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Cannabis Lifts Kyrgyz Spirits

Growing numbers of Kyrgyz villagers are turning to drug production to escape poverty.
It is late August in Kyrgyzstan, and villagers in the Tiup and Ak-Sui districts around Lake Issyk-Kul are heading into the fields to harvest their crops. The locals, though, are not looking for ripe fruit and vegetables, but cannabis.

About one-third of the country's population, says the UN, works in harvesting and trading the plant, which grows wild and abundantly round Lake Issyk-Kul. Drug-users say the marijuana here is second in quality only to Afghan produce.

As more and more locals get involved in making hashish and marijuana, Emil Isaev, a local police chief, warns they will pay a high price, "At this rate, every 6th or 7th resident of the Tiup district will end up with a criminal record."

But the jail terms do not deter local harvesters, who include women and teenagers. "What else is there to do?" asks mother of six Damira, whose monthly child allowance of a few dollars does not cover her outgoings. "I've been making and packaging hash for three years. It's the only way I can pay for my children's schooling."

Her friend, Jamal even attributes her late pregnancy to work with cannabis plants. "I think in some strange way I owe my baby daughter, whom I gave birth to at 43, to cannabis," she said. "I had been unable to get pregnant, but when I started harvesting weed the whole time I succeeded. I thought my child might suffer health problems, but there's no sign of any."

Jamal described her colleagues' harvesting process, which involves rubbing the tops of the cannabis plants between the palms to get a layer of black resin before scraping it off with a knife and packaging it in matchboxes. The matchboxes, containing 20 to 30 grams, are sold for $2.5 - 3.5 to local dealers, though they can fetch a higher price of $10 - 14 if they are sold later on, in winter.

The local dealers then sell the produce to bigger dealers who tour the villages, before shipping their purchases to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, or farther afield to Russia.

For many locals in the Tiup district, hashish has long since become the main source of income and an alternative currency. One proud villager explained how he butchered his cow last spring and swapped the meat for 20 matchboxes of hash which he then sold in Bishkek for twice the price of the cow.

The understaffed local police face an uphill battle in curbing this profitable trade. Only seven officers cover 19 Issyk-Kul villages where weed harvesting thrives and they have no vehicles or telephones.

For their part, the locals make no secret of how much they have to pay the police to close their files. The price of silence ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 soms ($40 - 105), depending on the quantity of cannabis the police discover.

Police chief Isaev admits it is impossible to stamp out a trade which is integral to many people's survival. "We cannot put them all in jail for five to ten years, as the law demands," he said. "Farming machinery rents are high, as are fuel costs, so people cannot afford to work their land. Harvesting weed is their only solution. They have to do it to survive."

Some experts in Bishkek, moreover, fear the mass destruction of cannabis plants would upset a delicate environmental and ecological balance. They want more measured solutions, such as the encouragement of those types of butterfly whose larvae feed on the plants, reducing them naturally. Others want more work done on the positive medical side-effects of cannabis, such as investigation into the effect of cannabis on arthritis and rheumatism.

Felix Kulov, a former vice-president, floated plans in the early 1990s for the state to take the initiative in drug production, by growing managed opium plantations round Lake Issyk-Kul. The plan sank, as critics cited the negative experience of opium-growing Afghanistan. As far as the villagers in Issyk-Kul are concerned, higher living standards and alternative careers are the only solution. In the meantime, they trudge out to the fields, watched over by young men on horseback. It has become a way of life.

Venera Jumataeva is a RFE/RL correspondent in Bishkek.