Thursday, May 3, 2007

Small holder farming: welfare, culture and society

Throughout Lebanon, the small holder family farming sector is ailing. Support to the agriculture sector, when it exists, like the Export-Plus program for export subsidies, targets preferentially industrialized, large-scale export oriented producers and traders rather than small holders. Yet, there are over 150,000 small scale farmers in Lebanon, many of whom produce for subsistence and some minor trading. They form the bulk of the vulnerable population and are geographically and economically at the margins of the country. They live in the North (Akkar), the North East (Hermel), the East (Baalback), the South East (the West Bekaa) and the South (Jabal Amel). They operate without any form of state or aid support, and in the absence of social welfare such as health insurance or retirement funds. Many among them maintain that they practice farming at a loss. To survive as farmers, they use the income from non-farm sectors in which they are also engaged to cover the costs of farming. Why do they stick with it?

Small scale farming occupies a crucial role in the lives of the rural poor: it is their social security fund. Research by a team from the American University of Beirut in the Bekaa and in the South has shown that both rural and urban-with-rural-roots small holders invest into agriculture as their retirement fund. This is especially critical for the self employed (mechanics, taxi drivers, etc…) who have no access to governmental or company retirement plans. Farming (especially fruit and olive trees) is a long term investment that provides them with part of their food requirement (oil and olives, fresh and dried fruits) and some cash income. When they retire, many of those who work in cities move back to the villages where life is cheaper. They tend their lands, and sometimes acquire a few heads of livestock, which they use for food (eggs, milk) or as a contribution to the daily income. Often, this is the sole source of income for the retirees, bar some occasional remittances from family abroad or in the city.

In addition to enhancing the livelihood of the poor, small scale farming renders services to the nation at large. Small scale farming preserves the integrity and typicity of the Lebanese landscape. Without farming, ours would be a desolate, degraded and dry environment. It is farming, rather than forests, that makes it green. Lebanese forests cover only 6% of the total territory, while olive groves cover another 7%, and fruit trees a further 7%. Together, they add up to 20% which is what is commonly recognized as an acceptable figure for tree cover in a country.

Where small scale farming has declined, the result has been the dilapidation of the landscape. Mount Lebanon has born the brunt of this degeneration, and in many places its age old stone terraces have degraded and have been replaced by waste lands. Landscape are not only esthetically pleasant, they have evident economic value. This value is expressed at various levels which include: direct value, such as land prices, agricultural yields, and water yields; as well as indirect value such as biodiversity value, cultural value, social value and aesthetic value. Using a range of techniques, environmental and resource economists are able to allocate price tags to each of these dimensions. The landscape is part of the national wealth. Protecting small scale farming means protecting this wealth.

Local farming is not only esthetically pleasant, it is important for food culture and for health. Due to decades of poor food policies based on the encouragement of imports, Lebanon's food habits have changed. Lebanese cuisine is widely acknowledged to be healthy and tasty, and to share the life-prolonging benefits of Mediterranean cuisine. There are Lebanese restaurants in all major cities of the world, and they promote Lebanon’s image and culture. But in Lebanon, the diet has become westernized, and people eat increasingly poorly, a diet based on meat and fried foods. Our main food imports are live animals, meat and meat products, as well as processed foods from the US, France and Germany. The erosion of Lebanon’s food culture has consequences that go far beyond cultural or nationalistic considerations: obesity and cardiovascular diseases are proven outcomes of a western meat-based diet. These diseases are major killers in Lebanon, and they express the malnutrition of both rich and poor. The human side of the problem is tragic, but there also is a strong economic component to the issue. Health bills associated with these diseases place a heavy burden on both individual and state funds. While Western nations have adopted strict policies on food and diets, and recommend a Mediterranean diet for longevity and health, the local Lebanese diet is disintegrating.

Thus, in addition to serving as a social security fund, small scale farming is also vital for environment, culture and food heritage. Yet, successive Lebanese governments have failed to take action to preserve and protect rural life. Instead, they have declared agriculture a non-viable sector, and have deliberately marginalized it. There are socio-political reasons to this neglect, and they have been discussed elsewhere.


Jester said...

Good day Professor,

I found your Blog through a bothersome and interesting article titled 'Lebanon: France Moves To Incite Civil Unrest' published Saturday, 21 April 2007. It should be noted from my personal standpoint, that even though you may have some truth behind your facts; your interpretation of Frances' intentions as malicious deemed incorrect towards Lebanon. I suggest you look up more France's intimate relationship with Lebanon that has been evolving since the Byzantine era.

France is not the U.S.

Rami Zurayk said...

Good day Jester

The article was about Chirac. Chirac was still France's president then.

As for France's intimacy with Lebanon through the ages, just look at the current political scene...

We read history to understand the present