Lebanon's cannabis farms flourish while army looks away

Tue May 20, 2014 9:58am EDT
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By Laila Bassam and Dominic Evans

BEKAA VALLEY Lebanon (Reuters) - Driving around his Bekaa Valley farmland, Ali Nasri Shamas carries a revolver by his side and an automatic rifle in the back of his car, weapons he says he's ready to use if the army moves in to try to destroy his lucrative cannabis crop.

But he may not need them this year. With Syria's civil war raging 30 miles (50 km) away, Lebanese security forces have other priorities than their annual showdown with the Bekaa hashish growers.

"If they want a confrontation that's no problem for us, it will be harvest season soon," Shamas says, standing in a field of the green, spiky-leafed plants from which hashish resin is extracted.

In recent years, security forces have sent tractors, bulldozers and armored vehicles to plough up, flatten or burn the cannabis crops, leading to clashes with farmers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Dramatic as they were, those shows of force by authorities achieved only partial success in a region where the state holds limited sway and even the militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah is reluctant to confront formidable local clans.

Since 2012, the campaign has been quietly shelved.

Two years ago farmers blocked roads when security forces started burning cannabis. The government backed down and the interior minister promised to look into compensating farmers for crop eradication and finding them alternative sources of income, pledges the farmers say have not been honored.

Last year, as violence spilled over the border from Syria's civil war - with bombs and gunfights in Lebanon's coastal cities and rockets striking towns in the Bekaa - authorities called a halt to a battle they had waged with farmers since the end of Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war.   Continued...

Lebanese security forces drive a tractor as they help workers uproot cannabis plants in Yammouneh village in Baalbek September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Shalha