Catherine Shakdam
Last updated: 13 January, 2012

Yemen says no to narcotic plant Qat

As Yemenis continue their on-going fight to permanently oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh from the country’s political scene, activists have decided to fight another type of enemy which they believe is as much a danger to their country as dictatorship.

For generations, Yemenis across the board, regardless of their social background have been chewing a leafy green plant called Qat which amongst other things leave its consumers subdued and prone to dependency.

Although classified as a mild narcotic, the effects of the plant on Yemen’ society have been catastrophic. The plant which has become a favorite amongst farmers due to its astonishingly quick growth span, its resistance to drought and harsh terrain as well as its high revenue yield is now threatening the country’s water reserves, with specialists warning that depletion levels are now irreversible in many regions.

Qat takes on average 4 times more water than a tomato plant would, without however providing the nutrients of a vegetable or a fruit. Because Yemeni farmers for obvious economic reasons have turned away from traditional farming to the benefiting of the leafy green, Yemen has had to import most of its food, accentuating the gap between its food production and consumption.

But more disturbingly, the plant has had negative effects on Yemen’ society as a whole.

Highly dependent on the drug-like plant many of the poorest chose to give in to their addiction, allowing themselves a few hours of escape, rather than buying their family basic commodities. And because Qat to some extent inhibit hunger, many families found relief in chewing the plant, hoping to keep the pang of starvation at bay for a while longer.

But if the plant offers many Yemenis a “quick fix”, it slowly eats away at the fabric of society.

In a mild trance, Yemenis lose hours of potential work every day, hindering any hope of progress and competiveness on the world market.

Today, activists have declared a war on Qat, hoping by breaking the habit of their countrymen to give Yemen a new lease on life.

Hind al-Iryani, a Yemeni activist living in Lebanon started off the campaign on the Internet, using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter as a platform.

Her call was answered by hundreds of online activists across the Yemeni diaspora as those abroad more than any of their compatriots knew of the ill effects of Qat.

Cleverly, the “No to Qat” campaigners decided to keep the bar low, demanding only that Thursday 12th 2012 be declared a non-Qat day nationwide.

“We are trying to raise awareness amongst Yemenis and make them realize that Qat is destroying any hope we have of building a better nation. Saleh kept the nation subdued, on drugs for more than three decades, it is time for us to free ourselves from this shackles. Yemenis deserve better than a life of addiction and misery,” said Mohamed Amrani, a young activist who decided to join in the movement and abandon Qat chewing.

Even if realistically, freeing Yemen from Qat will take more than an on-line campaign, the seeds of change have been planted and a new generation of Yemenis is setting the bar for generations to come.

Several Qat sellers in Sana’a, the capital, were amused by the attempt to stop Qat chewing; arguing that there was no way Yemenis would ever bit the habit. Others interestingly called the movement a direct attack to their civil liberties, saying that no one had the right to tell them how to live their lives.

Yemen Revolution has set in motion an awakening which is not restricted to political reforms. This poorest country of the Arabic peninsula is entering a true Renaissance similar to what Europe experienced a few centuries ago.