Lifestyle

Uprooting Qat: Yemen’s new challenge

Ahmed is one of very few farmers in Yemen who would dare to uproot Qat, the tree who’s mildly stimulating leaves that are habitually chewed by the majority in Yemen – a noticeably lucrative crop.

“ I wanted to be a good example for others … I want to show them that Qat really is not a profitable crop,’’ said Ahmed, while his tractor was pulling Qat roots straight out of his field.

Uprooting Qat is considered a very remarkable step in Yemen, where Qat chewing is a deeply engrained custom, as many Yemenis believe that Qat as an emblem of social interaction; a group communion; an expression of commitment and conformity; a display of reciprocity; an opportunity for conspicuous consumption, and; a medium of social competition. Gradually, Qat has replaced almost all other forms of relaxation and socialising in Yemen.

In addition, nearly one third of the agricultural labour force is engaged in Qat production. That is one in every seven working Yemenis are employed in producing and distributing Qat, making it the second largest source of employment in the country, exceeding even employment in the public sector.

Farmers, who are mostly small plot-holders, like the fact that Qat is not a seasonal crop, that is, it can be brought to harvest during most months of the year. Qat can be harvested in small or large quantities according to the farmer’s need for money, and brings cash in on the very day of harvest.

“I don’t know why Ahmed is doing that? He will lost a crop (Qat) was providing him with daily income,’’ said a farmer while watching Ahmed’s tractor was uprooting the Qat.

“In Yemen, there is no other crop can ‘make money’ like Qat. Most farmers consider Qat as a fortune,’’ he added.

“What he will gain in a month for selling the potatoes, I can gain it in one day and one harvest of Qat,” commented anther farmer.

However Ahmed, despite his neighbours comments, showed determination and insistence to get rid of all Qat trees from his farm.

“Farmers are always alerted and concerned, as Qat cultivation requires round the clock efforts; most Farmers stay on the lands guarding the Qat leaves from thieves, which is very exhausting. Farmers also have to set up cloth tents on the Qat plantations to protect them from the frost during winter,” Ahmed said.

“Qat may need three layers frost protection, which inevitably costs the farmer a lot. Most farmers tend to integrate all his family’s members –wife and children in Qat cultivation which enforce the kids- especially girls to drop out the schools. The whole family also become subjected to dangerous health to risk due to the high amount of pesticides spray on Qat to grantee fast growing. That also impacts negatively the livestock as it gained less attention from the framers who consuming time either in planting Qat or chewing Qat, and above all these Qat consume huge amount of water, ’’ demonstrated Ahmed.

These strenuous efforts to grow Qat trees, however, has exacerbated the environmental, medical and social balances of one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

“Dhamar, for example, used to be the food basket of Yemen, I’m afraid it is not any more due to the aggressive expansion of Qat cultivation,” said Yahya Al-Omari, the governor of Dhamar.

He was pointing out one of the most adverse impacts of the excessive Qat farming in the country, a country which is now importing almost 80 percent of its food.

Thus, Yemen has been substantially affected by a state of food crisis since 2008, when the increase of food prices had a direct impact on many households, especially amongst the poor, who form 40 percent of the 22 million people in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Qat production is increasing by 10 percent a year, replacing food and exportable crops, leading to even further household impoverishment and food insecurity. The fact that nearly a fifth of children in Yemen are medically classified as malnourished soberly underlines the severity of the issue.

Qat has slowed development in Yemen, according to many national and international experts, as it noticeably deteriorates the economic, social, and medical conditions of its consumers, as well as draining the natural water table here.

The World Bank published in 2008 a study focused on the economic, social and medical impacts of Qat in Yemen. The study, which covered 4,027 Yemenis above the age of 12, and was carried out in seven of Yemen’s twenty one governorates, found out that Qat consumes 25 to 30% of household income and that chewing it generally occupies between 6 to 8 hours per day. The immediate consequence is a dramatic reduction in productive work time, and enormous loss of potential and disposable income.

Moreover, its cultivation has been threatening and even depleting the main water source in Yemen – groundwater – taking around 30% of the nation’s groundwater. Yemen, of late, is also undergoing critical water crisis. To add insult to injury, Qat causes further soil degradation by exhausting the natural soil nutrients.

The survey also highlighted the consumers’ perception regarding the health impacts, including the neuro-psychological effects of Qat, including insomnia, suppression of appetite and depression.

