In Yemen’s mountainous region of Haraz, a group of men dig deep into the ground, pushing and shoving through the area’s famous qat trees, their aim is to uproot them.
Located between Tihamah and Sanaa, Haraz is known for qat and coffee trees.
The men are part of a group who are attempting to eradicate the country’s qat trees once and for all.
“We will uproot qat trees completely in the next two or three months from our land in order to clear our country from qat completely. There won’t be any qat tree in the next two to four months,” said local councilman Ahsan al-Qadi.
Chewing on qat, or ‘takhzeen’ in Arabic, has been a national past time in Yemen for centuries.
But a few activists are determined to stamp out the practice, convinced the chewing and production of qat, which is dominated by the country’s tribal leaders, military officers and politicians, is stifling Yemen’s potential while depleting the country of its few remaining natural resources.
One in every seven working Yemenis is employed in producing and distributing qat, making it the largest single source of rural income and the second largest source of employment in the country after the agriculture and herding sector, exceeding even the public sector, according to the World Bank.
Many of Yemen’s poorest families admit to spending over half their earnings on the leaf.
“People started attacking these trees and last week alone they uprooted from this area nearly 1,500 trees. In a nearby area, they uprooted about 3.,000 tress,” said local resident Adnan al-Halbaa.
Classified as a “drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence” by the World Health Organization, qat’s physical symptoms can include high blood pressure, tooth decay, constipation, haemorrhoids, hallucinations and depression.
Surveys suggest more Yemenis than ever, at least 80 percent of men, about 60 percent of women and increasing numbers of children under 10, settle down most afternoons to chew.
The latest anti-qat effort was adopted by the government on April 12 after months of pressure from female activist Hind Aleryani who, using Twitter and Facebook, managed to push the issue on to the national agenda and gain substantial support amongst young Yemenis in favour of a total ban.
Aleryani and a group of Yemeni lawyers have presented a draft law to the prime minister that would impose penalties on those expending public resources on or consuming qat in governmental offices.
The campaign, through state broadcasters, handouts, posters and workshops, is the first concerted effort by the state to tackle the drug’s use in more than a decade.
“Instead of qat, God willing, we will start planting in greenhouses in Germah, almonds, olives and coffee trees. God willing, it will be replaced by these crops,” Mansour Haidar said.
But many Yemenis say they can’t help but feel this campaign will fail, like others before it.
In 1972, then-Prime Minister Mohsin Al-Aini forbade qat-chewing by public servants during working hours and banned its cultivation on lands run by state-controlled religious trusts.
He received death threats from tribesmen and qat farm owners around Sanaa. Many Yemenis suspected his eventual dismissal from office three months later was in large part due to his push.
Like a runaway train hurtling towards a precipice, many worry there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop qat pushing Yemen into disaster.
“Qat tree will be eradicated from Haraz, God willing, and it will be eradicated from the entire country. Yemen will go back to the way it was. In the old days it was known as ‘Joyful Yemen’. Why? Because the qat tree was not there,” Haraz local resident Abdulaziz German said.
Yemen’s ruler for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down last year after months of protests, part of the Arab Spring that ousted leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Although some stability has returned, the state is near collapse, its economy is stagnant, al Qaeda militants are expanding their foothold in the south and Houthi rebels have taken over a chunk of the country’s north.
The country’s most immediate crisis is its dwindling water supply.
The capital city Sanaa is predicted to become the first in the world to run out of water, but the cultivation of qat, the least taxed, most subsidized and fastest-growing cash crop in Yemen, consumes 40 percent of irrigated farming land.
One “daily bag” that can be consumed by one person in one day requires hundreds of liters of water to produce.