Lebanon: Call for Agricultural Revival


Broadcasts from Beirut VII: Rami Zurayk professor, activist in Beirut: Land and People.


    Photo: Shattered glass in south Lebanon.

A Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon on the ongoing conflict, voices independent from major political parties…

May 2008 saw political turmoil in Lebanon reach its most violent peak since the end of the official end to the Lebanese civil-war in 1990. A negotiated political treaty has brought temporary peace however fails to address the poverty at the core of this tension.

This interview with professor Rami Zurayk in Beirut presents a critique of the recent Doha agreement. Critics argue that the Doha agreement is a testament to how mainstream Lebanese political leaders continue to neglect the ongoing economic crisis, compounded by Israel’s military attack in 2006. Lebanon’s agricultural areas in the south were particularly devastated, leading to major internal displacement following Israel’s attack, as farm lands remain strewn by thousands of cluster bombs dropped by the Israeli military.

Professor Rami Zurayk is at the American University of Beirut has been teaching in the domain of Agriculture and Food Sciences for over thirty years. In this interview, Zuryak outlines urgent economic issues surrounding agriculture in Lebanon which need to be addressed to attain sustainable internal peace.

Dalia Merhi: On your site Land and People you report on the recent Doha agreement by Lebanese leaders to appoint the army chief Michel Sleiman as President. After months of political deadlock and recent violent street clashes many commentators view this appointment as an opportunity for stability. Can you explain why writers like Khaled Saghieh express concern concerning this agreement?

Rami Zurayk: Michel Sleiman’s election does not resolve the core, deeper issues that create conflict in Lebanon. It does not resolve any serious social issues faced in Lebanon; the growing poverty rate, the growing wealth disparity, the income inequality that defines Lebanon’s economy today.

Michel Sleiman is presented by many as a neutral arbiter between Lebanon’s two major factions. One faction represented by the former government is now recovering from recent events and the other the Hezbollah-supported opposition has gained politically from utilizing its weaponry inside Lebanon.

Dalia Merhi: Speaking of neutrality and the Lebanese army, can you expand on the commentary from Khaled Saghieh in Al-Akhbar that asks readers to remember what happened in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared?

Rami Zurayk: Many political analysts generally from the left but not exclusively, people who are committed to the Palestinian cause can’t but not remember the fact that the Lebanese army had no hesitation in destroying the entire Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. This military operation in Nahr el-Bared occurred under the leadership of Lebanon’s new President Michel Sleiman as the head of the army. An entire refugee camp destroyed simply because around one-hundred from the Fatah al-Islam, a radical Islamic group, sought refuge in the camp.

It’s important to remember that this group, Fatah al-Islam, implanted itself by force into Nahr el-Bared, a refugee camp in which around 30 000 Palestinian refugees lived. In order to extract Fatah al-Islam from the camp the Lebanese army utilized extremely brutal tactics, resulting in the death of more Lebanese soldiers than Fatah al-Islam people in the end. Also this military action resulted in the annihilation, the total destruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, which houses the poorest of the poor in Lebanon.

Dalia Merhi: Another reaction to the recent agreement, surprising to many, was the dismantling of the 17-month old opposition sit-in, a protest against Fouad Siniora’s government in downtown Beirut. Do you think that the Lebanese opposition feels it no longer needs to apply civil disobedience after having asserted its fighting capability or superiority against the Lebanese government and allies?

Rami Zurayk: Today Lebanon faces an extremely, extremely delicate situation. With each solution comes a problem that is equal in size.

Hezbollah crossed a critical line, breaking a taboo for many in Lebanon, which was the using of their military strength, the strength of the Lebanese resistance on the streets of Beirut.

Many people argue that this was an action that Hezbollah had to take because the attack from the government was directly on Hezbollah’s weapons. Many also say that civil disobedience campaign could have become stronger on the opposition side, arguing that with increased civil disobedience tactics the opposition could have reached their goals. Now in Lebanon, without a doubt, when Hezbollah promises to not use weapons internally, people in the country are going to take the promise with a grain of salt.

In my opinion major civil disobedience action, such as the downtown camp-out, organized by the Lebanese opposition isn’t something that is going to appear again any time in the near future.

Dalia Merhi: Regarding the fighting that took place in Beirut, in your article Behind Beirut’s Sport City, you describe one woman’s experience throughout recent sectarian clashes in a very impoverished area in Beirut. Can you highlight the multiple factors that fuel internal divisions between political parties in Lebanon?

Rami Zurayk: Today in Lebanon there is a division along sectarian lines everywhere in the country, this is without a doubt. The division along class-lines, between the opposition and the former government, is almost non-existent. Sectarian leaders from all sides, Shi’ite, Sunni, Druze or Maronites have been able to gain control over the Lebanese population poor and rich.

Of course the rich have a certain margin in which to maneuver, driven by their fear of the other more than anything else. Lebanon’s very rich are simply driven by a desire to rest in control.

Today Lebanon’s poor is an extremely significant element to Lebanon’s population. According to the most recent U.N. statistics approximately 40% of the people in Lebanon are below the poverty line.

In areas like Akkar, in Northern Lebanon, levels of poverty drastically increase to almost 70% of the population. People within areas like Akkar become the perfect prey for sectarian leadership, which arms disadvantaged people for their own political wars.

