Albanian police get the hump over hemp crop scheme

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The Independent Online

A British charity's efforts to help desperately poor farmers in Albania have gone horribly wrong, with the farmers ending up under arrest in prison and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops donated by the charity destroyed by Albanian police.

A British charity's efforts to help desperately poor farmers in Albania have gone horribly wrong, with the farmers ending up under arrest in prison and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops donated by the charity destroyed by Albanian police.

The farmers were supposed to grow industrial hemp plants given by the charity Partnership for Growth, and use the hemp to weave rugs for sale in the UK. Instead, 500 police turned up in the village of Dedaj, accused the farmers of growing cannabis, arrested four and destroyed the crops. The mayor, Martin Pllumbi, is now believed to be in hiding.

"It's all a misunderstanding," says Mike Tyler, a trustee of the charity. It seems the confusion is over the industrial hemp plant, which is closely related to the cannabis plant but contains only minuscule amounts of the drug. Hemp is used in the manufacture of 30,000 different products, from rope to car dashboards.

But growing it in northern Albania is fraught with problems. Much of the north is effectively controlled by bandits. Western visitors are frequently robbed of all they have, and there are stories of foreigners left virtually naked.

The charity may have inadvertently blundered into a turf war. Dedaj is in an area that is a stronghold of the main opposition party, and it is rumoured that the government is punishing the farmers for voting against it.

This is not the first time Western efforts to provide aid have backfired in the Balkans. The UN aid effort in Bosnia from 1992-1995 was dogged by claims of aid going astray or even being sold instead of distributed free. Another case was a television network, the Open Broadcast Network (OBN), which a consortium of Western donors including Britain set up in 1996 with the aim of undercutting nationalist media beholden to ethnic warlords. It sucked up $20m in aid from the EU and US but within a year was deep in financial trouble.

The station paid its staff six times the average for journalists in Bosnia and EU accountants discovered the system of invoices was hopelessly awry. The EU was horrified and ended all funding to the station last autumn.

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