As the harvest season draws near, Ali has been kept busy by the inspection of his crop. He rolls a few red coffee beans in his palms, taking pleasure in their fresh aroma, and a sigh of contentment escapes his lips. It has been two years since he uprooted Qat from his farm, a decision he now reflects should have been taken much earlier.
As the agriculture sector around the world focuses more attention on sustainable farming, farmers in Yemen are facing a crisis of their own in the form of an intoxicating crop that undermines any attempt at sustainability: Qat (Catha edulis).
Today, most farmlands in Yemen are overwhelmingly burdened by the growth of Qat. This is unsurprising given the fact that nearly 85% of the population consumes it on a daily basis. Chewing Qat as a social norm has not only inhibited the population’s health but has also negatively impacted their work ethic and ability to earn a living.
Yemen, which was once known to the Romans as Arabia Felix for its fertile and lush environment, still provides a conducive climate for farmers, particularly for growing coffee, a popular cash crop renowned for its Arabica blend around the world. Indeed, the farmlands of Yemen have the potential to boost commerce through agriculture.
There are of course many reasons for the extensive growth of Qat. It requires less water for growth, thus making it a convenient alternative for farmers as irregular rainfall leads to water shortages. Furthermore, it is a profitable crop in local markets since a majority of the population uses it on a daily basis. Finally, it is a seemingly self-sustaining crop that requires less intervention from farmers. These reasons inspire a short-term approach to farming without any sustainability.
Agriculturally, one of the most notable factors of Qat’s disrepute is that its growth has a debilitating effect on the soil as it reduces fertility and depletes the level of groundwater. The terrace farms, which carpet the region were meant to be a naturally robust system of harvesting rainwater and conserving soil fertility. Unfortunately, increased Qat cultivation has made farmers reduce the time spent on their fields and hampered the maintenance of the terraces. When the retention walls of these terraces are left unchecked and allowed to wear thin, it causes rainwater to slide off the edges, eroding the fertile soil.
For an extensive period of time, farmers of Yemen’s Dawoodi Bohra community were also caught up in growing Qat. However, it was the late Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s RA intervention and perseverance that charted a new path for the community. Through repeated words of counsel and a clear plan of action, His Holiness RA initiated a proactive campaign of uprooting Qat and replacing it with more sustainable cash crops such as coffee and different types of fruit.
As early as 1999, the campaign took root in the mountainous Haraaz region south of the capital Sanaa, where the Dawoodi Bohras predominantly live. It didn’t come easy as growing Qat was not just a means to financial security, but had become a deep-set habit, making the task all the more daunting.
Mr Shabbir Ezzi of al-Ezzi industries based in Sanaa recounts that Qat was always occupying arable land and the population displayed what he calls a ‘backward attitude’ towards farming. He adds ‘a bad habit compounded by laziness had led to lack of innovation in the agricultural sector. The problem was not that Qat did not provide income; rather that it was an easy source of income. Once people started uprooting the trees and ventured into other areas of farming, they realised the many opportunities that lay ahead.’
After the passing of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA, his successor Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS took up his father’s work with renewed zeal. He continued to provide support to farmers by constructing water reservoirs and providing Qardan Hasana (interest free loans) to those willing to depart from the former practice and venture into alternative farming.
The farmers began to substitute Qat with coffee, fruit and other food crops, along with supplementary practices such as honey bee rearing and animal husbandry. The campaign included uprooting Qat trees and setting up a mechanism of sustainability where the farmers’ coffee produce is purchased at a stable minimum-guaranteed price. This is to ensure liquidity for the farmers in the delicate period of transition.
Mr Ezzi says that the transition is based on the age-old concept of ʿāniya (co-operation) where a mass co-operative model has been set up to provide an easy and sustainable means of development for all stakeholders.
‘You can see that it’s on the right track’, continues Mr Ezzi, saying that when he had a one on one conversation with representatives of the World Trade Organisation, they were impressed by the workings of this co-operative campaign, and contended that it had the potential of becoming a model of profitability in agricultural sectors elsewhere. The steady income from this system is making Bohra farming communities more confident about their choice to uproot Qat.
‘We have built an end to end system of transparency and integration with an eye towards marketing these products internationally where the demand is high’, says Mr Ezzi adding that ‘It was deemed next to impossible, yet Syedna’s vision of a Qat-free Haraz has been realised and the community has started reaping the benefits. The late Syedna Burhanuddin RA once stated: ‘When you abandon using Qat and cultivating it in your fields, felicity will rain upon you, your soil will become fertile and fruitful and good fortune will swiftly return.’
The UN has included sustainable agriculture in its sustainable development goals to achieve ‘zero hunger’ by 2030. The Dawoodi Bohra community continues to engage with farmers across different regions and encourages sustainable farming practices to enhance individual and global prospects in agriculture.
Click here to learn more about the Dawoodi Bohra Qat eradication campaign in Yemen.