Tuesday, October 14, 2008

They're nuts

The Lebanese government has removed import tariffs on...pine nuts. Apparently, imports from Turkey and China are flooding the market, endangering the livelihoods of thousands of pine growers. This is a really silly move, one that can potentially have tremendous impacts on land and people in the mountain. Let me explain why.

The pine trees from which we obtain the delicious pine nuts (snawbar) is called Pinus pinea. In Lebanon it only grows on the red sandy soils of the mountain, soils formed on a geological strata called the Basal Cretaceous. Unlike the vast majority of all other geological formations of Lebanon, this one is not calcareous, and it provides the neutral pH necessary for the growth and survival of pine seedlings. The people of the mountains quickly realized the economic potential of the snawbar pine, and they planted it wherever they found red sandy soils, and where there is enough rainfall to allow trees to grow. The snawbar pine forest almost perfectly match the patches of red sandy soils, and their dense and lush growth makes them look like turf carpets covering the slopes of Mount Lebanon. They're found in the Metn, in the Gharb (Aley) in the Shuf, and in one of the biggest forests is in the south, Bkassine near Jezzine.

Their contribution to rural life is unquestionable: Their cones are harvested and emptied of the nuts which are then sold for a very good price, and sometimes exported. At one time in recent years, pine nuts were one of the most profitable exports from Lebanon. The empty cones are burned for heating in the summer, and the wood of the dead trees and of the pruned branches is also used at home, for building or for heating. The dead needles are also picked and used to light fires.

The cultivation of pine trees is also very important for protecting forested areas. The trees are pruned yearly in a very specific fashion, as an umbrella, hence the name they are sometimes given: umbrella pine, or in French: pin parasol. Pruning is essential to have good sun penetration and good yield of cones. To harvest, one must climb the trees using ropes. The need to circulate in the forest for cultivation, and the pruning of the trees makes it such that forest fires are less likely to occur: there is less fuel, as the undergrowth is cleared; and the branches are kept very high, so they cannot easily catch fire. This is lucky because pine, unlike oak, cannot sprout from a burnt stump. In places where the pine forests have been abandoned, forest fires have been more frequent and more murderous. This is usually followed with landslides as the sandy slopes do not hold well in place. The damage is often irreversible and the end result is what we know as badlands: a desolate, dry, desertified landscape where barely anything grows.

Back to the unwise governmental decree. I'm not sure what drove the government to take this measure, but I'll stake my money on lobbying by the Party of Wealth and Power, otherwise known and the rich merchants. I'm not totally against easing out tariffs when it comes to basic commodities needed by the poor, unavailable on local markets and cheaply available elsewhere, if accompanied with clear agricultural development programs to support import substitution when possible. But pine nuts? I mean that's really NOT a basic staple. The sweets industry uses them in large quantities, but that's about it. The rest of the population uses it very parsimoniously to decorate rice dishes and other foods. So we deduce that the baqlawa makers of Lebanon constitute an influential lobby. Incidentally, the large ones are concentrated in Beirut, Saida and Tripoli.

The problem of course is that pine culture is one of the last profitable farming systems of Mount Lebanon. It is also one of the systems that is in symbiosis with the forest: destroy it and you destroy the forest. If farmers stop maintaining the pine forests, they (both farmers and forest) will soon be gone, replaced by sliding badlands and rural poor. Great for real estate speculators, but really bad for everyone else.


Ms Levantine said...

Great post, tks.

The Bkassine forest is amazing. I hope it does not get destroyed if the price of pine nuts collapses.


Ms Levantine said...

BTW, in the case of Bkassine, the municipalty owns the pine forest (mache'h) and there is a bidding war once a year to auction the right to harvest the nuts.

Lately the winning bid has been over $200,000. So the whole process generates substantial income to the town.

Harvest time starts in November, after the olive harvest, and lasts till March. Usually 10 to 12 workers are used every day. When the weather is rough, work stops.

The cones are harvested in the winter when they are closed, and they are put in the sun in May so they open up.

The municipalty manages the forest. It pays for the natoor, as well as for the crews who cut the dead branches and keep the ground clear of combustible pieces.

The baladi pine nuts are more popular in Lebanon although they are more expensive than the Turkish product.

Now if the import prices become substantially lower, then eventually the municipality will find another use for the forest, a nice real estate project for eg.(a.k.a a Sontre).