Helping Lebanese farmers get on track
By MainGate Staff
Many believe that the vast majority of the agricultural sector in Lebanon operates in ways that are unsustainable, exploitative, and economically unsound. Agricultural laborers are underpaid and overworked, pesticides are overused, and the sector as a whole makes poor use of the country’s arable land. These are the big picture issues. The Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) which has a long history of supporting agriculture in Lebanon, is helping to nudge the sector in the right direction by working in concert with international development partners to train small-scale farmers and agricultural laborers and connect them with domestic and eventually international markets.
This is being done through a series of programs, one of which, CLIMAT (Climate-Smart Livelihoods Initiatives and Market Access Tailoring), just ended this past October, and another, Ardi Ardak, which was set to get underway this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. MainGate spoke with professor and director of FAFS’s Environmental and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) Shady Hamadeh, whose unit runs the two programs, as well as with ESDU monitoring and evaluation officer Sarah Karam, program investor and fundraiser Asma Zein, and Lebanese farmer Kassem El Chab.
CLIMAT is funded by the German Cooperation (an international development arm of the German government) through the World Food Programme (WFP). In keeping with the WFP’s mission, it aims to train and support small-scale farmers, producers, and agricultural laborers in Lebanon that face food insecurity. ESDU and local NGO Cooperation Without Borders trained participants in West Beqaa and Northeast Baalbek in various agricultural and food processing skills. The training focused on livestock (specifically small ruminant) production, market-oriented and climate-smart agricultural products, and cross-cutting agro-food processing, “like how to sustainably manage herds and pastures, or how to sustainably grow and process fruits and vegetables following healthy eco-friendly best practices such as farming without the use of pesticides,” Karam explains.
Karam and other members of the CLIMAT team began reaching out to municipalities in the West Beqaa and Northeast Baalbek in the fall of 2018, making contact with mayors of small towns like Khiara, Saghbin, and Kameb El Loz. The municipalities provided the team with the contact information of potential participants, though applications were open to the public. “We interviewed interested people and had them fill out a vulnerability assessment,” which was provided by WFP and asks questions that help determine degrees of poverty and economic insecurity.
“Usually vulnerable participants care more about what kind of activities will be implemented and if these will be of any help to them. They have priorities other than saving the environment. However, the ESDU approach is always environmentally friendly and sustainable,” Karam says.
Each participant received at least 40 hours of training. “Training sessions were held in municipal building classrooms and on-site on farms and fields. They were attended by both men and women,” Karam says. Women dominated the food processing courses (how to make dairy products, sun dry fruits, etc.) and men the livestock and herd management ones. In total, 829 participants (of which 63 percent were women) received training. “We did follow-up focus groups with most of the participants. Most of them were very, very happy with the training.”
Kassem El Chab, a farmer who owns a plot of land in Northern Bekaa and comes from an agricultural family, has been receiving training from FAFS faculty and ESDU staff since the 1990s. “They have always been very good. They have a lot of scientific knowledge and know how to communicate with the local people,” El Chab says. Through CLIMAT, he learned best practices for sun-drying vegetables and fruits. “It worked very well.”
In response to the current economic crisis, Ardi Ardak, a National Food Security Initiative, was launched in December 2019 by ESDU in partnership with the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), the Food Heritage Foundation (FHF), and Ziko House. This initiative aims to promote the local food system by supporting small-scale producers, focusing especially on women and young people. Ardi Ardak complements ESDU’s capacity building projects by helping small-scale producers, like those who participated in CLIMAT, market their products and sell at farmers markets, specialty shops, supermarkets, online, and eventually, abroad.
“A central piece of Ardi Ardak is to use high-quality crops, because we can’t compete [with large food-exporting countries] on scale.” Also key is the production and packaging of food products. Instead of selling green beans, producers might sell ready made lubya bi zeit (green beans braised in olive oil). They might add herbs to their cheese, create new jam mixes, or make energy bars out of local raw materials. Volunteers are also making use of Ardi Ardak’s networks to support vulnerable communities by distributing seedlings and food parcels to households in need.
To fund projects like CLIMAT and to further strengthen Ardi Ardak networks, Hamadeh and the ESDU team are working to attract investors. MainGate spoke with one of them, former President of the Lebanese League for Women in Business Asma Zein. Zein first engaged ESDU to teach the farmers working her family’s land in Deir Al Harf how to grow pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. That experience pushed her to help fundraise for ESDU’s initiatives. “I decided to spread the word, to think about how to approach landowners, to encourage the planting on unused land in a sustainable way,” Zein says.
Through Ardi Ardak, she hopes to eliminate intermediaries between farmers and wholesalers or exporters to help farmers become more profitable and sustainable. “We encourage producers to stay put [and not leave for the city], and to involve their kids in their work. And we teach them what to plant because what you plant in the south is different from what you plant in the north and Beqaa.”
Both Zein and Hamadeh lament the lack of public sector support for agriculture in Lebanon. “We have no farm bill here,” Hamadeh explains, referring to the omnibus bill that funds American agriculture. “The budget allocated for the Ministry of Agriculture is less than 1 percent of the government’s budget, and the GDP share of agriculture is less than 4 percent, having fallen from 10 percent in the 1970s.” This lack of support coupled with an import-oriented economy has led to bizarre arrangements. “We would buy chickpeas from the States and make hummus, but now, with the economic crisis, those factories are saying they want to buy locally.”
Hamadeh believes the current economic situation and growing global awareness about the unsustainability of industrial-scale, pesticide-heavy agribusiness will translate into greater support for ESDU’s agenda. That CLIMAT won the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation in 2020 is evidence of that support. Hamadeh says that the ultimate goal is to develop “a kind of network between the landlords, small farmers, and private investors” that supports farm-to-table supply chains across the country. “We already have a setup. We have established different projects, a whole infrastructure, and now it’s time to scale it up at the national level.”