis money is often used to buy luxury cars, build villas and large buildings, and buy large properties. Some of the farmers, who have established financial reserves end up becoming investors in trade, buildings, finances …; it has had, after all, a positive impact on the economy of the region.
Moreover, some Cannabis growers are able to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars each growing season and, as a result, have been able to acquire, over time, a great social and political notoriety.
Consequently, we can see that the cultivation of Cannabis has allowed a majority of peasants of the North Bekaa (poor families) to live better by providing them with additional resources and has promoted socio-economic development in the Bekaa plain. For decades, this money has been the only support for the region’s economy and the only guarantee of social peace in a very politically delicate and fragile region.
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Doctor Hassane Makhlouf