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Qat in North Yeman - The Controversies

Qat, Catha edulis Forsk, an evergreen shrub of the African staff-tree family, is the only species of its genus. Its leaves contain a high percent vitamin C and several alkaloids. When the leaves are chewed and the juices swallowed, the alkaloids act as stimulants to produce a mild "high" which lasts for several hours.

The increasing production and use of qat in North Yemen has become a highly charged issue. Many Yemenis and foreigners contend that qat is a society-wide evil that saps Yemeni people's health, vigor and resources. They call it a drug and equate its destructive potential with that of marijuana. "The consumption of qat has become a social and economic sickness that is debilitating national growth. Qat growing has expanded very rapidly, forcing agricultural resources to be increasingly diverted to this crop," claims one Yemeni observer. Some believe that qat chewing violates the Koranic injunction on intoxicating substances and should be banned along with alcohol.

Many other people, however, are unwilling to support a ban on qat production, sale or use. Many, including some political figures, grow the crop and make a comfortable living from it. Others feel that it provides a forum for valuable social interaction. Poets and musicians say it inspires them. Some people argue that there is no evidence it is addictive and, therefore, chewing it does not contravene the Koranic proscriptions. Finally, many believe that much more research must be done on all aspects of qat production, marketing and use before such decisions can be made.

Relatively little formal research has been done on the economic and social aspects of the use of qat. While some research investigated the medical aspects of qat, much of it has focused on physiological properties rather than on correlations to illnesses or debilitation. The information available clearly demonstrates that the production and use of qat can have both helpful and harmful effects.

Migrants' Remittances Stimulate Production

Qat, which originated in the Ethiopian highlands, was brought to North Yemen along with coffee many centuries ago. Because it has specific altitude, water, sun and shade requirements, the range where it can be cultivated is limited. North Yemen's erratic rainfall also limits qat production. Until recently the lack of modern technology and difficult terrain made it almost impossible to transport the qat anywhere except to local markets, and prevented it from becoming a major cash crop.

Within the last decade and a half, remittances from Yemeni migrants working throughout the oil-producing Arab countries have been used to install pumpwells and irrigation systems in some areas to provide water for qat. The amount of land under qat production is not readily known, but it is believed to have doubled within the last decade. According to one author, before 1970 qat was grown on 15 percent of the land in one region but in 1980 on 30 percent of the land.

Production Reduces Local Food Crops

Agricultural assessments by foreign donor agencies report that qat is virtually the only crop grown in some places. Coffee, which requires many of the same growing conditions as qat, has traditionally been grown in the same regions and often interspersed with qat. Many people fear that the increased qat production has been at the expense of other crops, specifically coffee. Since qat is not exported, it does not bring in foreign currency. Individuals who oppose qat production and use argue that increasing qat production has reduced exports and forced the country to increase food imports. They claim that coffee trees are being uprooted to make way for new qat bushes.

Little evidence is available to verify these assertions. Qat production has increased significantly while coffee production has decreased. However, qat is a hardier plant than coffee and for the past several years North Yemen has had poor rainfall; qat shrubs may only be replacing coffee plants that have died. Qat is also a less labor-intensive crop than coffee; with more men working outside the country as migrants, farmers have had to switch to a crop that can be managed with available labor.

In some areas, the farmers have moved grain production to more marginal terraces to grow qat on the better ones. In other areas, qat has replaced all grain crops. People in qat-producing areas must import grains and foodstuffs, but they do not buy only foreign imports. Some evidence indicates that qat producers buy some goods from neighboring areas that cannot grow qat. Thus, production in those areas is stimulated and trade linkages between regions strengthened. Increased qat production has also stimulated an increase in certain other crops, particularly bananas, as fresh qat is wrapped in banana leaves to stay moist and fresh on the way to market.

Qat Terraces Maintained

Qat production has also forced farmers to maintain not only their own terraces but those at higher altitudes whose deterioration might threaten all terraces. With so many migrants sending back enough money for their families to buy foodstuffs, many families no longer grow their own and have stopped maintaining their terraces, particularly the more marginal ones. Untended terraces wash out in seasonal rains and cause those below to deteriorate. Qat land is far too valuable to be allowed to wash away, so qat farmers keep the terraces in good condition. In addition, since qat land is expensive, few people can afford to buy extensive tracts of it; no big landlords have emerged from qat production. Qat plots are kept within families rather than sold.

It is important to note, however, that because qat is a cash crop it is also a man's crop. Women have little to do with qat production in most parts of the country. It is unknown whether the switch to qat production has affected women's influence in their families, but such a change is likely.

Merchants Market Farmers' Qat

Most people agree that qat leaves, which lose their freshness, potency and appeal rapidly, should be sold and chewed within a day of being picked. Since farmers seldom market their own crops, a network of merchants buy the qat from the farmers and quickly transport it to various markets, depending on expected prices and competition.

Qat, an evergreen, can produce new leaves anytime of year, one to three times year, if it has sufficient water. When qat is plentiful, such as after a rainy season, the prices are lower; but when qat is more scarce during the dry seasons, the prices rise. Traders cannot predict whether there will be a glut of qat on the market on any given day. Anyone who brings in a large load might not be able to sell it all or to sell it for a good price, and cannot store it for another day. To avoid losing potentially substantial amounts, traders prefer to bring small loads frequently rather than large loads occasionally.

