Source: The Economist, 30/09/2010
THE mountains of Yemen are covered in green terraces growing qat, a mildly narcotic plant that takes up more than half the country’s arable land. Its shoots are gathered daily, packed in bags or wrapped in leaves and carried by lorry to noontime markets. A big fistful goes for about $2, depending on provenance, tenderness and taste.
In Sana’a, lunch is often large but hasty, eaten quickly to line the stomach for an afternoon’s chewing. Those not invited to a mafraj—a sunlit living-room at the top of Yemeni homes—chew qat in the street or at work.
It was not always like this. Thirty years ago, chewing qat leaves for their curious effect of physical relaxation and mental stimulation was an occasional pastime. Now more than half of Yemenis chew it daily. This has bad effects.
A World Bank report estimates that a quarter of working hours are spent chewing and that Yemenis spend money on qat instead of food for their often malnourished families. Irrigating qat is also a drain on water reserves that are anyway drying up fast. And it can cause oral cancer. A local pundit, frustrated by people’s reluctance to protest against Yemen’s poverty, corruption and violence, describes the people as “anaesthetised by qat”.
But proposals put forward by foreign lobbies and backed by the World Bank to eliminate the leaf have been met with dismay. At least 2,000 tonnes of qat are bought and sold in Yemen every day. This transfers money to the 70% of the population living in the countryside.
It supports more than 2.5m people and may discourage the growth of urban slums in a poor country with a fast-growing population. Alternative crops would be less profitable. Yemenis and Yemen-lovers bridle at the idea that this is a nation on drugs, pointing out that qat is weaker and less dangerous than alcohol.
Chewing qat is an unproductive hobby that has grown up in an unproductive country. One of Yemen’s millions of civil servants says he chews at work because there is little else to do.
The civil service is a social safety-net, paying its workers little money for less labour, but consuming government resources and stifling reform. Fuel subsidies, which make diesel-powered wells cheap to operate, encourage the cultivation of qat.
But as corrupt elites exploit subsidised fuel for their own gain, these handouts are unlikely to be cut anytime soon. A messy, tooth-rotting waste of time it may be, but qat is a symptom not a cause of Yemen’s problems.