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Rural entreprise

by Victoria Lupton

“Agriculture at the National Museum? No, we don’t have anything about that here.” The answer was definitive. I was visiting the museum in search of traces inscribed in stone or clay of the millennia-old relationship between Lebanon’s people and the land. As it turned out, there is not a single farmer represented in Lebanon’s National Museum. Thousands of years harnessing nature and all we have to show for it is an ancient section of cedar tree and a pre-Common Era terracotta figurine of a child carrying a goose.

This very absence of agriculture at the center of the nation’s heritage is an apt signifier of the state of rural enterprise in Lebanon as a whole: overlooked, undervalued, and yet, fundamental to its history and social fabric.

For millennia, people have worked Lebanon’s land in order to provide for themselves and their families. From the monumental staircases that the Phoenicians carved into the slopes of Mount Lebanon, to the Bekaa Valley, once the granary of Rome, local people have engaged in ecologically sustainable integrated farming. Economic and environmental imperatives have been broadly aligned, as farmers have harnessed Lebanon’s natural resources — difficult but prodigiously generous terrains of steep slopes and red earth — in the knowledge that safeguarding the land’s fertility for future generations is necessary to economic success.

A century and a half of displacement and rural depopulation, changing trade relations, and economic instability have broken down this compact. Agriculture now needs to be environmentally unsustainable in order to be economically sustainable. The source of Lebanon’s sustenance and ubiquitous symbol of belonging to the land — the village — has been hollowed out, leaving communities struggling to support their families, let alone a disastrously deteriorating natural world.

Since 1997, SEAL (Social & Economic Action for Lebanon) has revitalized these communities with small and strategic investments in ambitious and sustainable nature-based social enterprises. For 20 years, the Lebanese diaspora in the US has stood at the forefront of this mission; now it is time for those in Lebanon who have the means to join in.

The challenge

Hundreds of generations of Lebanese farmers have sustained flourishing rural economies by combining ancient techniques with the Lebanese flair for innovation. From fishing along the coast and banana groves lining the southern seafront to olives and citrus fruits in coastal areas, pear and apple orchards rising up steep mountainsides, and mixed cultivation in the Bekaa Valley and vineyards further east, a strikingly diverse mosaic of food production ecosystems are packed into 10,452 square kilometers of land.

It took only a few decades of state underinvestment in rural development, rising land prices, and asymmetric trade terms to create the dire economic conditions faced by rural people today. Lebanon’s adoption of a market-based, services-oriented liberal economy came at a price: the demise of small and medium-sized enterprise farms that are unable to compete with food imports subsidized in their country of origin. These farmers form the vast majority of the agricultural production sector in Lebanon, and instead of being supported by the Lebanese government, agriculture comprises only 0.4 percent of national spending.

To put this 0.4 percent into context: agriculture contributes 4.5 percent of GDP. Agriculture and food production are the primary source of income for 11 percent of the Lebanese.

This has allowed environmental concerns to become unmoored from the economic. Lacking clean water for irrigation due to the absence of proper sewage networks, farmers are pushed to dig illegal wells. Lacking training and market access support, farmers flood their crops with unsuitable pesticides, leading to the proliferation of resistant strains of diseases and affecting the ability of Lebanese farmers to access international markets. And out of desperation linked to dwindling fish stocks, fishermen resort to using dynamite and illegal nets, despite the clear long-term unsustainability of this practice, which has already devastated coastal marine life .

Add to this the closure of the final overland export route through Syria in 2013 (the closure of the Syria-Jordan border at Nasib threatened up to a third of Lebanese agricultural sales, leaving only the option of sea routes that are 10 times more expensive than overland ones), and the profits from agriculture are barely even covering the high input costs. The reality in 2017 is a country where most Lebanese farmers are only waiting to sell their land and live off the proceeds.

Rural rescue

It does not need to be this way. We all dream of seeing a revived Lebanon rising from the ashes of economic stagnation and soaring inequality. And a simple vote of confidence is enough to transform a frustrated would-be migrant into a committed rural entrepreneur, restoring their dignity along the way.

