Sunday, May 20, 2007

The other face of Land and People

It’s been a very busy week for Land and People in Lebanon.

Besides being a blog for food, farming and rural society, Land and People is also a rural development program. The motto of the program is “Celebrating local culture/ Enhancing rural livelihoods". It was borne in the aftermath of the Israeli war on Lebanon of July 2006, with the aim of helping local communities of the South rebuild their shattered livelihoods.

The core of the program is the mobile agricultural clinic that goes from village to village, delivering agricultural extension and organizing training sessions on farming, with special emphasis on agroecological practices.

The work of the mobile clinic helps the team identify local products (produits du terroir) that are interesting, promising and in danger of becoming extinct. When a new product is identified, the L&P team works alongside the local community to improve production methods. The goal is to make products that retain their specific characters, while acquiring desirable attributes such as consistency in quality. We then help the community develop a correct pricing system for the products, which are then branded and commercialized. In other words, we take the different elements of the supply chain, improve them and align them so that the chain can run smoothly.

Land and People works with cooperatives, producer groups or even individuals. L&P can also offer support to groups wanting to organize themselves, or to micro enterprises desiring to obtain a bank loan to expand their work.

The L&P products family includes today the famous pure laurel oil soap manufactured by the women of Aita al Shaab. Aita is one of the villages of the south that have been almost erased from the map by the Israelis and which are now being reconstructed. Aita’s women make what is probably the finest laurel soap in the world, from the fruits of the wild laurel that grows uniquely in Aita.

Zaatar (thyme) is probably one of the few spices in the world that also doubles up as a staple. It is eaten in a variety of ways, and it used to be exclusively collected from the wild. A few enterprising farmers have domesticated the wild plant, and produce it today on a small scale (less than one hectare at a time). Abu Kassem from Zawtar, near Nabatiyyeh, is one of those. L&P helped him improve his sales by branding his produce and developing its identity as Zaatar Zawtar. More farmers are now joining in, and Land and People has prepared 50,000 wild zaatar seedlings for distribution fo farmers who want to trygrowing zaatar.

On the faace of it, the Women’s Cooperative of Deir Qanoun Ras el Ayn should not need any support: it has access to a one-hectare farm with its own well, an irrigation system, in addition to a state of the art food processing plant. The farm and the plant were offered by a USAID project implemented by YMCA. The 25 women of the coop were also trained in making jams and preserves and in quality control. However, the project ended before a market could be found for the produce, and the women never made any income from the tens of thousands of dollars that were invested in the project. Moreover, the YMCA project had helped more than 50 such coops, creating a market glut of locally produced jams and preserves.

When the L&P team met with the women of deir Qanoun Ras el Ayn, they were seeking financial support for repairs to their farm. The team fixed the farm equipment with minimal costs, and then proceeded to study local food culture in order to identify one or more products which could become flagship products for the coop.

We found that the village made three interesting breads. One is a sweet and spicy cookie-type of bread, "Kaak el Abbas" (the Biscuit of Abbas) which is cooked and eaten during special religious occasions in South Lebanon. Another is the "Mishtaah Jreesh", a slightly spiced bread made from coarsely ground local wheat. But the most interesting finding was “Millet el Smeed” a thin, crunchy biscuit made mostly from burghul (bulgar), the crushed boiled wheat, and from whole grain sesame. Millet el Smeed used to be made especially for caravan travellers who needed a nutritious food, light to carry, and that did not spoil. This protein-rich biscuit can be conserved in a paper bag for weeks and still retain its freshness. It is worth noting that the combination of burghul and sesame gives this bread a complete amino acids profile. Only 2 old women in the village still knew how to make it.

The Beirut Garden Show, which receives more than 20,000 visitors, was an opportunity to test the public response to these old products. Land and People rented a stand in the Souk el Tayeb space, and presented the products. The response was excellent. People appreciated the products from all three villages, and the sales were very good. The women of Aita sold nearly all their soap. Demand on the 3 breads was so high that the women of Deir Qanoun exhausted their supplies within the first 2 days. Zaatar Zawtar was also very successful and received many orders from returning customers.

The community groups or individuals supported by L&P will manage their own marketing and sales. As of this week, L&P will rent a weekly stall at Souk el Tayeb. Any community group or individual producer benefiting from the L&P services can elect to expose their products in the stall. The stall is managed by the community groups themselves, on a rotational basis. Every group gets to manage the stall at least one week per month. The community groups are supported by a part-time staff member of L&P, usually a student volunteer.

Land and People’s next product will be the Freek of Siddiqine. Freek is the smoked green wheat, which can be cooked and eaten as rice. It is a traditional food which is disappearing because it has been replaced with rice, which travels long distances before reaching Lebanon. Stay tuned.

Land and People projects are implemented through the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut, and are funded by money from individual donations, by SEAL (Social and Economic Action for Lebanon) and by the Henrich Boell Foundation. The total project funds are $50,000 USD.


Bedouina said...

I absolutely love this project. Tell me where I can send a check.

Also I blogged you. You are my dream come true! Who knew there were Lebanese doing sustainable agriculture in Lebanon? I am so happy.

Anonymous said...

Great project. well done! Can I donate some products which may be useful for the for the women?