Now why are people from poor districts drawn to these sectarian leaders? Well tangibly support for a specific party can contribute to financial assets, many people get paid cash to support these leaders. A few hundred dollars each month can assure an entire family their survival in such circumstances. Manipulative tactics employed by sectarian leaders on the poor is based on the belief that people can gain standing with a strong sectarian leader, people quickly believe then that they are close to power, that they have a voice.

For many people today their survival in Lebanon, in terms of accessing a basic job, retaining their home that might have been constructed illegally, is contingent upon supporting a particular leader or party.

Also generally all the sectarianism that is being fueled by the Arabic media, specifically the satellite channels leads people to become more and more polarized.

Dalia Merhi: Many in impoverished people in Lebanon were forced to migrant during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, multiple villages that were extensively bombed in the south. Also in your writing you address a more gradual migration of agricultural workers from areas devastated from Israeli cluster bombs. You address this in your article; Why South Lebanon remains unfarmed this year. Can you address what this process has meant for the country in terms of economic repercussions?

Rami Zurayk: Let’s travel back to August 2006. Two days prior to the official end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, a ceasefire had been agreed to between all major sides. At this point Israel requested 48 hours before the ceasefire would be implemented, before Israel would stop firing. This type of situation is unheard of within U.N. ceasefire resolutions.

At this time the ‘international community’, which is often a coded term often for the U.S., granted this extra time to Israel, leading to the carpet bombing of southern Lebanon being with cluster ammunitions.

Recent an important international treaty has been signed, with support from the U.K., calling for a global ban on cluster bombs simply because how murderous these bombs are. The U.S. attempted to block this international agreement on cluster bombs but it is going forward.

Today it’s unclear how many cluster bombs remain in southern Lebanon but remain a life threatening danger. However what is clear is that there are still victims to these bombs in south Lebanon quite often, people who are seriously injured, or people who loose their lives.

Only last week I traveled to an area in southern Lebanon and then a couple hours later, a bomb was discovered in the exact area even though people thought that this area was safe from cluster bombs.

Cluster bombs cancel agricultural production in very large parts of Lebanon’s agricultural areas, areas that once were harvested for wheat, for barley, for tobacco and many other crops. Also many olive orchards have been abandoned. All this is a very, very significant contributor to the decline of the livelihood of the people in south Lebanon.

One of Israel’s goals was to try to make south Lebanon inhospitable, turn the area into a land where Lebanese can no longer live at this time. Destroying the farming land falls within this goal. Also this violent process carried out by Israel is an attempt to change the culture of the land a land which is rooted in a history of farming and agriculture.

Dalia Merhi: Farmers that are internally displaced to cities in Lebanon are not use to the urban lifestyle, or specifically life in Lebanon’s south suburbs. Clearly this contributes to political tension in Lebanon. Also this creates a situation in which people turn to specific political sides or parties that are viewed as a way to solve instability. Can you comment on this?

Rami Zurayk: If anything this displacement and resulting economic hardship makes people prey to becoming clients to political parties. If people have their own individual livelihood they are able to make choices in a way that is much more independent than if their livelihood has been destroyed.

However what has happened in Lebanon and south Lebanon particularly is that people have strengthened their resolve against Israel in a way that is fully understandable, in a way that the U.S. and Israel don’t seem to understand. Simply the more that you hit people in south Lebanon, the more they will become radically opposed to their tortures.

Now Israel and the current administration in the U.S. clearly think that strong arm tactics you can convince people that they must abide to the rules set by force, in this case the Israeli military force. In south Lebanon this idea hasn’t worked since 1982 and in my opinion will never work. Clearly the more Israel is belligerent and violent the more people in south Lebanon will insist on resistance, the more people will fully support the Lebanese resistance.

Dalia Merhi: Can you give your opinion on the ways that Lebanon can tackle the current global food crisis that the poorest in Lebanon and in many countries around the world are now facing?

Rami Zurayk: People in Lebanon and throughout the world don’t have an answer to the current food crisis, or at least an answer that can be translated into policy. There is no doubt that Lebanon needs to regain a certain amount of food sovereignty. It is critical that people in Lebanon are in control of the food that they eat.

In Lebanon we must be able to make a choice on the food we eat, however the current context is that people eat what they are given.

It is critical to think in terms of an agricultural revival. This can’t happen without investment in agriculture and also this can’t happen without realizing that most of the farmers in Lebanon and the entire Arab world are small farmers, they aren’t the big farmers.

Today there are many governments that are saying they want to invest more in agriculture, however they are creating large investment companies that take over land and treat food production like an industry, in which food is another commodity, which solves in the long term nothing.

It is critical that we stress that food is not a commodity in essence because one doesn’t have the choice to not eat.

For a country like Lebanon, focusing on the small farmers first is critical. Working to improve not only the productivity of farmers but also their access to resources, as Lebanon is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of land distribution. Fifty percent of Lebanon’s farm land is owned by less than one percent of the population. Without land farmers can’t farm a reality that more and more farmers in Lebanon are facing today.

Rami Zurayk is a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut. Zurayk is also a social activist, working with rural communities in Lebanon and involved in several grassroots relief campaigns such as the Nahr el-Bared Relief Campaign.

Broadcasts from Beirut is broadcast in audio format on CKUT Radio in Montreal.

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