May 23 - Controversial as their harvest may be, cannabis farmers in Lebanon say their crop is vital to them - while others claims it could provide a much needed boost to the economy as a whole. Alexandra Dack reports.
The Bekaa Valley is going green. But with an unconventional crop, cannabis. Yielding a profit of up to $30,000 per hectare, it earns farmers roughly twenty times what it costs to plant and a huge margin over crops like wheat. Still illegal in Lebanon with authorities trying to crack down on the trade, farmer Ali Nasri Shamas is ready to fight to defend his crop. (SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) LEBANESE FARMER ALI NASRI SHAMAS SAYING: "We want to live as everyone else does. If they want a confrontation that's no problem for us, it will be harvest season soon. If they want to come for us, they are welcome, if they want to legalise it, we'll thank them and tell them they are good people, if they want to confront us, they won't be good people but they will be gangs involving in problems with us and they are welcome." In the early nineties the Lebanese authorities began twenty years of efforts to stamp out cannabis farming. But those came to a stop in 2012. Head of the Drug Enforcement Unit, Colonel Ghassan Shamseddin. (SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) COLONEL GHASSAN SHAMSEDDIN, HEAD OF LEBANON'S DRUG ENFORCEMENT UNIT, SAYING: "The eradication operation was halted because of the situation that year on the Lebanese borders and the instability in Syria." Farmers believe the crops are important for the local economy. Economist Marwin Iskander says the whole of the country needs it. (SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) ECONOMIST MARWAN ISKANDER SAYING: "I consider that Lebanon needs this farming and needs to revive the Bekaa and Akkar regions. And according to my estimates, legalising the cannabis crop and its exportation abroad to the United States or some of the European countries where it is allowed, we would have $2 billion to the Lebanese economy and $400 million to the state budget. So really at this stage of our lives, it would have a big impact." Despite the recent lack of crackdowns by the authorities, it appears that less cannabis is being grown. Local police say around 3,500 hectares have been cultivated each year for the last three years. That is about half of what it was nine years ago.