The somatic symptoms include high blood pressure, tooth decay, constipation, haemorrhoids and hernias. But more seriously is the alarming increase in cancer cases, liver cirrhosis and kidney disease, due to consumption of pesticide residues, some of which are quite toxic.

The high use of pesticides on the crop has contaminated drinking water as rainwater will be contaminated before it reaches village wells.

However, besides the adverse impacts on development in the country, Qat also causes adverse social effects. According to the survey, Qat chewing reduces quality time spent with children, and re-enforces gender separation.

It is also believed to cause a surprising number of domestic disputes over family expenditure and long hours away from the family.

Among youth, it is considered to encourage the use of other harmful substances, promotes idleness, and its inducement of depression leads to loss of hope for the future, resulting in apathy, short-tempers and anti-social behaviour.

The World Bank has since become involved in the matter. Their involvement has been on the request of the Yemeni government, which also started to take action against the tree since 1999, when the government adopted major polices aimed at regulating and taxing Qat, in attempt to reduce its production as well as its consumption among citizens.

However, due to weak governance in certain rural areas, insufficient implementation of taxation, and no enforcement of restrictions of Qat use in government offices – weakening the regulations credibility, have all been to the detriment of government efforts to curb Qat consumption and production.

Subsequently in 2007 the Yemeni Government, through the Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation, requested World Bank assistance in reviewing its policies and developing an agenda with the donor community.

The following year the World Bank integrated ‘’Qat Demand Reduction Agenda’ within the context of the Bank’s new Country Assistance Strategy (CAS).

“ Reducing Qat consumption comes within the Bank’s strategy objective to improve the quality of life of the most affected and vulnerable groups (women, children, and youths), low income communities, farmers, and the general public in Yemen,’’ said Julie Viloria, the head of the World Bank’s Qat Dialogue Task Force.

Through a set of interventions, involving close partnership with the government, civil society bodies, research institutions, private sector institutes (including the media and donor community), “the task team is embarking on supporting a comprehensive program to raise public awareness and education on Qat consumption, and its impact on people’s lives on the economy and on natural resources”, explained Viloria.

The Bank also intends to support research on selected topics such as medical and environmental research on Qat consumption, sociological research on Qat trading, as well as all its effect on the most vulnerable groups.

The World Bank, in cooperation with its partners plans to make available technical advice, equipment, infrastructure support and goods which would facilitate alternative livelihoods, including seedlings of alternative crops to farmers.

Worth mentioning is that although the widespread chewing of Qat in Yemen, the perception of this habit is rather negative, according to the World Bank survey. More than 70 percent of the respondents describe Qat chewing as a “bad habit”, that is “bad for the economy and bad for the nation’s image”.

Habitual users want to ‘kick the habit’ but simply cannot, either because of social pressures or because of a psychological dependency resulting from their prolonged use.

However, some locals, including figures, local NGO workers, and farmers have taken the initiative to find more useful crops to compete against Qat.

For example, in April 2009, the Governor of Dhamar has issued directives to the Corporation of Producing Improved Seeds to supply farmers who were willing to uproot qat and to replace it with alternative crops, with improved seeds.

About thirty eight types of seeds of wheat, corn, lentil and different kinds of grains have so far been distributed – all able to cope with the hard climatic conditions of the high plateau.

Technical guidance, as well as water tanks for irrigation has also been provided to farmers by the Dhamar Agricultural Office and the Agricultural Research and Extension Authority (AREA).

In addition farmers, who uprooted Qat, received the pledge that government companies would buy their products at favourable prices of above market value. Upon instruction of President Saleh, farmers have received in addition free of interest loans from the Agricultural Credit Bank of up to YR 200,000 (approx $ 1,000) per farmer in order to buy equipment for cultivating alternative crops.

In May 2010 the governor of Ibb Ahmad Abdullah Al-Hajri had kicked off the uprooting process of Qat trees in the Ashwal valley district and replacing them with grains and fruits as part of a forestation campaign.

Farmers in Haraz were convinced to uproot the Qat after a fatwa from their local religious leader that Qat is “Haram” or (illegal / immoral). The religious figure supported farmers financially to enable them to build small wells and replace Qat with Coffee trees.

“It’s very impressive to watch farmers, society, and local authorities cooperate together to get rid of this tree and its associated problems,’’ said Viloria while witnessing Ahmed finally uproot the Qat tree.