With hunger swelling, Lebanon turns to community farming

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With Lebanon’s food security increasingly in jeopardy, community farming initiatives have proliferated in recent months.

Proponents are hopeful that the push to support small-scale and community agriculture projects – from rooftop gardens in Beirut to planting abandoned rural land – can help to secure much of the food supply that has been lost due to the dire state of Lebanon’s agriculture sector and the increasing expense of importing goods as Lebanon’s currency has rapidly devaluated.

Others remain skeptical of the effectiveness of the community farming boom, saying that a coordinated government response to support the existing farmers is needed to avert disaster and that the small-scale farming initiatives will not be enough to offset the contraction in the existing agriculture sector and to fill country’s food security needs.

Read more: A Lebanese farmer’s tale: Amid coronavirus, struggles to import supplies, prices rise

From an official exchange rate of about 1,500 Lebanese lira to the dollar, the street rate has risen to about 8,000, and prices of many goods have doubled or tripled while wages have stagnated, leading to rising poverty and hunger in the country.

Faced by a shortage of dollars and a lack of access to credit that resulted in difficulties importing the needed supplies and equipment to plant, many farmers substantially reduced their crops during last fall’s planting season, compared to previous years. By some estimates, the value of this year’s yield could be upwards of 60 percent less than the year before.

Meanwhile, in recent months, calls to sow seeds have grown, coming from parties across the political spectrum, as well as from civil society and cultural figures, like director Nadine Labaki, who produced a catchy music video shared widely on social media encouraging Lebanese people to plant food crops, whether on their land or at home.

One of the new projects the Ardi Ardak (“My Land is Your Land”) initiative by the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) at American University of Beirut, in partnership with the Lebanese League for Women in Business, the Food Heritage Foundation and the community center Zico House, offers technical support and help in accessing markets to those who want to farm small plot of land, with a focus on pesticide-free farming practices and permaculture methods.

Ardi Ardak coordinator Nicolas Gholam said the project has received 126 requests to date from people with abandoned lands that they want to plant, totaling more than 600 dunams (600,000 square meters).

“A lot of people have abandoned their lands in order to come to Beirut and work in Beirut, and since now there is a lot of unemployment in Beirut, everyone is looking into coming back to their lands,” he said. “And we are helping them do so on the technical level and on the market access level in order for them to sustain themselves and create a proper livelihood.”

Farming initiatives not enough to meet demand

As to whether the swell of small farming initiatives will be enough to fill the country’s food security needs, Gholam acknowledged, “I guess that it will not be enough, but it will be good enough to ease the load on the balance of payments that we have.”

The Kon wheat harvest is one of a number of community farming initiatives that have sprung up amid growing food insecurity in Lebanon. (Abby Sewell)
The Kon wheat harvest is one of a number of community farming initiatives that have sprung up amid growing food insecurity in Lebanon. (Abby Sewell)

While the government is in process of assembling a committee for rural development, Gholam said to date there has been no state support for the project.

“The government is not doing anything, so we don’t rely on it,” he said. “We try as much as we can to do things without having the government involved, because it will slow us down instead of helping us.”

Other projects are smaller in scale, launched by groups of volunteers without any funding.

Earlier this month, about a dozen volunteers from one such initiative, with scythes in hand, gathered on a tranquil plateau in the mountains of the Metn to cut down handfuls of tawny wheat while trying to avoid the thorny shrubs that had sprouted between the stalks.

It was the first time most of the volunteers, who are part of a community agriculture initiative called Kon, had taken part in such a harvest.

Kon founder Souad Abdallah described the initiative – which has also planted rooftop gardens in Beirut based on permaculture techniques aimed at creating sustainable and self-sufficient agriculture systems – as a “social solidarity movement around agriculture.”

The project sprang out of last October’s mass protest movement, and its original purpose was to find paths to societal change apart from “the reactive way we were working in the streets,” Abdallah said.

“It’s the sustainable way of work and the collaboration together, it’s the social resilience and social support by working together in difficult times,” she said.

When the group planted the wheat field in late December, they did not expect that Lebanon would face such a severe food supply crisis in the near future, she said.

But Moustapha Yammout, the owner of Zico House, who is part of the Ardi Ardak initiative and also volunteered in both the Kon planting and the harvest, told Al Arabiya English, said that even in December “there were signs that there might be a crisis coming, and we knew that we need to start depending on ourselves and we need to get experience in this matter.” Around the same time, importers had begun to sound the alarm that unless they could secure the dollars needed to pay for imports, shortages would occur.

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In January, the Center for Research and Lebanese Agricultural Studies (Centre de Recherche et d'Etudes Agricole Libanais, or CREAL), a research center tracking the agriculture industry in Lebanon, predicted that the total value of Lebanese agriculture production will fall by 38 percent this year compared to 2018. Now, with the economic and currency crisis having accelerated over the past six months, the center’s president, Riad Fouad Saade, predicted that the decrease could be 60 to 70 percent.

Famine by 2021

Saade told Al Arabiya English that unless the government acts quickly to assess the country’s food needs and support farmers in securing the required supplies for the next planting season, the country is facing “famine in 2021.”

The Kon wheat harvest is one of a number of community farming initiatives that have sprung up amid growing food insecurity in Lebanon. (Abby Sewell)
The Kon wheat harvest is one of a number of community farming initiatives that have sprung up amid growing food insecurity in Lebanon. (Abby Sewell)

“We will not have enough food for the population,” he said.

The trend toward small home farming efforts might make a “rapprochement between man and nature” and “secure minor quantities for self-consumption” for the people planting, Saade said, but “I don’t believe that it will be of any noticeable help to the food security.”

“I’m sorry to tell you that we are in a dire situation at all levels of the agro food value chain,” he said. “…At that stage of disintegration, only the state can intervene and impose solutions to the crisis, because only the state has the power to manage and control the whole value chain.”

Yammout acknowledged that the community farming efforts may or may not produce the desired results.

“We’ll see what quantities come out of all Lebanon to see how much this thing is productive or not,” and where the problems lie, he said. “For instance, (someone might find that) I’m planting on my roof and there’s basically not enough water to shower with.”

At the same time, Yammout said there are few alternatives.

“We don’t have a solution as a nation,” he said. “We have this nature and this land and if we want to stay on it, we need to know how to use it, as the poor people do, as our grandparents did.”

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