Yemenis find attempts to ban qat tough to swallow

A plant leaf may not seem the sturdiest of materials, yet in Yemen it makes up one of the few bridges that straddle the country's yawning political, geographical and economic divides. Hakim Almasmari reports from Sanaa

SANAA // A plant leaf may not seem the sturdiest of materials, yet in Yemen it makes up one of the few bridges that straddle the country's yawning political, geographical and economic divides.

Each day, millions of Yemenis - often in rooms specially set aside for the purpose - gather together to chew the leaves of the qat plant, which releases a mild stimulant. It is a social custom that dates back thousands of years.

"Our grandparents chewed it, and it has been in our lives for centuries. Qat is Yemen and Yemen is qat," said Salem Al Sarari, who grows the leaf on his farm in the south-central province of Al Baitha.

All the more surprising, then, that a campaign aimed at curbing qat use in some public places is gaining momentum here.

Turning to social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, young Yemeni activists a year ago launched a "no qat" campaign, saying it mirrors everything that is broken in Yemen society. Activists want the government to take firm steps against use of the drug, which while legal here is classified by the World Health Organisation as a narcotic.

Starting with a few dozen protesters gathering outside parliament, the campaigners have won the endorsement of 30 MPs, as well as the country's ministers of education, information and human rights.

The protesters created a foundation, which introduced legislation that would ban qat in all state facilities and impose increasingly stringent rules on its cultivation.

Although there is no age limit on qat use in Yemen and children as young as 10-years-old can be seen with their cheeks bulging with qat, there was resistance to the draft law among lawmakers.

"One of the MP's was angered and said that qat is 'green gold' and cannot be banned," said Hind Al Eryani, who has spearheaded the campaign, partly from Beirut, where One of the MP's was angered and said that qat is 'green gold' and cannot be banned," said Hind Al Eryani, who has spearheaded the campaign, partly from Beirut, but is a Yemeni-based social media activist.

Any bid to curtail qat use runs squarely up against tradition, not least weddings, where chewing qat is almost mandatory.

Undeterred, the campaigners in November organised the first qat-free wedding in the capital Sanaa.

"We wanted to change the perception that people can't enjoy weddings without qat. We proved they can and people were dancing and all were happy," Mrs Al Eryani said.

Beyond the physical addiction caused by regular qat use, anti-qat protesters say Yemen's dependence on qat creates environmental mayhem.

Between 60-65 per cent of the country's total groundwater resources are devoted to qat cultivation, according to the agriculture ministry in Yemen. Tens of thousands of qat trees are planted every year in Yemen, as farmers give up planting coffee in favour of growing qat.

"We were once famous for our coffee, not qat," said Abdullah Shaban, a businessman considered a role model because of his role in supporting residents in the area, especially farmers, among Haraz residents. "We wanted to take lead and show Yemenis that other options do exist."

Against this tide of custom and high economic stakes, the anti-qat campaigners are determined but not starry-eyed. There is historical precedent, too.

The last person to have seriously lobbied against qat was in 1972, when the then-prime minister, Mohsin Al Aini, banned qat chewing in all public offices.

Al Aini was greeted with death threats and soon forced from office.