Morocco's drive to stamp out cannabis cultivation has won praise abroad, but farmers in the world's top hashish producer say they face destitution.

The dark green, fern-like plant has spread across the mountainous Rif region in Morocco's northeast as hashish smoking went from marginal to almost mainstream among young Europeans.

The government's crackdown on the cannabis industry - estimated to be worth $12 billion - was given a shot in the arm by suspicions that hashish was used to partly pay for dynamite that blew up trains in Madrid in 2004, killing 191 people.

Muslim activists claimed the Madrid attacks in the name of al-Qaida, and Moroccans were implicated in the bombings.

The government of the North African kingdom says it intends to eradicate cannabis production by 2008, and the area used to grow the drug shrank by 10% in 2004, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.

But in the Rif, where two-thirds of farmers grow cannabis, people say more should be done to help them develop new sources of income.

Last week, about 3000 men, women and children held a protest march near the village of Boujdiane. "Yes to fight hashish, no to starvation," some shouted. "Where are the jobs? Where are the promises?"

Let down
Abdelillah Bakhoyti, whose cannabis plants in al-Kulla were cut down last July, says his community has been let down.

"We agreed to stop growing cannabis in exchange for a development project but for now they have given us nothing."

Known locally as "Kif" or "green gold", cannabis grows well in the Rif's wild and isolated terrain, and its leaves and flowers are easily transformed into the resin sold on street corners from Amsterdam to Marseille.

But the "green gold" has not enriched the Rif.

In al-Kulla and other villages, people live in homes built of mud and travel by donkey along bone-shaking roads. Many houses are without electricity, running water or toilets and food supplies are often threatened by drought.

Decades of legislation and international conventions failed to stop cannabis cultivation spreading, as locals switched out of less lucrative crops in an attempt to earn hard cash.

History has also played a part. The region which lies about 200km northeast of the capital Rabat is struggling to emerge from decades of isolation under former King Hassan.

Anti-poverty programme
In 1959, the then crown prince led the army to crush an uprising in Rif by people angered over their exclusion from the first independent Moroccan government.

Farmer Ahmed Alharrak says: "In the 60s, cannabis was only grown in the highest, difficult-to-reach mountains, especially in the east and middle of the Rif. When farmers elsewhere started having problems, they started growing it too."

The government is focusing its efforts on the province of Larache, which accounted for 6% of cannabis cultivation in 2003, or 12,000 hectares. So far, 4000 hectares have been destroyed, according to officials.

"We try to convince farmers to tend goats and to plant fruit trees, especially olives, and create cooperative societies to produce dairy products and poultry," said Mohamed Yemlahi, who co-ordinates an anti-poverty programme, launched last year.

He said Larache had received almost 18 million dirhams ($1.98 million) from the government, including 1.5 million dirhams to fight cannabis production and create alternative activities.

The government has also launched a multibillion-dollar development and expansion programme around the port of Tangier - part of its attempts to revive the region's economy.

Efforts by King Mohammed since his accession in 1999 to halt the drug trade in the Rif have led to some spectacular arrests - in 2003, 12 people including judges and police officers were jailed for links to one of the most dangerous drug gangs.

Stretched budgets
But for dealers, getting the drugs out is relatively easy.

Morocco's cannabis fields border the Mediterranean, whose busy waters offer a safe and easy route to Europe. Controls at ports and land borders have failed to staunch the flow.

In its 2005 report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said cannabis was the most commonly consumed street drug in the world, with an estimated 161 million people using it in 2003, equivalent to 4% of the global population.

Efforts to halt the trade have been hampered by the global shift towards fighting terrorism.

Customs authorities were already operating on stretched budgets before intelligence resources were shifted towards terrorism after September 11.

Xavier Raufer, a criminologist based in Paris, said: "The first generation of equipment to verify the contents of containers can only detect one thing at a time.

"After 9/11, they disconnected drugs and connected explosives."

Narcotics experts say the best way to clamp down is at the source. But the Rif example shows the difficulties of weaning people off a plant that has come to dominate the economy.

Ahmed Harrak, a farmer, said: "If the state wants to eradicate cannabis, it must help farmers by building roads and giving them interest-free loans.

"And they should do away with prosecuting cannabis farmers."