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  • Title: [SW Column] (CHICAGO TRIBUNE ) Famine, war no match for drug (Qat)
  • From:[]
  • Date :[5 Jun 2000]


Famine, war no match for drug (Qat)

By Paul Salopek

CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Tribune Foreign Correspondent
June 3, 2000

CHELENKO, Ethiopia The hills around Aliyi Saido's fields are scorched the
color of sunburned skin.

For three years the crucial spring rains, soft showers called the belg, have
failed. The village's corn crop is burning up under a molten-white sun.
Alarmed United Nations officials, warning of another major humanitarian
catastrophe in the region should the skies remain cloudless, are doling out
emergency food to some 290,000 hungry farmers in the surrounding hills.

But old Aliyi, who claims to be 100, isn't worried. He is happily growing
qat. Even more happily, he is chewing it.

"God created qat, and he created us to use it," the white-bearded farmer
said, lying stupefied in the sparse shade of a thorn tree, his cheeks bulging
with gummy wads of leaves from the narcotic shrub Catha edulis.

"Qat likes dryness," he said, blinking compulsively and waving a gnarled hand
at his small but lush drug plot. "God has stopped the rain. We cannot grow
food. So we must grow qat instead. It is his will."

Divine intervention or not, qat, the stimulant of choice for impoverished
millions in Africa's Horn and the Arabian Peninsula, appears not only to be
holding its own but thriving in Ethiopia's brutal drought.

According to chagrined government officials, more and more of Ethiopia's
eastern highlands are being cultivated with the notorious shrub, thanks
largely to its natural drought resistance and a high selling price compared
to other cash crops.

Every day at dawn, dozens of battered, leaf-laden trucks and taxis rocket
down the windy mountain roads, rushing to fill the cravings of a qat network
that stretches from Ethiopia to Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia and even African and
Middle Eastern expatriate communities in faraway Europe and the U.S.

Qat is a booming business by Ethiopian standards. Bundles of the green,
bitter leaves, which when chewed trigger a mild high, sell for as much as $6
a pound in Ethiopian marketsfive times the price of coffee, another crop of
the region.

In the town of Dire Dawa, a two-hour's drive from farmer Aliyi's remote
fields, tens of thousands of dollars worth of fresh-cut qat are loaded daily
onto waiting planes for express delivery to clients abroad. The aircraft roar
over a landscape dotted with villages that are kept alive, just barely, by
grain donations from the UN.

"The qat planes have never stopped flying, even during the worst of this
spring's famine," said Roberta Rossi of the UN World Food Program in Addis
Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. "I don't think they really could stop. You've
got so many users in places like Yemen that if they went cold turkey, the
country would implode."

In truth, a growing public dependence on the alkaloids locked away in the
spindly, tea-like shrub has alarmed both producer and consumer nations of
qatand not just because the lucrative trappings of the drug trade jar
against a miserable backdrop of hunger and drought in one of the poorest
regions on the globe.

Qat (pronounced chat) has been used since antiquity in Africa's Horn and the
Middle East. Masticated in wads the size of a golf ball, the tender shoots of
the plant release cathine and cathinone, weak cocaine-like substances that
make the user talkative and giddy.

The drug, consumed in long, gabby chewing sessions by groups of men, was once
a luxury reserved for spiritual leaders and village elders.

With the breakdown of ancient social structures and the chaos of recurring
wars, millions of younger usersstill mainly menhave become hooked on the
leaves.

In Somalia, warlords buy their soldiers' loyalty in part with payments in
qat. The drug is considered so valuable that Somali truckers brave bandits to
shuttle half-ton loads of the plant across the desert borders of Ethiopia,
where the best qat is harvested at least twice a year.

The world's biggest addict, however, is just across the Red Sea in Yemen,
which both grows and imports the plants.

According to recent studies, as much as a third of the average Yemeni's
disposable income is spent on qat.

