The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Turning weed to wine, helping Bekaa farmers go straight
Hashish is widespread in the valley with many relying on it for their livelihood
DEIR AL-AHMAR, Lebanon: Kneeling on a pile of red stones and rubble, Maroun Habshi checked the irrigation system running from the newly built artificial lake to the nearby rows of grape vines.
Habshi is a member of the Coteaux d’Heliopolis Cooperative and, like many of the 207 farmers in the Bekaa Valley collective, before becoming a viticulturist he used to grow hashish, or marijuana.
“I felt like I was doing a dirty job and I constantly lived in fear,” Habshi told The Daily Star. “Now, finally, I can have peace of mind.”
Hashish cultivation is widespread in the Bekaa Valley with many relying on the illegal crop for their livelihoods. In an attempt to curb the illicit trade, the Lebanese authorities periodically raid the area to destroy the crops and arrest its producers.
“Many think the hashish business is easy and profitable, but this is untrue,” Habshi said. In the dry land of the Bekaa Valley, hashish plantations are an alluring option for many in the poor, often lawless region.
While police raids have not been frequent since the onset of the war in Syria, the price drop that followed the closure of the border means the business is still difficult.
While authorities have repeatedly pledged to help farmers find an alternative source of income to hashish, to this day the Coteaux d’Heliopolis Cooperative remains the only one providing a credible solution.
The collective started in the 1999 when Chawki al-Fakhri – the cooperative’s president – and three other farmers came together to try and help the residents of Deir al-Ahmar leave the illicit trade.
The visit of a French PHD student, who was there to assess the suitability of the Bekaa’s climate for grape production, persuaded the farmers to try their luck in the wine business.
Thanks to funding from the French Social affairs Ministry, the cooperative received its first vines and encouraged farmers to grow them alongside their hash production until they became profitable. The grapes the collective produced were then sold to other major vineyards in the country.
Today, the cooperative farms over 240 hectares and yields 700 tons of grapes for wine making.
“We are not only growing grapes, we are cultivating the culture of wine,” Charbel al-Fakhri, the legal representative of the cooperative and the son of its current president, explained. “Farmers take pride in their work and have entered a field that has the potential to grow.”
According to Fakhri, the fact that farmers believe in Coteaux d’Heliopolis is already a success in itself. “The Bekaa farmers feel abandoned and are deeply skeptical of anyone who offers to help,” he said. “Therefore, gaining their trust and making them trust the cooperative has been a difficult but rewarding process.”
Coteaux d’Heliopolis managed to pull through difficult times in 2013, when production exceeded the demand from local wine producers and part of the harvest was thrown away. Together with his partner Walid Habshi – also one of the cooperative’s founders – Fakhri stepped in with a private investment to lend a hand.
“We set up a winery that could buy the surplus [grape] and use it to produce its own wine,” he said. Named Couvent Rouge it currently produces an average of 500,000 bottles per year and is being renovated to host its first visitors.
The winery’s main labels, Couvent Rouge and Coteaux Les Cedres, are already being distributed across Lebanon and are starting to reach the international market.
In 2015, Al-Dayaa – a new wine, fully labeled in Arabic – was introduced so that the villagers could have a product entirely catered to them.
“Wine consumption is slowly expanding in the Bekaa, even if the region’s beverages of [choice] are whiskey and arak,” Fakhri said.
The Lebanese wine industry has boomed since the ’90s, going from only five wineries to 40 in 2016 and producing more than 7 million bottles per year.
However, growing grapes for wine takes time to become profitable and initiatives like Coteaux d’Heliopolis are indispensable for farmers who do not have the possibility to wait three to four years for their new business so eventually become self-sustainable.
Several experts have been constantly pushing for the legalization of hashish, arguing that such a move would boost Lebanon’s economy and put an end to the farmers’ precarious situation.
“During the Syrian invasion of Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley experienced a level of wealth it never witnessed before,” economist Marwan Iskandar told The Daily Star. “If hashish were to be legalized, this would be a more profitable option for the Bekaa and for the entire country,” he added.
However, Said Gedeon, deputy general manager of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in the Bekaa and a longtime supporter of the cooperative, has a different take. “We have to think about simple solutions that do not require big political decisions,” he said, adding that the region is facing depopulation due to the lack of sustainable livelihoods.
One of the founding fathers of the cooperative – who wished to remain anonymous – was himself on the verge of leaving the Bekaa after he was sentenced to six months in jail for growing hashish.
“A farmer who has no water still has to cultivate something to survive,” he told The Daily Star, adding that even when farmers manage to sell their legal harvest, the profit is only a fraction of what the illegal drug would fetch. “Those who profit from this business are the big mafia bosses. The farmers are the ones who suffer from it.”