“Here, You Can Only Expect Help From God”
This was the lament of the head of a farmers’ association in the Bekaa Valley who was responding to an inquiry about what the government was doing to protect his livelihood. His story is decades-old. As Lebanon floated along on an overvalued currency and strong remittances, it became an importing country. Over 80% of its consumables were purchased overseas, thus making the economy closely tied to any disruptions in the value of the lira and dependent on cash infusions from overseas, particularly for Lebanese in the Gulf.
When I first visited Lebanon in the early 70s, I came with my mother’s stories of tasty, larger-than-life produce born from the tradition of small-scale, farming that historically fed the nation. Like others, my family had moved from silk production, to tobacco, to fresh produce that always found its way to a ready market in neighboring Batroun. Based on these vivid memories, I had high expectations and was pleased to be fully rewarded by the vitality and scope of the Lebanese markets.
Then came the civil war. With young people emigrating to the Gulf and West Africa, farming became an illusory pursuit – abandoned to the greenhouses that dotted the fields and hills as one traveled north and east from Beirut. Lebanese could buy whatever they wanted to consume thanks to the inflated currency and the supply chains that seemed to crisscross the region, bringing products to vendors on every corner.
Since then, the decline of the agri-business sector has both changed the country-side as well as options for the future. As in other countries, young people have no interest in finding opportunities in agriculture despite the usual availability of all the productive and marketing inputs. In fact, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) addressed the prospects for Lebanon’s agro-economy in several studies done in the last decade that indicated the competitiveness of Lebanese fruits and vegetables. Since then, with the onset of the pandemic and subsequent global supply-chain issues, additional studies point to the multiplicity of benefits from supporting an active agro-economy – not only for farmers, but also for the country.
Today, Lebanon is a water desert. Going from the most water-secure Arab country to one that is in deficit forces people to reevaluate how they can procure locally grown food. As inflation has depleted their pocketbooks, more and more Lebanese are simply growing their own products. Projects like alzourou3 that I have featured before, are combining the UN sustainability and social enterprise goals with a deep commitment to a ‘greener’ direction for Lebanon ‘green,’ especially through environmental initiatives that redefine Lebanon’s small-scale agricultural sector.
This is just one beginning of several local solutions that require national support. As a recent LCPS video shows, only chaos and calamity will ensue if the agricultural sector is allowed to descend further into bankruptcy. This is not to say that the Lebanese state should necessarily provide broad subsidies for the sector. We have seen the consequences of poorly executed, short-term thinking. Rather, nationwide support for the sector should focus on long-term issues and demonstrate that a commercially viable support system is viable.
One start, for example, could be to bolster the USAID support for projects providing solar power to farmers, bypassing the expense of diesel fuel for pumps and equipment. Another could be building transportation alternatives that enable local, regional, and international distribution of local produce. Another could be to take concrete and transparent steps to ensure water availability. There is much that the government can do to make a difference. As a recent LCPS study commented, “There is a pressing need for government to prioritize food security and take immediate actions to prevent hunger and malnutrition.” Small-scale loan programs by the government and international NGOs can help ameliorate the production and distribution obstacles, creating a virtuous circle assisting both producers and consumers of Lebanese agricultural products.
This ‘teach them to fish” maxim – borrowed from multiple sources – applies to those who are committed to engaging in agriculture for domestic and export opportunities. It is an opportunity for short-term investments that will have long-term payoffs for the farmer, the consumer, and the country. A national plan to bolster the sector is available but the will must come from a government, local officials, and NGOs that have the capacity to turn small investments into a big difference.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.