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BAB BERRED, Morocco — For generations this remote mountainous town has been the heart of Morocco's cannabis-growing area, where farmers earned a reasonable living from cultivating marijuana.
Although growing cannabis was officially illegal, authorities turned a blind eye and farmers had fields of the leafy green weed.
But now farmers are angry that they are being forced to pay bribes to local police to continue growing the crop.
In this village, in the heart of the Rif Mountains, thousands of farmers protested while the police and the army watched helplessly.
“Long live the king!” chanted the crowd, invoking Morocco’s ruler as a shield from police repression. “Stop stealing from us!”
Thousands of families live off the cultivation of cannabis in this region that stretches more than 11,000 square miles. The growing of cannabis is commonly referred to as "the culture of kif," (kif is a term for the dried bud of the female marijuana plant). Farmers say the area's harsh climate makes it impossible to grow anything else.
Although it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, it remains one of Morocco’s most lucrative sources of income. Morocco is estimated to have grown 53,000 tons of cannabis in 2005, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of the marijuana is processed into hashish. European countries complain that Morocco is the prime source of the cannabis smuggled into their territories.
The Moroccan government claims to be cracking down on hashish production in accordance with several international treaties.
Since 2003, Morocco has received $28 million euros from the European Union to eradicate the cultivation of cannabis. In addition the United States has given $43 million, between 2005 and 2012, to help farmers find new crops to replace marijuana.
In the past year, Moroccan authorities have cracked down on cannabis production using different strategies, including burning fields.
Marijuana is still openly grown in the villages in the Rif mountains but the farmers claim that their already meager income is now being dramatically reduced by authorities who demand bribes to allow the cultivation to continue.
"There are no alternatives in this region — we are currently in the fifth generation of kif culture — this region needs assistance,” explained Abdellah Ljout, a local representative and social activist. “People are not saying they want to cultivate cannabis. They say they want to survive. They are ready to stop if they find another dignified way to earn a living."
Ljout said he thinks the solution starts first with the political will to eradicate the illegal crop in a region where cannabis has been cultivated for more than 100 years.
The Moroccan government — which declined to comment for this story — enforces the law erratically, he said.
Attempts by police to search one farmer's house for cannabis sparked the anger of the local population. Military and police trucks surrounded the house at 4 a.m. on April 10. But the farmer’s wife barred entry and dozens of neighbors gathered around to support the family.
The next day, an estimated crowd of 10,000 people — mostly young men — gathered in the main street of the village to voice their anger.
Villagers say that the local authorities regularly threaten them with warrants to prevent them from talking. They make sure farmers know that they can arrest them at any time they choose. The authorities invoked the presence of illegal weapons as an excuse to search the house.
"They accused us of having weapons and I told them we did not have any. A policeman checked my father-in-law's house and didn’t find anything,” said Abdelouaret El Bohidi, a cannabis farmer. ”Here, everyone knows each other. They know there aren't any weapons and that we are against weapons.”
In the region, there are a few palatial houses owned by a handful of farmers and middlemen who have profited from cannabis cultivation and the production of hashish. But the vast majority of locals struggle to earn a decent living in the face of obligatory bribes and poor weather conditions.
El Bohidi produces about 10 kilos a year that he sells at $300 each. He says that he has no choice but to bribe the local authorities. But it was the bribery payments to local authorities that brought these cultivators to break their silence.
"This is everything I own: I use it to buy grains, wheat, oil, soap, school books. I use it to pay electricity,” said El Bohidi, referring to a bag of marijuana. “If they take this from me, I will lose my mind. I won’t have anything left to feed my children.”
One farmer who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation said that two or three times a year he has to bribe the authorities. They usually come to his house and bargain over his freedom.
"If you don't give them anything, you go to jail,” he said. “They have nothing to lose. They throw you in jail to set you as an example to the others."
The farmers want the government to take a strong stance to stop the harassment for bribes.
"If they want to forbid us to cultivate, they should tell us on television, or our elected officials should tell us,” said Mohamed Amaghir, another farmer. “We will cultivate something else if they give us the means to do it. All we are asking for is a piece of bread and nothing else."