Members of the Lebanese diaspora saw an opportunity to make this a reality. Twenty years ago, a group of highly motivated entrepreneurs from the Lebanese diaspora — themselves all too aware of the pressures compelling Lebanese to leave the country — began to join forces with entrepreneurs in Lebanon’s rural areas to create SEAL. SEAL was born from a dream, to replace a dystopian present with the prosperous and responsible stewardship of natural resources in order to ensure a dignified economic future for the Lebanese who choose to stay on their land.

Supporting rural communities to stay on their lands is effective on at least three levels. First, agriculture is the main source of livelihood for 29 percent of those living below the poverty line. Rural development can ensure a more inclusive national economy that addresses the current crisis of rising poverty and inequality.

This social impact is further amplified by the fact that farmers are an ageing demographic in Lebanon. In the absence of state pensions and a functioning hospice system, nature-based enterprise is a key way for older people to continue providing for themselves and their families into old age.

Second, farmers’ movements are well documented in Lebanon’s history. The peasants of Mount Lebanon began to revolt in 1858 over economic hardship, exploitation of labor, and the decreased availability of land, which continued with the declaration of a republic in 1859 by the peasant leader (and, notably, artisan entrepreneur) Tanios Chahine, enforced by a 1,000-strong militia. The revolt ultimately led to the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war, which stretched across the Bekaa to Damascus, cost an estimated 23,000 lives, and permanently changed Lebanon’s sectarian makeup.

The protests in 1973 by tobacco farmers from the south — largely overshadowed by the war which broke out in 1975 — were equally important and the result of declining tobacco prices due in part to weak government regulation of import prices, within the context of peasants forced off their land and into cities or into rural wage labor. More recently, we have seen armed conflict between cannabis growers and the army in Baalbek-Hermel, and protests by apple farmers last year, who burnt their produce in the streets in response to the low demand for apples. Uneven development across the territory and rural-urban inequalities continue to form a basis for unrest, and pose a barrier to national stability and unity.

Finally, rural communities are the best guarantors of the land. When properly supported, those working in nature-based social enterprise have the greatest incentives to protect the environment. In the absence of agricultural zoning regulations (restrictions on land use to protect farmlands) by the Lebanese government, rural entrepreneurs are forced to leave their lands, leaving them in the hands of property speculators, whose industrial and residential developments ensure neither the social fabric of our rural areas, nor a regard for the natural environment. Such a situation is a disaster for Lebanon’s poor, for Lebanon’s natural and social environment, and for Lebanon’s food security.

Bringing change

SEAL matches rural entrepreneurs working for the benefit of their communities, and committed to producing good, clean, and fair products locally, with grant financing from private entrepreneurs. Acting in the same way as an investment manager — with an eye to the financial sustainability of the project, the social and environmental impact per dollar, and the viability of the business model — SEAL invests in the most ambitious and under-resourced nature-based enterprises across the country.

Fouad Abdo, the 50 year-old founder of Le Bon Lait cooperative in Akkar (north Lebanon) is a typical SEAL grantee. Enthusiastic and committed to his region, (“something in the air here makes it impossible for me to leave,”) he founded the cooperative in 2007 and makes natural cheese and dairy products. Ten years on, and in one of the poorest areas of Lebanon (53 percent of the population in Akkar lives below the poverty line), Le Bon Lait now hires a mixed group of 13 women and men from different backgrounds.

In 2015, SEAL purchased a refrigerated truck for the cooperative, allowing them to sell to supermarkets as far as Beirut, to confectioners such as Hallab, as well as door-to-door in the local area. This truck — a $34,000 investment — has allowed the cooperative to transport and sell a 50 percent increase in produce (from 20 to 30 tons). Staff have been able to double their earnings from $800 to $1600 per month, and seven new employees were hired as a direct result, including several women who are working for the first time. As Abdo says, “It’s important for women to be productive. Women didn’t used to have any work except helping their husbands with the land, and working in the house. Since the women have started working here, their personalities have changed — they feel they’re productive, they’re important. They’re helping their husbands with the costs of the house.” Abdo’s remarks shows how SEAL’s model of grassroots economic development not only helps people attain economic stability, it also produces a more equal society.

