23rd October 2017
In eastern Lebanon, vineyards are an alternative cultivation to cannabis
Sitting among the vines in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Michel Emad, a retired soldier, remembers the not-so-distant time when he cultivated cannabis before replacing it with red and white grapes used in wine production.
Emad, a father of two in his 50s says “there was no alternative cultivation that is suitable with the nature of our land (…) And you need to adapt to the market.”
After completing his military service, Emad started in the year 2000 to cultivate cannabis. Like other 220 farmers, he has joined now the “Coteaux Heliopolis cooperative” and is growing grapes in the northern Bekaa Valley’s Deir al-Ahmar region.
Northern Bekaa areas are notorious for their cannabis production, although it is illegal. Lebanese cannabis is known for its “good quality” and during the civil war (1975-1990), it expanded into a flourishing multi-million dollar industry.
The law punishes anyone who traffics in marijuana, with the understanding that many kingpins of these prohibited agriculture live in the Bekaa areas and repeatedly ask for its legislation.
“With hashish you always feel threatened by the authorities, you can’t sleep at night for the constant risk of being jailed or seeing the state destroy your crops,” he said,
On the other side of the road running along his vineyard, the tall stems of cannabis fields are still visible. Emad spent growing cannabis between 2000 and 2003, like many other villagers in Lebanon’s Bekaa who see it as their only means of survival.
The security forces regularly raid the cannabis farms in the area and Emad’s fields were wiped out twice before he eventually decided to join the cooperative.
“Growing grapes is more lucrative and leaves you with a clean conscience,” Emad said, explaining that this year’s nine-ton harvest earned him $10,000, twice his former income from cannabis.
The Coteaux Heliopolis cooperative was launched in 1999 and now covers around 250 hectares of vineyard in Deir al-Ahmar. The first harvest in 2003 and the resulting windfall sparked a wave of interest among cannabis farmers in the area.
“We have provided evidence that people don’t want to grow hashish. They are obliged to because it is their only source of income but they don’t actually want to live in fear and in violation of the law,” said Shawki al-Fakhri, who heads the cooperative.
“If you give them an alternative, a lucrative and legal crop to farm, people will take it in a heartbeat,” adds al-Fakhri.
The cooperative supports new farmers by facilitating loan applications and guarantees from banks, as well as helping them reclaim lands and secure seedlings.
The cooperative has created its own winery and made a modest start with 100,000 bottles in 2017, only a fraction of the eight million bottles Lebanon produces each year.
“I really believe our white is a little gem, its freshness is remarkable, since we have no highways nearby, no cars and no pollution.” Charbel said proudly.
Coteaux Heliopolis chose its name as a homage to the nearby City of the Sun – Heliopolis was the former name of Baalbek where the Roman wine god Bacchus was worshipped.