Farmers struggle to stay on their land

TYRE, Lebanon, 17 March (IPS) - “I think the biggest challenge is to stay in the village,” says Ibrahim Sayyed, a 28-year-old municipality accountant from the beleaguered farming town of Aitaroun, situated barely a mile from the heavily patrolled Blue Line and Israel beyond.

“My father and grandparents told me stories going back to 1948. All this time there has been war.”

Sayyed is watching the distribution of up to 120 goats to impoverished local dairy farmers in Aitaroun’s dusty town square, a joint effort by the Tyre-based Mine Action Coordination Centre in South Lebanon (MACC-SL) and international charity World Vision, to improve agricultural livelihoods for those hit especially hard during the conflict with Israel in 2006.

Hassan Issa, a bearded 25-year-old family man, hauls three goats towards his truck parked along the edge of the square. He lost two-thirds of his 250-strong herd during the conflict, and an additional 40 to unexploded cluster munitions scattered in the fields. Issa himself fell victim to an exploding sub-munition just over a year ago, losing his hearing in one ear, and scarring the side of his head, torso and leg.

The town’s residents suffered mass casualties from Israel’s heavy bombardment, including the deaths of 11 al-Akhass family members at their home on 16 July, and ten relatives from the Awada family sheltering in their basement the following day.

“Aitaroun had hundreds of animals that died during the war from the bombing, or lack of food and water — a combination of factors,” says Dalya Farran, the United Nations media and post clearance officer at the MACC-SL, who is supervising the goat distribution. “And farmers were unable to use their land because of the cluster munitions, so they lost their livelihood.”

More than half of Aitaroun’s population of roughly 17,000 live in Beirut, or abroad in countries like Australia, Canada and the US, while the remaining residents — who survived without electricity or telephone lines until the end of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000 — rely predominantly on subsistence farming of tobacco, olives and rearing livestock for milk, cheese and meat.

The tobacco harvest, subsidized by the Lebanese government which in turn exports the crop, fetches the most reliable average income of around 2,000 dollars per year, but it is time-consuming and grueling work. Olive harvests require less cultivation and irrigation, and 20 liters can make 200 dollars, selling to the local community.

“Half the working population in the south earns its living entirely from agriculture, which constitutes, overall, almost 70 percent of the total household income,” says a Food and Agriculture Organization report published just after the end of the conflict.

“With the loss of income from harvests and lost animal produce, many farmers have become heavily indebted, as they usually repay their debts during the harvest period (May-October) to secure credit for the following planting and production season,” the report says. “There is much concern that this will lead to a downward spiral of debt and poverty for the Lebanese farmers.”

While town residents wait for the second installment of 20,000-dollar payments pledged by Saudi Arabia and distributed by the Beirut-based government for their destroyed homes, Hizballah has already given various amounts to support each household.

Hundreds of thousands of submunitions dropped by Israel across the south in the final days of the conflict have since been cleared by de-miners. “We clear the land for safety, and for people to use the land,” says Farran. “We do the first part, and then we want the second part to happen. If people don’t use their land, we could just fence it, it doesn’t make sense. People need the confidence to use land,” she says.

Twelve miles west of Aitaroun is the hilly town of Qana, surrounded by lush pastoral fields and olive groves, and famous for the religious site where Jesus turned water into wine. Here, modest cinderblock homes mix with a few more ostentatious structures, built with profits from businesses in West Africa. Like Aitaroun, Qana’s current population is only half its former size at around 10,000, with Hizballah enjoying strong community support. And Qana too has recently acquired a more violent notoriety.

During the fighting between Israel and Hizballah in April 1996, the Israelis bombed the Fijian UN peacekeeping compound in Qana where over 800 of the area’s residents had fled for safety, killing over 100 and wounding another 115. Ten years later, an Israeli bomb targeted a residential block near the town’s Christian site, killing 28 civilians.

Among them was the older sister of Ibrahim Shalhoub, a 28-year-old local farmer. “Before the massacre in Qana (on 30 July 2006), we used to come here every day, but after that we cut the cows loose and my family fled,” says Shalhoub, who now works alongside his father Mohammed to support his family on 30 dollars a day. “We lost seven calves and three cows,” he says. “The rest were ‘dry cows’ — when a cow gets a shock it cannot produce milk. So we sold them for meat and bought new ones.

“During the first six months after the war we were very sad, but many people here were affected, so we all recovered,” Shalhoub says.

Kassem Jouni, a young agricultural engineer with Italian charity Movimondo, is working to help dairy farmers like Shalhoub rebound from their loss, providing feed, equipment and advice. Movimondo’s most ambitious project is the opening of a milk transformation centre in Qana — a state-of-the-art facility where farmers can drop off their excess milk for a fixed, fair price.

“The milk for sure will be tested before it’s admitted, so we can control the quality of milk and the products from it that we are going to sell,” explains Jouni. “The milk will be mainly sold in Qana and surrounding region in small shops. Later on we will make a showroom where people can buy dairy products.”

“It is less costly for us because the milk will be directly marketed inside the village,” agrees Shalhoub. “And so for us the cost of fuel will be cut out,” he adds.

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