In the midst of Lebanon’s financial crisis, farmers are struggling to survive

In the midst of Lebanon's financial crisis, farmers are struggling to survive

Ali Ghazzwi has been farming in the Bekaa Valley, near the village of Mansour, for 20 years. He still uses pesticides. The economic crisis has left him with mounting debts.

(Inès Gil)

On a piece of land behind his modest hut, Salim Alazwak inspects his fields of roses: “Some are for making jam, others are for decoration,” he says, pointing to the yellow flowers. “I don’t use any chemicals”. Originally from Damascus, Syria, Salim fled to Lebanon at the start of the civil war in 2011. He settled in Marj, a village in the Bekaa Valley. In this fertile region often described as the breadbasket of Lebanon, he planted his first organic roses six years ago, in 2015. “In Syria, I fell ill after working with chemical agricultural fertilisers. I didn’t want to go through that again. Today I use compost and plants to scare away the insects.” Salim had to be patient, waiting for his first flowers to grow. But today, he does not regret his investment. “The first year was difficult, with the crisis the prices of chemical fertilisers skyrocketed because they are imported. I am happy that I don’t use any.”

Lebanon, which already had a fragile economy, has been sinking into an unprecedented financial crisis since 2019. In two years, the local currency, the Lebanese pound, has lost about 90 per cent of its value. While the official rate set by the Central Bank of Lebanon is 1,500 pounds to the US dollar, and the bank rate is 3,900 pounds, in reality, on the black market, a dollar is today equivalent to 13,000 pounds. This inflation is having a dramatic impact on farmers.

With an economy based on banking and the tourism, Lebanon produces very little and therefore has to import 80 per cent of its consumer goods, including fertilisers, seeds, animal feed, and various materials. Imports, which must be paid for in pounds at black market prices, have become exorbitantly expensive for many farmers. Raymond is one of them. In his village of Tanourine, in northern Lebanon, he gave up pig farming last January.

“I couldn’t feed my animals anymore. Food for livestock is imported. It has become unaffordable,” he tells Equal Times.

Faced with the rising price of imports, the Lebanese state has responded with almost total inertia. Political groups have launched community initiatives, such as Hezbollah, which has called for “agricultural jihad”, with limited success. Some international programmes offer financial aid to farmers through the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). But the real change is from civil society.

Small ecological shift

In the little town of Saadnayel, in the Bekaa Valley, a sustainable agriculture project was launched in 2017. Lebanese, Syrian and French farmers joined together to create Bouzourna Jouzourna, (meaning “our seeds are our roots”). They bought land to reproduce seeds without chemicals: “It’s local, hence cheap. Sales have been increasing ever since 2017,” Charlotte Joubert, a member of the project, tells Equal Times. According to her, environmental awareness is not yet widespread, but “it is gaining ground”.

To improve the agricultural world’s awareness environmental issues, a group of Lebanese agricultural engineers and farmers founded Izraa, with the aim of promoting local and ecological production to face the crisis. Created in January 2020, its Facebook page now has over 125,000 members: “Farmers are increasingly turning to ecological alternatives; it is more respectful of the environment and less expensive, because they do not have to import chemical fertilisers,” notes project co-founder Salim Zwein.

In northern Lebanon, in the Tripoli region, Samer Azar has followed Izraa’s advice. Installed in a mobile home in the middle of his field since January 2020, he plants lettuces, sweetcorn and Armenian cucumbers, without using any chemicals.

“I use insects and compost,” he says, opening a bin full of small earthworms, “and I sell my crops in organic grocery stores in Beirut.”

Today, the apprentice farmer would like to develop his project by exporting his products. By selling abroad, farmers earn money because they get dollars. “But this is not the only solution for the agricultural world to survive,” says Mary Lynn, co-founder of Le Petit Potager (The Little Vegetable Garden). Her social enterprise, which connects farmers who use eco-friendly techniques with buyers, recently partnered with Fox and Fig, an ‘agro-artisanal concept store’ based in Beirut, to help farmers process their produce, “by making sun-dried tomatoes or tomato sauce, for example.” For her, whether people are aware of global warming or not, “the Lebanese will have to turn to the local market to face the [country’s financial] crisis”, because consumer goods, which are mostly imported, saw their prices increase by 240 per cent between October 2019 and October 2020, becoming unaffordable for much of the population.

Ecological agricultural projects are multiplying and the success of Izraa proves that organic farming has become a social phenomenon. But these initiatives “remain small scale,” Riad Fouad Saade, the president of the Lebanese Agricultural Research and Studies Centre, tells Equal Times. “They will not save the Lebanese farming industry”.

Risk of collapse?

In his office at the Ministry of Agriculture in Jnah, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Chadi Mohanna, director of rural development and natural resources, is busy, between two meetings with farmers who have come to ask for help. “The Ministry tries to support the agricultural world, but our means are limited because our budget amounts to 0.25 per cent of the national budget…[.] Lebanon has a non-productive economy, so agriculture is not a priority.”

Of course, the state still subsidises certain imported products deemed essential, such as wheat, which traders are allowed to buy at the bank rate of 3,900 pounds to the dollar, and not at black market prices. But the subsidies “do not benefit farmers”, according to Fouad Saade: “Only a few opportunistic traders who import products at low prices and then resell them to farmers at black market prices [benefit].” Mohanna insists that “the Ministry carries out maximum controls,” but he admits that “abuses persist and the farmers pay the price”.

Wael Yammine, an independent agricultural engineer, believes farmers are also suffering from Lebanese public policy: “The whole system has to change,” he tells Equal Times. Sitting in a cafe in Beirut, he claims that farmers are the victims of public authorities’ corruption.

“The Agriculture Ministry website advocates the use of expensive pesticides, because companies that work in chemical fertilisers pay for this information to be published. There is no information to help farmers start an ecological transition.”

They are left to fend for themselves, like Ali Ghazzwi. A farmer in the Bekaa Valley, on the outskirts of the village of Mansour, he says he has received “no help and no advice” to find an alternative to chemical fertilisers. To pay for imported goods, he took on a lot of debt. “My situation is very critical,” he says. The impact has been dramatic, not only on a financial level but also on his health. A purchasing manager at a major Lebanese chemical fertiliser company who wishes to remain anonymous told Equal Times that many farmers use lower-quality fertilisers: “They are cheaper but also dangerous for our health and very problematic for the soil.”

According to Yammine, Lebanese agriculture is in absolute distress. “Farmers will end up stopping all activity, or worse, commit suicide with chemical fertilisers, like in India.” According to an analysis carried out by Hadi Jaafar, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, the amount of land cultivated shrunk by 10 per cent in the Bekaa Valley between 2019 and 2020. Lebanon has 6.7 million inhabitants, of which around 1.7 million are Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Access to food is already critical, but if agriculture collapses, the humanitarian consequences will be catastrophic.

This article has been translated from French by Sara Hammerton