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Letter from Lebanon: Farmers Face Uncertain Future

Letter from Lebanon: Farmers Face Uncertain Future

Column and image by Yasmine Ryan

  • See Also: Yasmine Ryan's Letter from Lebanon: Farmers Risk Losing Big Under Trade Liberalisation
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    Farmland near the southern Lebanese village, Sinai.

    (BEIRUT/PARIS 11 May 2007) Ibrahim Akeel has an axe hanging over his neck. Along with his fellow farmers in the southern Lebanese village known as Sinai, the elderly man has little control over his fate and that of his children.

    Like countless peasants across Lebanon, he lives in fear that in the not-too-distant future, a change in heart from one of the four absentee landlords - who own almost all the agricultural land available to the villagers - will destroy their way of life. A complete lack of government protection for smallholder farmers means that there is little Akeel could do if this were to happen.

    Traditional family farmers risk losing their livelihoods, especially as free trade unfolds in Lebanon. With the agricultural industry gearing up for export, the current system of land tenure gives many of them virtually no rights over land that in many cases they have been farming for generations.

    It is large-scale, industrialised farming that is best able to compete in the current international trading environment, in terms of both producing the quality and the sheer quantity required. These farmers are menaced with the possibility of being kicked off land to make way for more capital-intensive farming.

    As the situation stands, 50% of farmland is held by 0.1% of the people in Lebanon. This translates into a Gini coefficient of 69% land inequality (100% being total inequality), one of the world's most unequal land distribution and highest in the Middle East, outlines AUB Professor Rami Zurayk.

    Much of Lebanon's smallholder farming is still run by a quasi-feudal system. A feudal system existed in a liquid form during the Ottoman Empire. Permanent distribution of land was only set in place with formal land titles, however, under a cadastral survey - or land registration - conducted by the French the 1920s.

    This process distributed land in bulk to elites across Lebanon. "The peasants didn't know how to talk to the French. It was the intermediaries who decided who the land belonged to," says Zurayk, who is a professor at AUB's Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences.

    It was a feudal lord named Hussein Derwich who brought Akeel's grandfather and family to Sinai from Marwanieh sometime around 1870, as serfs to work the land. Successive landowners had absolute authority over their workers and at least one, Yousef "Beq" Zein, even ran a tribunal, dishing out punishments to locals in the 16 villages he owned.

    Ever since then, the Akeel family, like other families in the village of Sinai, have worked land owned by somebody else and given a share of their crops or profit to an absentee landlord from out-of-town.

    For many years, farmers in Sinai kept 60 percent of their produce and gave 40 percent to the landowner. That system has eroded and stabilised in many cases � Akeel himself now pays a relatively cheap $300 a year for 35 dunums, less than $9 a dunum. Those that farm olive groves, says Akeel, continue to farm on a 50/50 basis.

    The villagers would like to buy their own land but anytime it changes hands it is sold in such massive chunks that it is far out of their reach. For a long time, recalls Akeel, farming families did not even own the houses in which they lived. During the Lebanese Civil War, he says, the housing situation became increasingly untenable as three or four families were often forced to live in the same small hut in extremely cramped conditions.

    In some villages, there is communal land upon which villagers can farm and build houses, a practice generally tolerated by local authorities despite it being of questionable legality. In Sinai, like other villages founded as feudal farms, there is no communal land.

    In 1987, when the Israelis withdrew from a large portion of Lebanon, local farmers nearly took arms against one landowner who was on the verge of subdividing land and selling it at inflated prices. The locals, says Akeel, wanted the right to buy land in their own village.

    "We'd spent the last 5 years hiding from the Israelis, shooting at them, them shooting back at us," he tells Scoop, his voice full of emotion.

    "We had people die, we had people go to the camps, and now the Israelis have withdrawn, we found ourselves again without the ability to own anything, not even the house in which we are going to live. And to live on top of each other while people from outside come and buy the land which we have worked and which we have defended all our lives. This is unfair."

    Locals began building on the land, which resulted in threats from the landowner to bulldoze the new houses. Villagers were prepared to defend their usurped land with guns.

    It was only through mediation by local representatives of the Shi'a political party Amal that the situation was resolved. Thus locals were able to collectively purchase non-subdivided land off the landowner. They were then able to divide it themselves, resolving the housing crisis. Very few Sinai farmers own any agricultural land to this day, however.

    The real concern for farmers now is the possibility that they may lose access to large portions of the land they have been farming for centuries.

    There was a close-call for villagers when the owner of 1500 dunums decided farmers could no longer farm his land as he was going to establish an ostrich farm. The summer war put a halt to his plans. He has since had locals sign a document with the oversight of the municipality, forgoing any right to obstruct future projects in return for free use of the land in the meantime.

    Samir el Chami from the Ministry of Agriculture confirms that the complete lack of legislation governing the relationship between landowners, and land tenants or farmers creates problems, especially in terms of land maintenance. The factors he sees as being in need of oversight include the land tenure period, the type of cultivation, the tenant's interest, the rent price and the profit.

    At present, details the Director of Plant Management, there are different types of tenancy that have emerged across Lebanon. In the north, the landlord usually takes around half the product or sometimes all, in which case the farmer is given money.

    In the Bekaa Valley, by comparison, farmers pay inflated rent to landowners. Farmers in the Bekaa Valley will pay at least $200 per dunum per year or season. Their French counterparts pay $60-$100, while Syrian farmers pay just $15-$30, according to el Chami.

    Another difficulty faced by many Lebanese farmers, says the Ministry official, is that, especially since there is no law, there are rarely any contracts written between farmers and landowners. This can lead to situations where the farmers lose significantly.

    In one example el Chami gives, after a verbal agreement to lease the land to the farmer for three years, the landowner may then tell the farmer to leave the land after just two years. In such a case the farmer has no legal recourse and could miss out on reaping the rewards of his or her labour and financial investment.

    The Ministry of Agriculture has prepared a draft law to better regulate this relationship. The best case scenario is that it will take at least 10 months to enter into force. El Chami claims this law is extremely thorough and that it will resolve many of the existing dilemmas.

    Redistribution of the land to make landownership more accessible to poor farmers is not an option being considered by the Ministry for the time being, and would be inconsistent with its ideology.

    "There are many ways, besides land redistribution, to facilitate secure land access to farmers" says Zurayk, also a former advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture. These include special taxation on the capital gained by land, to reduce speculations, as well as the enforcement of land use planning and land zoning laws. These laws will end the transformation of farmland into land for urban use and fix their prices, making them available for rental or purchase by small and medium holder farmers.

    Oxfam's Policy Officer for Lebanon, Aiman Mackie, agrees that, because it creates a culture amongst farmers where the outlook is very immediate, insecure land tenure is destabilising for the agricultural industry as a whole. "If you can be kicked off at any time than you can't [be] forward-looking," he adds. Oxfam works to alter the concept of agriculture as not merely sustenance, but rather as a sustainable business.

    Zurayk argues that moves towards more export-based industries in Lebanon are overwhelmingly negative for smallholder farmers with no customary land rights.

    "It's the industrialization of capital-intensive agriculture that has no relation with the land in which it is worked," he maintains. "Removing agriculture, making islands of industrial farming, in which the people become labourers on the lands that used to belong to them by customary rights, and in which they have to compete with imported produce. That's how you create the poor."

    Back in Sinai, the villagers wait. "If a landlord decides - and he can - to stop access to the land," says Akeel, "then he will literally destroy the livelihood of this village here."


    Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently interning with a Lebanese newspaper in Beirut, as part of her Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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