Marketing Stimulates Economy

Marketing qat has provided employment for an extensive network of pickers, drivers and traders. Because qat cannot be stored, no one has established a monopoly or even a major influential interest in the qat trade. The coffee trade, by contrast, has enabled merchants to form controlling companies. As one observer wrote, "One could say that coffee is, in a sense, an aristocratic crop, qat a democratic one".

Marketing qat has also stimulated road building and water projects in areas which lacked these. New roads and imported vehicles in turn allow traders to reach ever-expanding markets. Income from qat has been used to bring electricity to rural homes. In addition, qat-producing areas have lower rates of out-migration since employment is provided locally. Those who do work abroad maintain strong ties to their homes and are involved in local or family decisions.

Overall the net economic result of increased qat production is mixed. While it has reduced local food self-sufficiency and may have reduced women's role in agriculture, it has provided employment, resisted the creation of monopolistic powers, stimulated locally-financed infrastructural development and maintained agriculture in areas where it might easily decline. In one study of the economic aspects of the qat trade, the researcher concluded "that the crop has performed a kind of holding operation" and that the revenues from qat "are equivalent in their effects to the agricultural subsidies which many Third World governments make to rural districts to keep agriculture viable and to prevent the rural-urban population drift which is familiar throughout the developing world".

Qat Chewing Signifies a Comfortable Living

Before the boom in qat production started a pattern of almost daily consumption, only wealthy and influential men near qat-producing areas could afford to buy qat with any frequency. Qat chews were held mostly for special social occasions: marriages, political events and certain religious festivals. As a result, hosting qat chews was a sign of prestige and wealth.

Initially, people used migrant remittances for major purchases such as land, a car, a pumpwell or a bride. More recently, due to a relative lack of other investment opportunities, remittances have gone toward consumer goods. Qat is increasingly the most common; chewing it every afternoon demonstrates that one can comfortably support one's family.

Qat Chews Increase Social Interaction

Qat chews in North Yemen are typically social occasions held after lunch, the main meal of the day. Though segregated by sex, the gatherings express the egalitarian ethos that is so important in Yemeni society, since men of several different classes or backgrounds gather in the same place and are seated on the same level. The same is true of women who chew qat in their groups, although not as much nor as often nor for as long. Attendance is not "required," but in North Yemen, where the literacy rate is less than 25 percent, oral communication and inter-personal exchanges are still highly-valued sources of information.

Most chews have no formal agenda, although some are held specifically to discuss a certain issue. People gather in the public room of someone's house and come and go as they wish. They bring their own qat or share with others. Participants recite poetry or play music to entertain each other, but mostly the chews provide a forum for business contacts, for the exchange of information and for discussion of local news and interests. In a society that prizes independent thought and behaviour, the chews allow people to discuss problems and air views without formal public commitment to them. Thus people can informally work toward reaching a consensus or agreement on public concerns.

Critics of qat usage believe that daily qat chews use time that that might be more productively used in business or agriculture. They argue that while men invest time and all their money on qat, their wives and children remain in rags and starving. Such critics also accuse frequent qat chewers of being lazy; yet many Yemeni workers, stonemasons for example, claim that they are more alert, and work longer and harder after chewing.

Such claims may be true; there is little evidence to prove or disprove them. Whether families are seriously deprived of food and support due to qat expenditures is unknown. Generally the social effects of qat production and usage seem to have been positive. Qat production and marketing have not resulted in economic differentiation, and people of many different backgrounds and social standings have an opportunity to meet and talk with each other, to exchange views and information and to establish contacts at qat chews.

Qat Not Addictive

Correlation To Disease Possible

It is not clear whether chewing qat is correlated to particular diseases, but some evidence suggests that it is. Since qat is an ingested drug, it has some effect on the gastrointestinal system, including inflammations of the mouth, esophagus and stomach and their linings. Qat, which acts as an appetite suppressant, may also be associated with anorexia and hepatotoxicity (liver poisoning), as well as possibly cause constipation and even hemorrhoids.

Qat chewing may also have several systemic effects, including arrhythmia, and is associated with an increase in basal metabolism. Since qat acts as a stimulant, chewers' eyes become dilated, and they often suffer from insomnia. Qat may have some effects on the endocrine system as well, and might cause hypoglycemia and hyperthyroidism. Qat chewing may also inhibit the production of breast milk in women. This in turn may contribute to infant malnutrition; when the mothers who are unable to produce their own milk switch to milk powders, they often over-dilute the powders.

These various physiological effects, however, seem to pose problems only after long and extensive use. Thus, it is not the use of qat that is problematic, but the abuse. On the positive side, qat chewing may provide some medical benefits. Since qat chewing causes bronchial passages to dilate, it may be a useful treatment for asthma sufferers. Some investigators have also suggested that it might be useful as an antidepressant. In addition, qat may provide a valuable source of vitamin C for people in areas where fresh fruits are usually unavailable.

More Research Needed

One cannot make a blanket statement that qat is good or bad. Qat production does not help North Yemen's trade balance. Furthermore, it diverts resources and efforts away from capitalist investments. Yet, qat production provides employment, discourages economic differentiation, stimulates agricultural and infrastructural development and helps stabilize rural populations. Furthermore, under current ecological and economic conditions, qat seems to be a more rational investment than many other possibilities. Socially, qat chews provide a forum for interpersonal exchange that no other mechanism in the society provides. Medically, it may have serious deleterious effects, but more information is needed before a judgment can be made.

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