Indonesia's Aceh province is notorious for two seemingly opposite reasons—one, it's the only place that enforces Sharia law in the entire country and two, it's also the home of some of the best weed around.
Indonesian weed has long been known on a global scale, despite efforts here to crack down on the sale and cultivation of marijuana, which is considered a drug on-par with meth and heroin in the eyes of the law. Don't believe me? Well, think about this: there's a reason why hip-hop artists, including Pac, Biggie, Nas and more, so often name drop "Indonesia" on the mic and it has nothing to do with our beaches (unless you're Migos who, in an odd twist for a group that scored an early hit with a song were "Hannah Montana" meant "cocaine," seemingly were thinking of our beaches in "Can't Believe It").
Marijuana has a long history in Aceh, so much so that it's still totally common for locals to offer some to visitors. But the province's associations with weed have also been something of an open secret in Indonesia, home to some of the harshest anti-drug laws on Earth.
I set out to see what I could learn about this hidden industry and met two men, both of them former weed farmers, who offered to explain what made marijuana such an attractive livelihood, and also why they left it for good.
Samsuar, a 45-year-old former weed farmer who asked me not to use his real name, said that when he got into the weed game, he was just one of many young Acehnese attracted to what they saw as a risky, but still lucrative business.
“A lot of young people were jumping on the bandwagon,” he said.
Samsuar was dressed in a faded red t-shirt and muddy jeans when he met me at a cafe in Banda Aceh. He purposely sat at a table far from the other customers to chat. Weed isn't exactly taboo in Aceh, but admitting you worked in what's still an illegal industry definitely is. He was happy to talk to me, as long as I didn't use his real name or attempt to take his photo.
It all started about 20 years ago, Samsuar explained, when he was convinced to start farming weed by a neighbor. Samsuar had just inherited a large buffalo from his parents and with the Rp 2 million ($142 USD in today's exchange rate and more than five times that back then) he made from selling it, he was able to buy a plot of land Mount Seulawah Agam, farming equipment, and enough seeds to get started.
"The field was about 25 kilometers from my village, on top of a hill," he said. "I had to walk across three steep hills to get there. It would take around four hours."
After six months of work, he was ready to harvest. He was put in touch with a buyer through a friend.
"The buyer is now dead, he was killed in the Aceh conflict," he said. "But he bought my harvest for Rp 100,000 ($7 USD, or about $50 USD back in 1995) per kilogram."
For every half-hectare, Samsuar was able to produce one ton of weed. During his first harvest, he made Rp 15 million ($1,066 USD today, or $7,500 USD back then) in profits. Now, Rp 15 million is a lot of money in rural Indonesia today, but back then, it was a small fortune. Samsuar spent his earnings on flashy rides and trips to Medan, one of the biggest cities in Indonesia that's a short flight from Aceh.
"All of us marijuana farmers were really tight with one another," Samsuar recalled. "If one of us could buy a motorcycle, we all would. When everyone went on vacation to Medan, I tagged along too."
But his bank account, no matter how flush, couldn't keep up with his new hedonistic lifestyle. Once he burned through all his money partying and gambling in Medan, Samsuar would go home to replant. This cycle repeated for years.
"I always came back to Aceh when I ran out of money to plant more marijuana," he said. "That’s how it went."
His business was running smoothly until May of 1998, when the Asian Financial Crisis hit Indonesia and the country's long-time authoritarian ruler Gen. Suharto fell from power. Suharto's exit re-ignited the fervor of long-fighting separatist militants in Aceh who clashed with the Indonesian military (TNI). On May 3, 1999 more than 1,300 civilians were killed in a massacre. Aceh was officially a war zone again.
Samsuar and his friends had to hand over their weed fields to the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) militants, who used them as bases and training camps. The TNI converged on the region and it was no longer safe to grow marijuana. Many fled. Others decided to fight.
“Some escaped to Medan, to Malaysia, and some even joined forces with GAM,” he told me.
Watch: Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass is Greener
Samsuar fled to nearby North Sumatra province. Because he never thought to save the money he made off his weed harvests, he had to start over. Desperate, he took a job as a laborer on someone else’s farm.
Peace came to Aceh in 2005 after the province was devastated by a tsunami that left more than 200,000 dead. But peace didn't change Samsuar's fortunes. Today, he is still a farm laborer, earning about Rp 20,000 ($1.42 USD) a day. After losing so many family members in the conflict, he's had an awakening. He settled down, had four children, and decided he no longer wanted to be a marijuana farmer. He believed the illicit source of his money was the reason he had so many years of bad luck.
“When I think about it now, I ask, how will my children would live if I got arrested for planting marijuana?" he said.
No one knows exactly when marijuana was first introduced in Aceh, but the legend goes that cannabis was brought by the Dutch East Indies from India as a gift to the Sultanate of Aceh back in the 19th century. Back then, marijuana was used to keep caterpillars off from coffee plants, which were then very expensive.
After Indonesia's independence, cannabis becomes ubiquitous in Aceh. In the 1970s, you could find marijuana growing in people's front yards. People used weed to season their food, as a preservative, and for its medical properties. Prices soared in 1976 after Indonesia signed the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (more than a decade after it was introduced). Weed suddenly became an illegal substance, and it vanished from people's front yards.
But it never actually left Aceh. Indonesia's war on drugs that has been going on for three decades, and the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) now claims to have decreased the number of marijuana plantations in Aceh significantly. But it seems like the claim is not entirely accurate, since BNN agents continue to find new plantations in Aceh, including the country's biggest yet last October.
For the past three years, the BNN has continued to implement a program called the Grand Design Alternative Development (GDAD) that aims to persuade farmers in Aceh to stop planting weed and switch to corn, and other and supposedly more superior commodities, which they claim are better investments (probably because you won't end up in jail for selling corn).
Is the program successful? Alamsyah, another former weed farmer, doesn't think so. The 35-year-old, who also asked that I not use his real name, stopped planting marijuana three years ago. But it wasn't the BNN's program that got him to stop. He says he was just tired of being cheated by his business partner.
“The average marijuana farmer here started planting after the Aceh Peace Agreement in 2005," he said. "People invested their money in farmers, who promised they would earn lots of money from it. The residents life depended entirely on the farm."
For both Alamsyah and Samsuar, the weed days are far behind them. But they still know that plenty of others haven't given up on ganja—despite the risks. They can see the plant growing out there in the wilderness, but no one knows exactly who owns it all.
“Marijuana is still commonly found on mountains,” Alamsyah said. “We just don’t know who is doing it. They could even be our own neighbors.”
Hendri Abik is a journalist and photographer based in Aceh Besar. You can follow his work on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.