By Lori Komshian
Any traveler in Yemen would notice the impact of Qat on Yemeni society. Qat (Catha edulis) is a shrub native to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of African whose leaves have been widely chewed for centuries because of its narcotic effects. However, for millions of Yemenis this old tradition has evolved into an addiction.
The leaves of the Catha edulis contain cathinone – a compound similar to amphetamine – which causes excitement, loss of appetite, euphoria and insomnia. The most noticeable impact is the idleness especially exhibited by Yemeni men who spend an average of four hours a day chewing the mild narcotic and socializing during one of their daily ‘Qat sessions’. With The World Food Program estimating that 15 million person hours a day are spent chewing qat in Yemen, this phenomenon cannot be missed; allegedly seventy to eighty percent of adults chew qat.
Indeed, the bulging cheeks are a dead giveaway to this practice, yet this influence is spreading to children; fifteen to twenty percent of children under the age of twelve chew qat daily. These children view the chewing of qat as a rite of passage to adult activities, especially when they are permitted to start chewing qat at weddings where the leaf is commonplace.
This shrub is also detrimental to the economy of the country. Yemen stands as the poorest country in the Middle East and, no dobut, qat suppresses wealth creation. For example, Yemen’s water supply is quickly evaporating because of its integral role in the cultivation of qat. Of the three percent of arable land available in Yemen, qat accounts for twelve percent of arable land usage. Because of qat cultivation, the agricultural potential of the land is limited while Yemen’s rising food and fuel prices induce further poverty. The 2012 World Food Project Comprehensive Food Security Survey found that more than ten million Yemenis are food insecure –that’s nearly half of the population- and five million are severely food insecure. This means that 22 percent of the population is unable to buy the food that they need. This number nearly doubled between 2009 and 2011 and malnutrition is still rising. Despite the severity of the food situation, qat is still consumed relentlessly. Households spend about 10 percent of their budget on qat – which is more than allocated for clothes, health, and education combined. Even those households that are severely food insecure spend this much on qat.
The effects of qat in Yemen are clear. Qat saps time and energy from productive activity in Yemeni society and leads to aimless behavior. The high unemployment rate in Yemen persists as a testament to this. According to the CIA World Factbook, the unemployment rate stands at 35 percent. A country of 24 million, Yemen’s labor force is a meager 7 million. Moreover, the rising population only further agitates the qat-driven strain on economic resources. Indeed, the few farmers who have jobs prefer to grow qat because of its steady income. It is always in demand, as opposed to other fruits and vegetables that will not garner as much profit. Moreover, the alluring plant is hearty; it is not susceptible to many diseases which further incentivizes farmers to dedicate land, labor and capital to its cultivation.
Qat not only induces lethargy, but it takes away from the family as men and women spend a great deal of time apart during their qat sessions. They think that qat is solving their problems when in reality they have wasted hours chewing it, and their problems are getting worse. The reality is that 45 percent of the population lives below the absolute poverty line, and qat only upsets an already damaged situation. It is a cycle which leads to severe undernourishment, unemployment, water depletion and societal divisions. That is why the only way to solve this issue is through the passage of legislation that will prevent the new generation from using the drug and help current users to gradually reduce their qat usage.
In order for the parliament to even consider passing a law to ban qat, there has to be some sort of public demand for such legislation. Ideally once the population is educated about the reality of qat use and its negative attributes, they will demand action from the government. For such an uproar to occur the general population must know about the depletion of water sources in Yemen and the impact of qat on the economy. They must be wary of the narcotic effects of the leaves. Moreover, the public must be convinced that chewing qat is religiously immoral, even though it is not explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an like alcohol.
A public awareness campaign would be a pragmatic advancement to wind down Yemeni qat usage. Often the leaves are sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides that can lead to cancer, liver cirrhosis, and kidney diseases. The public must understand that qat is detrimental to the health and well being of individuals and to the nation as a whole. Moreover, people have to be inculcated with the message that there is a better use of time than sitting around for hours chewing qat. A hope of finding work for the unemployed and a chance of finding food, shelter and a happiness that is not derived from chewing qat has to be instilled. Otherwise the Yemeni population will resent an attempt to ban qat. Yet the question still remains: can any of this be achieved?
Thanks to the work of the Minister of Education, there is rising awareness in schools about the negative effects of qat. But this sort of education should be mandatory in all primary and secondary schools. Educating children is the best way to prevent this habit from continuing onto the next generation. Teachers must be exemplary role models to their students. “No Qat Campaign” posters should be made visible in conjunction with the distribution of educational pamphlets. Furthermore, social media has presented itself as a viable tool to spread the message as well since young adults are most likely to use Facebook or Twitter.
However, in some respects this goal seems almost implausible. The idea of Yemenis opposing a tradition that is so integrated into their society is not likely. Not only is it a custom, we must remember that approximately eighty percent of the population is addicted to this drug making it almost impossible to gain their support. Therefore, even if they were to be convinced of the effects of qat listed above, they would likely continue to use qat. Perhaps the way to assuage usage is to raise taxes on qat as an incentive to gradually stop qat abuse.
However, the greatest effort should go toward preventing children from using the drug and becoming addicted. If legislation can stop future or novice qat chewers from becoming addicts, this can have a huge impact in reducing qat use. Young children need to become educated about the dangers of qat and its aforementioned detriments. They are the future of Yemen, and though them Yemen can gradually cease to be reliant on qat.
Images by Kate B. Dixon