First published at BIKYAMASR
A week after the initiative “I want Yemen to change, I will not store qat” was launched by Yemeni activists, in order to raise awareness about the social and economic consequences associated with qat use, the government of the Netherlands also announced on Tuesday that qat would be banned in the country.
On January 7 NOS – the largest news organization in the Netherlands – reported that the government was working on a qat prohibition and aired a brief special, interviewing members of the Somali community in the country, including Shamsa Saïd, activist in an organization for Somali children.
Men in the Somali community reported that people came from all over Europe to buy qat in the Netherlands and claimed that the practice was harmless and no reason to ban it. Women on the other hand complained about the social and economic strain on the households caused by qat, which is a well-known story to many families in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The qat ban was proposed by Dutch politicians Mirjam Sterk (Christian Democratic Appeal) and Cornelia van Nieuwenhuizen-Wijbenga (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), members of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands and was based on extensive research published in 2010 by the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht; a study dealing with the influence of qat on the social and economic situation of Somalis in the Netherlands.
On January 10 NOS announced that the ban on qat would be effective immediately and that health minister Edith Schippers would include the plant in the List II of the opium list, what would render possession and trade illegal in the country. Imports and distribution of qat was not banned until now in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, from where it was distributed to Germany, Norway, Canada and the United States, even though it is already considered illegal in these countries.
An independent report commissioned by the Dutch government has cited many negative effects derived from qat consumption and added that with high unemployment and low education levels, the Dutch Somali community is perceived as late in terms of integration, compared to other immigrant communities.
The proposal of Mrs. Sterk also came under fire in the Netherlands and it was criticized by media, treated as a minor problem that does not compare to the use of alcohol and other drugs in the country. The ban was also criticized because instead of encouraging integration, it might alienate Somalis even more.
Speaking to BikyaMasr.com yesterday, Mirjam Sterk (CDA) answered the following questions:
BikyaMasr: How did you become concerned with the qat problem?
Mirjam Sterk: Since I visited Tilburg-Noord (a quarter in the city of Tilburg, in the south of the Netherlands) and spoke with people working with the Somali community there.
BM: Did you face opposition from either the Dutch authorities or the ethnic communities in the Netherlands?
MS: The Somali community has different opinions on the issue. Some organizations want to stop qat while others believe in raising awareness.
BM: In the case of those consuming qat in the Netherlands, what would be your suggestions to replace qat addiction?
MS: Well there are different things. But better is to stop and start exercise, sport or drink coffee.
BM: In the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, millions of people bring food home because of money earned from qat. Do you believe there might be viable solutions to gradually replace qat for a more sustainable agriculture?
MS: There are always different options, although they are not easy. But the negative implications (costs of water supply needed to grow qat for example) are huge.
BM: What message would you like to send to the Yemeni people in their efforts to combat qat consumption?
MS: Think of alternatives and explain the negative consequences.
In the meantime “I want Yemen to change, I will not store qat” continued to gather support at home and internationally. Several people in Yemen and abroad have created posters and digital artwork to promote the campaign that has already gathered a few thousand supporters via social media, and it was announced in Yemen in newspapers, TV and also publicly at Change Square in Sana’a.
It is reported that in specific areas in Change Square and Freedom Square, it will not be allowed to chew qat there and people will distribute coffee instead. Other organizations working against qat have joined the campaign efforts and have begun to distribute posters to raise awareness among people about the dangers of qat. Elsewhere in Yemen, activists in the city of Taiz will make people put their finger prints on ink to say that they will not chew qat.
The campaign is supported by Nobel Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman and by Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara, and popular Yemeni singer Fahd Alqorany will also sing on Change Square today during “I want Yemen to change, I will not store qat”.
A number of Yemeni activists, including the organizer Hind Aleryani, and others in Yemen such as Sadek Maktary, Ammar Moujali, Salim Bin Mubara and Mohammad Al Ammari have mobilized at home with grass-roots organizations and youth groups, and abroad calling for international media to cover the event, to encourage more and more Yemenis to participate.
The example set by the Netherlands with the prohibition on qat is perhaps unrealistic for Yemen, where a vast number of people subsist on qat and where the agriculture is based on the controversial plant; however it still serves as a precedent that the negative effects of the plant have been studied and discussed world-wide and that substantial steps are being taken by many Western countries to put a halt to cultivation, distribution and consumption. This alone should raise alarms in Yemen that a qat-based agriculture might no longer have a place in the global economy in years to come.