x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Compensation for criminals but rest wither on the vine

The Lebanese government will compensate farmers for the loss of a crop that was illegal to grow in the first place, sending a disheartening message to members of the country's formal economy, writes Michael Karam.

The fertile soil of the Bekaa Valley is used by farmers for both legal and illegal crops. Byran Denton for The National
The fertile soil of the Bekaa Valley is used by farmers for both legal and illegal crops. Byran Denton for The National

It was a busy weekend in the Bekaa Valley, what with the government taking full advantage of the devastated tourism industry and destroying more than 200 dunums, or 200,000 square meters, of cannabis fields in Lebanon's fertile heartland.

Cannabis farming is illegal in Lebanon but, given the Bekaa Valley enjoys very little state attention or financial support, you can pretty much get away with what you want over there as long as you pay off the right people. Shady pro-Syrian, Palestinian factions, a throwback to the revolutionary early 1970s, also operate with impunity, as does the Syrian army, which thinks nothing of popping over the border in pursuit of smugglers or, as is the case these days, members of the Free Syrian Army.

Hence, the ease with which local farmers, eager to reap the benefits of a serious cash crop, can plant thousands of hectares of cannabis. A kilo of it sells for US$1,600 (Dh5,876) - a kilo of apples will net just 30 cents. Granted, you need a lot of the plant - about 250kg - to make one refined kilo but you still come out way on top, according to my sources.

To please the Americans and other donors, the Lebanese government has to be seen to clamp down on the growers and every year or so the army moves in with tanks, armoured vehicles and buses full of state-employed workers and sets about destroying a few hundred dunums. To show the locals they also won't be pushed around, the drug lords send out some of their men to take pot shots at the army (two soldiers and one state worker were wounded over the weekend).

When each side has done enough to show who is boss, they retreat for another season.

But this year there was a twist. With this summer's block-the-road-with-burning-tyres-to-get-your-demands-heard trend, aggrieved cannabis farmers from the Bekaa town of Yammouneh on Sunday decided to do just that, telling the state they were being robbed of their livelihood and arguing Beirut had done nothing to offer them a viable alternative to the lucrative drug cultivation. The interior minister, Marwan Charbel, should have done what any self-respecting law enforcer would have done and arrested them on the spot for disruptive behaviour.

Instead he took it upon himself to promise compensation for the "lost" harvest. The government also announced the formation of a committee to look into the needs of farming communities in rural areas such as Bekaa and the country's north.

The next day, MTV, a local television channel, reported the cabinet would probably pay 500,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh1,221.27) in compensation for every dunum of cannabis destroyed as part of the state's recent war on drugs. The government has apparently burnt a total of 6,600 dunums, so in theory it will have to shell out about $2 million to people who have broken the law. Go figure.

Spare a thought then for the private sector, especially those businesses at the fore of the tourism industry - retail, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, car hire and bus companies. These are all part of the formal economy. They pay their taxes and help burnish Lebanon's often-faded image. Their "harvest" has also been decimated but it is unlikely they will receive one pound from the government.

And they have a more valid grievance. The Lebanese government's handling of recent security incidents, directly linked to sectarian tensions fuelled by the conflict in Syria, has been the main factor in why so many Arabs, Lebanese expats and the odd European have decided to give Lebanon a wide berth this year.

Added to this is the fact that, despite Beirut overtaking Abu Dhabi as the region's most expensive city, there is often less than six hours of government electricity a day in the suburbs.

Tourists are quite reasonably asking why on Earth they should stand for it. And who can blame them?

Michael Karam is associate editor-in-chief of Executive, a Lebanese regional business magazine