CASABLANCA, Morocco — Early January, in Taounate, a little village in the Moroccan mountains of the Rif region, almost eight tons of cannabis were seized in three farmers’ homes.
Last June, right after the Bab Berred revolt, three helicopters dropped pesticides on plantations in the region to burn the fields. As the political will to eradicate the production of the illegal crops grows, observers say there are few measures to help the region’s inhabitants as they lose their main source of income.
“Eradication should not precede economic development or even accompany it,” said Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, and author of several books on the geopolitics of illicit drugs. “It should come afterward and only in case of necessity. Alternative development never had the expected success. It lacked political will, financial resources, persistence and it was flawly designed.”
Morocco, the world’s leading producer and exporter of kif (the dried bud of the female marijuana plant), according to the United Nations, has for decades tolerated the illegal production of cannabis that allows an entire region to survive.
More than 70 percent of European countries in 2008 claimed that Morocco was their prime source of cannabis (either directly, or via Spain or the Netherlands), according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. These countries have pressured Morocco to take action to significantly reduce its production of the drug.
In the past few years, the country has started to crack down on production of the crop and has invested millions in not only burning the fields but also helping farmers cultivate other kinds of crops. Since 2003, Morocco has received €28 million ($38 million) from the European Union to eradicate the cultivation of cannabis and signed several treaties pledging to do so. In addition, the United States donated $43 million to help farmers find new crops to replace hashish.
In theory, such a plan should work. In reality, though, it has faced many challenges and experts say it is likely to fail in the long run.
The Rif region suffers from extremely difficult climatic conditions and offers very little earning opportunities for its people. During the reign of King Hassan II, which ended with his death in 1999, the country lacked an economic development program. Since Mohammed VI became king, he has launched several projects to develop the Rif region, left neglected for decades: A port was built in Tangier and another one is in construction in the eastern city of Nador to make the north of the country more economically attractive.
But more needs to be done, says Chouvy. He says the solution centers on an effective regional and national development strategy that would promote the almost complete eradication of the production of cannabis over the next three decades.
“The eradication of cannabis production should not be the goal of development programs: It must be an indicator of their success,” said Chouvy. “The farmers who make a living from it will eventually decide themselves to abandon an economic activity that isn’t profitable.”
Farmers in Bab Berred who survive solely on the cultivation of the crop told GlobalPost in May how dire the situation is for them.
"This is everything I own: I use it to buy grains, wheat, oil, soap, school books, pay for electricity,” said Abdelouaret El Bohidi, a farmer, pointing 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.”
The farmers said that so far, they haven’t found another way to survive.
“We will cultivate something else if they give us the means to do it,” said Mohamed Amaghir, another farmer. “All we are asking for is a piece of bread and nothing else."
There is an urgent need for new sources of survival, says Chouvy.
“Eradication will only aggravate the underlying factors that lead farmers to produce such crops: poverty and hunger,” he said.
The attempts to wipe out production have also affected the lives of others, namely consumers. The price of hashish has doubled even tripled over the past few years depending on quality.
“Five years ago, the best quality hashish was from Ketama — it was $30 for 12.5 grams — and now the price has doubled and it’s hard to find it,” explained Salim, a regular hashish buyer. “Even bad quality hash has become expensive. ‘Farkhacha,’ a mixed product used to be only 10 dirhams [$1.50] and is now 60 or 70 dirhams [$7 0r 8.50.]”
As a result, many drugs dealers have stopped selling hashish and have turned to more profitable sources of income: harder drugs.