Beirut, Lebanon – As time runs out for government subsidies in Lebanon, the troubled country faces an uphill battle to keep its population fed as food prices continue to rise, driven up by an ever-deepening liquidity crisis and a severe dependency on imported foreign goods.
Despite having the highest proportion of arable land in the Arab world with more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres), Lebanon’s own agricultural sector has gone underfunded and underdeveloped for many years, hindered by a lack of modern equipment and inefficient production techniques.
Now, with Lebanese farmers unable to even cover their own operating costs and the government paralysed by political deadlock, international NGOs such as Anera have been forced to upscale their aid programmes to fight back against the rapid socioeconomic decline.
“I think that Lebanon is a rich country that has not been developed to its potential, and not just in the agricultural sector,” Samar El Yassir, Anera’s Lebanon country director, told Al Jazeera.
“With the bad governance we have instead of optimising our resources many times we are diminishing [them].
“Our interventions are at a grassroots, community level and not a policy level. There is not a government to influence. We are trying to find ways to build resilience and sustain these communities through these crises.”
In happier times, some of Lebanon’s farmers made a tidy profit selling produce to foreign markets. However, this has led to a system of diminishing returns as those markets have become inaccessible.
Saudi Arabia suspended all imports of Lebanese fruit and vegetables back in April after a shipment of pomegranates was found to have been used to smuggle millions of Captagon pills into the kingdom, cutting off an important revenue stream and tainting the image of Lebanese produce internationally.
“Lebanon grows quality produce that sells at high prices in the Gulf region,” said Serene Dardari, Anera’s communication and outreach manager.
“When agricultural exports fetch high prices, Lebanon imports the same products from other neighbouring countries in order to benefit from the price difference and taxations, which is not really a sustainable economic system.
“Infrastructure and technological support is weak or nonexistent,” she continued. “Water supplies are in constant shortage due to a crucial lack of dams, which would otherwise allow for the use of surplus rainwater for irrigation and other functions, despite Lebanon having the highest rainfall levels in the region.”
In Lebanon’s coastal Akkar district, one of the country’s most fertile regions, Anera has been providing farmers with tools and technical assistance, as well as high-quality seeds and pesticides, while also helping them to take on additional agricultural workers, many of whom are Syrian migrants.
This then allows farmers to expand their farmland and establish new plastic greenhouses and irrigation tubing systems, also provided by Anera.
“Many of our rivers are polluted and much of the land is not used properly,” explained Yassir. “We are teaching farmers how to do irrigation with water that isn’t polluted and with good practices. The hope is that this will not only improve their incomes, but also the quality of the food they produce.”
Dardari added: “The driving notion behind this is to teach a man how to fish rather than to give him one. By increasing the farmers’ capacities, as well as both the quantity and quality of their yields, we are trying to minimise their dependency on aid.”
With this scheme, the NGO hopes to provide a model for a more productive and profitable agriculture industry. This would allow Anera – as well as other organisations and local communities – to further build upon this for the future with an approach scalable to the resources available.
Fears of ‘brain drain’
In order for this development to continue in a meaningful and long-lasting way, a new generation of farmers is required to carry it forward. With so many Lebanese graduates and professionals leaving the country in search of a better life elsewhere, that may prove difficult.
“What concerns me as [both] a Lebanese and a development professional in this country is the ‘brain drain’ across all sectors,” lamented Yassir.
“One of Lebanon’s many resources is its people. [We] have access to good education, so we [need to] utilise these talents.”
Fortunately, Anera may have found a potential solution to this issue by offering young people a chance to try out farm work for themselves, synergising with their other development initiatives.
“We are investing in training youths in agriculture, placing them with different farmers so they can gain more experience while also helping these farmers,” said Yassir. “We are also helping them set up their own small agricultural practices on their own land.
“Lebanon has fallen and we need youth and communities to build it again,” she added. “Lebanon needs a government that is able to enact the reforms that are currently holding back foreign aid.”
By cultivating interest in the field among the younger generation, the NGO said it will come to appreciate the need for sustainable agriculture and possibilities it can offer as a potential career path.
With fuel subsidies also coming to their end, many in Lebanon are bracing for further dramatic increases in food prices, as farmers require large volumes of fuel to operate their machines and transport their goods to market.