NABATIEH, Lebanon: The carob is now the second most common tree in Lebanon’s southern villages, after the olive, after a decade and a half of investment in its cultivation by successive municipalities.
As the carob has gained popularity, so too have myths about the special properties of the oil its leaves secrete. In south Lebanon the carob has proven an ideal tree for municipalities to grow: It’s an evergreen, bears fruit and doesn’t require too much attention.
Today’s scenery along the main road between Nabatieh Fawqa and the villages of Zawtar Sharqieh and Zawtar Gharbieh is very different from what it was more than 12 years ago, when its verges were open and bare.
Both sides of the road are now lined with carob trees, transforming the entrance to the Zawtar villages into an attractive and verdant haven during both summer and winter months.
The transformation began in 2000, when the municipality of Nabatieh Fawqa planted around 300 seedlings of the decorative trees.
“There was a suggestion to plant evergreens that might also bear seasonal fruits,” the former mayor of Nabatieh Fawqa, Assad Ghandour, said. “The carob tree was chosen as it’s a beautiful tree to decorate roads and the entrances to villages.”
After the seedlings were planted it took three years of care before they started to grow in earnest.
“Today, they have become large trees that provide shade, improve air quality and provide beautiful scenery as well as seasonal fruits,” Ghandour said, adding that five years ago the municipality began to sell farmers the rights to harvest the carob crop from the trees they had planted.
Initially the municipality charged LL100,000 for the rights, but after a number of years as the trees grew and started to bear more fruit, they upped the rate to LL500,000.
Today the fee has risen in excess of LL2 million.
The municipality of Doueir is thought to have pioneered the idea of planting carob trees in the south.
Doueir planted some 150 dunams of agricultural land owned by the municipality between the villages of Doueir, Basfour and Shalbaal in the late 1990s.
However, according to the head of Doueir sports club, Hasib Qanso, the number carob trees was small in comparison with the 30,000 other kinds of trees that were also planted.
“The municipality planted just three dunams of carob trees – about 450 trees,” Qanso said. “Two hundred more were added last winter.”
The municipality of Zawtar Sharqieh received 240 carob seedlings this year from the Shqeef Municipal Union, planting them along a road known as the Litani River Road.
Prior to the year 2000 the municipality had, in coordination with the Environment Ministry, planted on land owned by the Lebanese government between Zawtar Sharqieh and Mayfadoun. A thousand dunams were planted with seedlings, including carob sprouts.
The 2006 July war, however, took its toll on the original planting.
“The Israeli aggression against Lebanon in 2006 did not spare these planted lands, but rather showered them with cluster bombs – it became impossible even for birds to enter,” the mayor of Zawtar Sharqieh, Mustafa Ismael, said, adding: “We couldn’t irrigate the trees so they dried up.”
Ismael also said that the municipality, which was elected in 2010 “decided to reforest the lands and the sides of the roads with mainly carob trees.”
According to Ismael, “the planted seedlings need to be watered and maintained for three years before they can fend for themselves, and because of this we decided to plant gradually – especially as irrigation is expensive.”
The southern municipalities also sell carob-harvesting rights to farmers from outside the region since special equipment, which is often unavailable in the villages, is needed to extract the molasses from the carob corp.
“We expect to build presses for the carob crop in the coming few years in Nabatieh, especially as the cultivation of the tree has spread,” Qanso said
But it isn’t just the carob tree’s aesthetic value or its crop yield that keeps the trees in favor with southern Lebanese. According to Ghandour, carob trees provide good cover for rocket launchpads during wartime. The former mayor also cheekily suggests that the oil on the leaves could disrupt the radar of enemy warplanes, preventing bombs from reaching their targets.