As with all of SEAL’s factory projects, there is a second layer of impact in the form of income for the seven dairy farmers whose produce supplies for the Le Bon Lait factory.

SEAL’s work stems from the belief that it takes only a nudge to move a group of women from net food consumers to net producers, and help them make money to send their children to school. Joumana al-Taki from Wadi el-Taym (Bekaa) is a case in point. At age 29, she decided to enter the workforce for the first time by training to grind zaatar bought from local farmers and setting up a cooperative to ensure that the benefits of the production spread throughout the community. Thirteen years on, 24 women across religious spectrum produce two tons per month of their special zaatar, walnut, and almond mix. SEAL purchased $23,000 worth of industrial equipment including mixers and roasters for the cooperative, and the impact of this investment has been revolutionary. Production has increased by a factor of 10 (from 200 kilograms before their grant), the cooperative regularly sells all of its natural produce at premium prices, and they are planning to start exporting in 2018. The incomes of the 24 women doubled purely as a result of SEAL’s funding, allowing them to contribute to the family purse, build their independence, and support local farmers.

SEAL’s work also extends to Lebanon’s fishing communities (having distributed almost 9,000 nets to fishermen along the Lebanese coast), and to small-scale irrigation projects. The small town of Anjar in the Bekaa was settled in 1939 by several thousand Armenian refugees, and, according to local lore, there was said to have been a single fig tree amid what was a dry, desolate landscape at the time. Almost 80 years later, there are over a million trees in Anjar. However, severe water shortages have recently threatened agriculture in the area. This year, SEAL supported the installation of a drip irrigation system and the deepening of the local well to 120 meters with presidential permission. The new system will lead to water savings of 20 percent, and an increase in earnings for 35 farmers working on the irrigated lands. As Vartkes Khosian, the mayor of the municipality, says, “The situation all over Lebanon is the same; everybody is rushing to urban areas because in villages there is no opportunity. The government doesn’t create job opportunities for young people to stay in their villages.”

Call to arms

In 20 years, SEAL has implemented 125 projects, including almost 40 irrigation initiatives, a major program distributing 92,000 rootstocks to upgrade fruit tree supply chains, an innovative biocoal project creating energy-efficient blocks of fuel from olive pits in the south, and a factory producing orange blossom water that has farmers, who 10 years ago called the blossoms “the black flower,” now planting new orchards. The projects are non-religious, non-politically affiliated, and spread throughout the entire country. They are united by an approach that sees community-based enterprises as viable businesses that need nothing so much as careful incubation, and an injection of liquidity. Because you may need a doctor occasionally, but you need a farmer three times a day.

During times of urgent need in Lebanon, SEAL has been ready to provide strategic and targeted support to those rural entrepreneurs best able to leverage the investment. Directly after the July War in 2006, SEAL acted quickly, raising its largest ever amount of funds, and investing in livelihood rehabilitation clinics across the country, helping rural people, and particularly women, rebuild their lives and empower themselves. Today, Lebanon is at a similar crisis point, with poverty at its highest level since the end of the war in 1990, and Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organizations focused on alleviating global poverty, estimating an increase in poverty by 66 percent since 2011 alone. In response, SEAL has seen a significant increase in demand for its funds, and is scaling up its activities.

There is enormous opportunity in nature-based enterprise, and in order to maximize its benefit to communities, farmers need the support of like-minded and entrepreneurial individuals across the globe. In this, SEAL’s 20th year, the organization is issuing a call to all entrepreneurial individuals in Lebanon: to join hands with rural entrepreneurs and be ready to participate in breathing new life into our countryside, rather than leaving it to property speculation and rural exodus. It is time for Lebanon to take advantage of its considerable human and territorial capital, and to bring a revived present to its mythological landscape.

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