Yemen's bureaucracy essentially shuts down after lunchtime, as thousands of
male workers leave their offices for hourslong qat sessions with friends,
paralyzing government.

Last year, President Ali Abdallah Salih's announcement that he was giving up
qat and taking up exercise and computers as hobbies was greeted with
incredulity.

The appetite for the drug even propels qat shipments as far as distant
African and Arabic immigrant communities in Britain and the eastern United
States. But such illicit trafficking is minor, experts say, because the
plants lose their potency after 48 hours. Qat is considered a controlled
substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the qat industry stranger or more glaring,
though, than in drought-haunted Ethiopia, where millions of dollars worth of
the drug is grown and shipped with an efficiency unseen elsewhere in that
country.

Though no solid statistics exist on Ethiopia's qat trade, several million
pounds of the leaves are believed to be harvested and shipped abroad every
week.

Growing the shrub is legal, though frowned on by the government, which has
tried to replace qat plantations with food crops. The country's former
Marxist dictatorship, which fell in 1991, once ordered all the plants chopped
down. The farmers dutifully complied, knowing that the weedy shrub would
promptly grow back.

This year, even as the world's largest conventional war raged with
neighboring Eritrea and international television crews descended on the
country to tape wrenching scenes of starving herders, Ethiopia's qat pipeline
never hiccuped, much less dried up. In fact, the opposite appears to have
happened.

"People are switching to qat," said Kadir Mummedie, a field agent with
Ethiopia's Agriculture Ministry who works in the rocky mountains of the Harar
district, a prime qat-growing region.

"Food crops are failing and the price of coffee is down," Kadir said.
"Besides, coffee gets diseases. It cannot withstand drought. So today qat
gives people a buffer against famine."

One case in point is the family of Abdul Rahman, 30, who was out working his
parched terraces one afternoon with a plastic bag of qat looped through his
belt for easy chomping.

"The rains have failed completely this year, so we must sell a little qat to
buy some food, or soap or clothes," Abdul said between green-stained teeth.
"Qat also helps kill the hunger."

In fact, the alkaloids in the plants suppress appetite to such an extent that
severe addicts in the qat fields appear anorexic; it is one of the many
ironies of the drug trade in Ethiopia's famine zone. Fidgety and hyped-up
principally from the effects of cathinone, the addicts wander the dusty
streets of highland villages with glazed eyes, chattering manically.

Other qat-related paradoxes abound. Even untrained eyes can register that
Ethiopia's drug-growing villages are richer than their wheat or
sorghum-planting neighbors. There are more shiny new tin roofs. Yet
qat-dependent villages are also dirtier, as public pride gives way to endless
afternoons of drugged reveries.

Thousands of the empty, sun-bleached plastic bags that once held leaves swirl
down dirt roads.

Yet if qat is edging out crops such as coffee or sugar cane in starving
Ethiopia, some experts doubt it will ever pose a big risk to food security in
the future.

"Is it increasing? Yes. Will it worsen the famines here by competing with
food crops? I don't think so," said Volli Carucci, a land conservation
specialist with the World Food program.

"Even qat needs water," said Carucci, an Italian whose international agency
currently helps feed more than 7 million Ethiopians facing food shortages
this yearmore than 10 percent of the population.

"You also need access to roads to get your harvest out in 48 hours or it's no
good," he said. "Qat will always remain a secondary crop."

To bolster his point, Carucci led the way one recent afternoon through the
bazaars of Dire Dawa, the trading town where roughly $150,000 in Ethiopian
qat, or some 25,000 pounds of the leaves, were shipped out of the country
daily. He wanted to show that there was more to Ethiopia than the
hollow-bellied threat of famine and qat. He wanted to prove that locally
grown coffee was as abundant in the markets.

One trader, sprawled behind his scarred wooden counter and munching a ball of
leaves, blinked in confusion and held up a bottle of Nestle's instant coffee.

 


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