MANSOURA, Lebanon: Amid the quilt of wheat, potato and cotton fields, a society of farmers suffers from poverty because, in part, they cannot get their produce to markets this year.
The government of Jordan closed its Nassib border crossing with Syria after it fell in hands of Syrian rebels, and as a result fruits and vegetables from Lebanon cannot continue on to the consumers in Jordan or the Gulf. But a handful of families in Lebanon are receiving something they say they’ve rarely been offered before: help.
The International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization will provide 250 small landholders with seeds and equipment so that they can recover a larger portion of whatever revenues they make as profit.
By providing the seeds and equipment, the IOM and FAO seek to reduce planting costs so that farmers can survive when prices have bottomed out.
Habib Nakhleh owns seven dunams of land in Mansoura in the Bekaa Valley on which he grows green beans, peppers and cauliflower. The growing season has been very good this year – “100 out of 100,” according to another farmer, Anwar Hanna – but unless the price of produce suddenly rebounds, it won’t be worth the labor to harvest the vegetables.
Since the start of the Syrian war it has become increasingly difficult to transport Lebanese-grown produce to its main markets. In April, Jordan closed the last crossing along its border with Syria, and Bekaa Valley produce due for export flooded Lebanese markets. Prices plummeted.
Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb stormed out of the last Cabinet meeting three weeks ago, when ministers refused to discuss a $21-million subsidy to help farmers export by sea. He estimated Monday that 900 tons of Lebanese produce is thrown out each day because of the paralysis.
Nakhleh has never been wealthy. His three-room home still bears the marks of the 1982 Israeli invasion. Apart from the home and the land, he has an old truck and five cows to his name. He has four children, and all three sons, 18, 23 and 25 years old, have joined the Lebanese Army for lack of a paying alternative. He tried to send them to school, but he said he didn’t have money to pay for the bus.
Asked who he could turn to in a hard year, Nakhleh said, “Not even our Lord helps us.” He has no insurance. According to Nakhleh’s neighbor, who requested to remain anonymous, every time the area’s small-scale farmers have tried to set up a cooperative they’ve been undermined by the larger-scale farmers, who were only too happy to flood the markets and undermine any attempt at price controls.
The prices small-scale farmers receive are determined, depending on whom you ask, either by a cartel or by supply and demand.
Farmers across the Western Bekaa send their harvest to a large, commercial market in Qabelias, where over 50 traders aggregate the crops, trademark them with their own brands, load their trucks and distribute the product to merchants. Nakhleh calls the traders “thieves of the shade,” referring to what he sees as their comfortable lives. He believes the merchants collude to take more than their fair share from the end sales. Yahya Didi, one of the traders, says prices are set by “supply and demand,” and says there is no collusion.
The market resembles a modern caravanserai, three sides around a vast, paved courtyard. Trucks cross it infrequently now, and one bounces through the main gate every few minutes.
In the past, the market was packed with action. “Refrigerated trucks used to wait up to a week before a space opened up for them to come inside,” says Anton Srour, an IOM manager for the Bekaa Valley. Now, it is a sleepy place, and the loading spots in front of most stalls are vacant. Demand is definitely missing.
“How am I supposed to make a living?” Nakhleh asks. He will receive seeds and equipment from the FAO and IOM program next month.
Srour tried to sound optimistic, saying if Nakhleh can save $1,000 on the price of capital, that’s all the more money for his pocket.
Nakhleh’s brother Nimr, who owns land next to him, is more of a cynic. When experts sponsored by the European Commission visited, they lectured the farmers on the lifecycle of sheep, he said.
“He was born among sheep!” laughed Nakhleh’s neighbor, asking why he would need the lesson.
The experts left them with containers to store fresh milk and hats – beige and affixed with a patch bearing the EU flag.
The FAO-IOM program aims to benefit men and women like Wafa Hamid al-Qasim. Originally from Qabelias, Qasim had been living in Syria since she married in 1989, before the war forced her and her family out in 2014.
In the stiff, bureaucratic language of international law, she is called a “returnee,” because circumstances beyond her control have displaced her back to her country of citizenship. But she says she is simply “displaced.”
“If you’re forced to leave your land and your belongings, this is not called ‘returning to your country,’” Qasim said.
Her family’s livelihood depends on her husband’s irregular income – at most, LL40,000 per day, if he finds work – and a small square of land that is not registered in their names
“My family gave us land,” she said. “They said, ‘Whatever you get out of it, keep it. It’s better than your husband staying unemployed.’”
“[Returnees] have a very similar social profile as the Syrian refugees,” said Maurice Saade, the FAO representative in Lebanon. A 2014 study by the IOM found that half of returnee households could not afford to buy enough food in the previous month.
Worse, they are only partially eligible for U.N. aid. Family members who carry Lebanese citizenship alone do not qualify for refugee relief or food vouchers from the World Food Program. “They’ve fallen within the cracks for the attention of the U.N. agencies,” Saade said.
This is the first time the FAO has worked with the returnees, but despite its best intentions, it simply cannot find enough who hold land to spend the project’s entire $300,000 budget. So it channeled the extra money to Bekaa Valley farmers instead. It is not the original target, but it may help the impoverished population nevertheless.
They will need to convince Hanna, another program beneficiary. “The peasant feeds the world, and he starves,” he laments.