WASHINGTON — A NEW program for economic recovery that also battles the drug trade is on the drawing board for Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a war-ravaged region comprising 40 percent of the country. The target is hashish production in the area, which reaps billions of dollars a year for local farmers, indigenous middlemen, and international traffickers.
A driving force behind the plan is Minister of Agriculture Mohsen Dalloul, who assumed his post in the Cabinet of Lebanese President Elias Hrawi late last November. In an interview during a recent private visit to Washington, the minister called for US financial and technical assistance to help transform the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley from a drug-producing haven into a legal cash-crop success.
Prospects for the plan are unclear, at best. The Hrawi government, which is backed by Syria, has run into stiff opposition from Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, who controls the Christian enclave of east Beirut.
While the Hrawi government is struggling to implement this and other reconstruction projects, it currently lacks the wherewithal to accomplish much. Hence Mr. Dalloul's plea for US support.
He says he met recently with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus and secured his commitment to wipe out the drug trade from the valley.
He says Mr. Hrawi's Cabinet has since approved $6 million for a ``green plan'' of irrigation and fertilization in the valley. Land reclamation is needed, Dalloul says, because much of the soil is unsuitable for fruits and vegetables, but sufficient for growing hemp, from which hashish is derived.
Dalloul calls the nation's economy ``desperate,'' and the agricultural sector ``sub-zero.''
For regeneration, he says, the valley needs basic well-digging, seed-planting, and irrigation equipment.
At present, fruits and vegetable exports are frozen, says the minister. ``This is due to security problems, checkpoints, and control over frontiers. Now we are organizing an import-export business and we're issuing [Syrian-approved] papers....
``Improving the land would help eliminate hash production, because the farmers would actually earn money from their work, instead of the profits going to middlemen and distributors,'' Dalloul says. ``Maybe one out of 10 dealers is Lebanese, 20 percent of the farmers grow hashish.''
Lebanese Prof. Riad Ajami, director of Ohio State University's International Business Strategy and Policy Program, stresses the importance ``for the farmer next door to see the value of his neighbor's success with fruits and vegetables'' in order for such a plan to succeed.
But one Lebanese businessman says hashish is such an important part of the country's economy that its marketability is measured in one of the country's newspapers.
``Every week on the business page, there's a table displaying prices of hashish, opium, and cocaine on the world market. It's like a commodity report,'' he says.
A US Drug Enforcement Agency official says Lebanon supplies 20 percent of the world hashish market - about 12 to 15 metric tons annually. Lebanese hashish is distributed from Egypt, Europe, and North America, but big profits are taken out before the drugs reach those destinations, he says.