BAALBEK, LEBANON — THE 12-year-old goatherd waved at the horizon on the flat open plain between Baalbek and Mount Lebanon. "This time last year, this was all hashish," he said. "But as you can see, this year people are just growing potatoes, chickpeas, or tomatoes, or nothing at all."
Syrian troops and Lebanese police have cracked down hard this season on the cultivation of drugs in the Bekaa Valley - one of the world's major drug-producing centers. Narcotics coming out of Lebanon last year had an estimated Western street value of $6.5 billion.
International drug enforcement officials remain skeptical about the crackdown. It is not the first time the Syrians have gone through the motions of suppressing the lucrative drug business in the Bekaa Valley, which has been controlled by Syrian forces since 1976.
But farmers, villagers, and drug dealers throughout the valley - a fertile plateau suspended between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges - say this time it is much more serious than ever before, and they express mounting concern over the economic consequences of the sudden ban.
"This time it is serious - it is finished, finished," says Ali Shreif, a farmer in the remote village of Yammouneh, a major drug-growing area tucked discreetly in a fold of the foothills. "There is no more hashish in Yammouneh or in all the Bekaa. The soldiers of Syria and Lebanon stop it."
A drive through this area would normally yield vast, unobscured vistas of ripening hashish plants. But this year only three small fields were visible off a remote road, and police said they would shortly be plowed up.
A jeepload of Syrian mukhabarat (secret police) and Lebanese gendarmes, encountered by chance on a road near Yammouneh, was out on patrol looking for drug cultivation.
"If we find them, we destroy them and bring the owners of the field before the law," said a Syrian intelligence officer. "You may find an odd corner here or there that we've missed, but we'll get them - we still have a month before harvest."
All over the Bekaa, people say that the word - mamnoua (forbidden) - has gone out. When the Syrians say mamnoua, the Lebanese take heed.
"It's a magic word this year. Somebody, a superior authority, has put it into each head that this year it is no, a definite no, so there are no loopholes," says Fadi Qanso, a doctor in the regional center, Baalbek.
Hashish has been the staple crop in the Bekaa for as long as anyone can remember, with opium poppies becoming increasingly important from the late 1970s on. The sudden clampdown has hit the area hard.
"The government has taken the hashish and left the people to starve," says Ali Shreif in Yammouneh. "Hashish yields enough money for people to afford schools, and for fuel and food to see them through the winter. But tomatoes and potatoes do not give enough money for winter."
Turning to potatoes and other legal crops, the farmers have found the market flooded and prices so low that they do not cover the cost of harvesting. The problem was compounded when the Syrians opening their nearby border, allowing cheaper Syrian produce in and undercutting the Lebanese.
"This year will be a famine for our people," says Dr. Qanso in Baalbek. "We are losing our livelihood, our prosperity. You cannot tell someone, `Don't grow hashish,' without having a plan to help them survive. We are not like a Colombian cartel here. Hashish has a low price and low profit. You don't see millionaires here."
International drug enforcement officials believe the Syrians have sponsored the apparent crackdown in order to impress the United States and remove one of the last barriers to respectability and American aid. But they remain to be convinced that it is a far-reaching, permanent move.
They argue that the bulk of the opium poppy crop was destroyed not by the authorities, but by an unusually harsh winter. The point is conceded by the man in charge of the recently formed Lebanese drug squad, Police Gen. Issam Abu Zaki.
"The hard winter destroyed 65 to 70 percent of the poppies, and the rest was destroyed by the Lebanese authorities in cooperation with the Syrian Army working in Lebanon," he says in his Beirut office.
General Abu Zaki is cautious about making extravagant claims. "We will have to wait till next year," he says when asked whether the crackdown will last.
His office walls are covered with testimonials of appreciation from Western enforcement agencies, including the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Secret Service. Abu Zaki says his squad has cooperated in at least 20 successful sting operations in Europe and the US over the past year.
The squad spends much of its time trying to deal with another, more recent, phenomenon - the smuggling into Lebanon of drugs grown elsewhere, which are then processed and re-exported. Opium comes in from Pakistan and Afghanistan through Turkey and Syria, and cocaine from Colombia.
International drug experts say the crackdown on growing in the Bekaa has had little overall effect so far on the level of drugs coming out of the country.
"Judging from the level of seizures, the volume is still the same," says one.
The chief of security at Beirut airport, Gen. Hajj Hassan, was arrested this spring and jailed for three years for connivance in smuggling Latin American cocaine into the country.
But alleged involvement in the lucrative trade by important Lebanese and Syrian figures, and its sheer importance to the Lebanese economy, make international agencies skeptical about the chances of the business being closed down once and for all.