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Albanian hemp growers see project threatened as police suspect cannabis

Kerin Hope, The Financial Times, 5th September 2006

The slender, 2m-high plants in Martin Pllumbi's field in northern Albania could bring either a profit or a prison sentence, depending on the results of a chemical analysis being carried out in Italy.

As the head of the local farmers' association and co-ordinator of a project funded by Partnership for Growth, a UK-based charity, Mr Pllumbi encouraged other subsistence farmers in the impoverished Shkrel valley to plant industrial hemp as a cash crop.

The project raised hopes of long-term prosperity for the 8,000-strong community, which at present relies on monthly remittances from family members working in the US and western Europe.

However, allegations by local police that Shkrel's farmers are cultivating hemp's botanical relative, cannabis, threaten to wreck their dream of producing high-value exports such as hempseed oil, fibre rugs and even T-shirts and cosmetics.

A mix of rugged terrain and post-communist lawlessness has helped to make Albania a centre for narcotics trafficking. Cannabis grown in remote valleys and high mountain pastures is exported to Greece and Italy, according to government officials.

The police are under pressure to deliver results as the government tries to crack down on the drugs trade. But the Shkrel farmers say they are victims of police harassment.

A study by Partnership for Growth showed the Shkrel area was well suited to growing industrial hemp. The farmers imported certified seed from Hungary, which was approved by the Albanian authorities.

First results were encouraging. West European importers showed interest in buying hemp leaves for making tea. A group of farmers' wives successfully produced rugs made of hemp fibre.

"It was all looking promising," Mr Pllumbi says. "But because of the police intervention, we haven't been able to get past the experimental stage."

In 2001, police burned Shkrel's first big hemp crop and arrested eight farmers on charges of cultivating cannabis. A court later awarded them $1,500 (€1,166, £788) each in damages. But Partnership for Growth, which made a £110,000 ($210,000, €163.000) claim against the Albanian government for legal costs and reputation damage, is still awaiting a decision by Albania's supreme court.

Last December Mr Pllumbi and two colleagues were arrested on charges of growing illegal drugs after police seized bales of hemp stored by the farmers' association to await processing. They were freed pending results of scientific analysis of the seized crop.

An analysis by the Tirana medical institute, using equipment donated by the UK, said the crop was hemp, not cannabis. Because the samples contained less than 1 per cent tetrahydrocanabinolit (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis, they met the Albanian legal standard for industrial hemp.

But the prosecutor in Shkodra, the local administrative centre, insisted on sending samples to Italy for another test. "The Tirana laboratory didn't give precise figures of the THC content. In such a case, we need to be absolutely certain," says a spokesman for the prosecutor's office.

The farmers complain that following last year's arrests, police from Shkodra are using intimidation to prevent them from planting hemp. This year, only 30 farmers are growing hemp, compared with almost 100 in previous years. The area under cultivation has fallen from nine to three hectares.

"The police come round and threaten our families, as if we were back in old communist times," says Agron Ivanaj, another farmer.

With hemp-growing under threat, the Shkrel farmers are experimenting with other kinds of organic crops with potential for export. This year they planted sage, grown from wild seeds, in a project funded by the UN development agency. "We're going to have a high-quality crop but prices for sage aren't nearly as good as for hemp," says Mr Pllumbi.

The farmers' association also plans to export up to 1,000kg of chestnuts from a forest in the Shkrel valley, with the assistance of Partnership for Growth. But the charity says it is still committed to the hemp project. "With hindsight we were naïve, considering the country's level of illegal drugs activity. But we still maintain that for these farmers, hemp has the greatest potential range of any crop," says Mike Tyler, the charity's project director.

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