The Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training (LOST) organized an agricultural conference in Baalbeck, in collaboration with Konrad Adaneur Stiffung (KAS), under the title “Promoting Social Stability by Supporting Host Community: Agriculture as a Case Study”, which was held in Tamooz Hall in Baalbeck. The conference was attended by the governor of Baalbeck-Hermel, Mr. Bachir Khodr, head of LOST, Dr. Ramy Lakkis, mayor of Baalbeck, Mr. Hussein Lakkis, head of civil military cooperation in Bekaa, Major Hussein Shukr, representatives of International Donor Organizations in Lebanon, heads and members of municipal councils, and a number of Lebanese farmers.
Dr. Lakkis initiated the conference by explaining that it is an attempt “to promote social stability and achieve it from the developmental angle by improving the agricultural sector, especially since most of the Syrian displacement is concentrated in the agricultural communities, including Baalbeck-Hermel areas”. Dr. Lakkis further explained that some of the reasons for the lack of stability are: an increase in the number of poor families, their sense of marginalization, lack of benefit from humanitarian support programs, and the exclusion of a range of community components from the UN, in cooperation with the Lebanese government. This may be the result of a lack or weakness of support, and lack of effective communication. Most importantly, Dr. Lakkis emphasized that the development of this sector increases employment opportunities and household income, and thus reduces tensions between Lebanese and Syrians.
Mrs. Hana Nasser, KAS representative, presented the various projects that the organization carries out throughout lebanon, and specifically in Baalbeck-Hermel. One of the projects in Baalbeck-Hermel aimed at supporting women and empowering them to participate in municipal and political work. This project attracted more than 100 women, in which some of them were nominated for the municipal elections. Mrs. Nasser pointed out that the challenges faced by this region are poverty, security threat, the deterioration of the ecosystem, and other problems that have worsened with the Syrian crisis. The presence of 360 thousand Syrian refugees in one area led to increased consumption of available resources, and to exacerbate existing social and economic problems, including unemployment and water scarcity, among others. Moreover, Mrs. Nasser explained that “although there is a slight positive impact of the presence of Syrian labor and international grants, the agricultural sector was affected in a large way, which led to many to resort to prohibited cultivation. Finding a lasting solution requires a vision and strategy based on studies and needs assessments, in cooperation between local and state actors and iNGOs”.
The governor of Baalbeck-Hermel, Mr. Bachir Khodr highlighted the most important problems facing the agricultural sector, including the responsibility of the farms, which is the result of weak support from the official bodies. Mr. Khodr pointed out two problems in this sector related to water and production management, which are: high costs of extraction, and an environmental disaster represented by the pollution of the Litani River and the cessation of work in the construction of the Asi dam after the aggression in 2006. Mr. Khodr stressed that the big problem is the irrigation of water plants, which jeopardizes the value of Lebanese products and their exit from competition with the products of neighboring countries, because of pollution, and excessive use of chemical pesticides. Additionally, Mr. Khodr indicated that the cessation of the UN programs to support alternative crops led to some resort to cultivation of cannabis and opium, which is very dangerous, not only at the economic level, but at the social level. The Syrian crisis may lead to a halt or lack of international support, Mr. Khodr concluded, therefore, it is important that Lebanese people become self-reliant in order to solve these problems.
Moreover, Mr. Don Mcphee, country director representative for War Child Holland tackled the potential to transform threat into opportunities, by investing in youth and young labor, enhancing the role of women, and developing their capacities and benefitting from them. He pointed out that among the means that strengthen the agricultural sector is coordination between farmers and the private sector, especially in the absence of official institutions. Mr. Mcphee concluded with two suggestions: to focus on high value crops, where the return is high, and that the production that takes place in Bekaa should be processed in the area. He also suggested to improve the marketing mechanisms of the agricultural sector in Bekaa.
Discussing the water problems in Baalbeck-Hermel, the head of the Distribution and Maintenance in Bekaa Water Establishment, Mr. Mohamad Ismael presented the figures of the Yamouneh project and ways of benefiting from it. He talked about the dams and considered it part of the solution, and also called for the construction of dams to store water for the year.
Furthermore, Mr. Tom Thorogood, UNDP representative, spoke about the role of UNDP in enhancing social stability, and the number of projects implemented in Lebanon and Baalbeck-Hermel. Mr. Thorogood emphasized that it is really important to have policial dialogue at a high level, to look for win-wins, where both Lebanese and Syrians can benefit from simple infrastructure, and to be hospitable.
Representing the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Mr. Maurice Saade spoke about the role of FAO in Lebanon and its programs, particularly those supporting the agricultural sector, supporting home food production, women’s support, agricultural land reclamation, reservoir construction, and agricultural vocational education.
Moreover, Mr. Alex Shine, representing UNICEF discussed the training skills to enhance livelihoods, and stated, “these trainings are focused on youth because Lebanon is a country filled with youth, as well as the competencies required for the market”. He explained that UNICEF provides these trainings in rural and underprivileged areas. Mr. Shine stated that we need to find ways of collectively working together to improve the agricultural sector.
The head of the livelihood unit in the World Food Programme (WFP), Marion Cesar explained WFP’s work in Lebanon and described its plan to “transform the Syrian displacement crisis into opportunities for innovation, through the provision of hundreds of jobs, to implement irrigation and afforestation projects, in which half of the workers are Lebanese and the other half are Syrians”. This allows for communication between the Syrians and host communities, and thus reflects positively on the tension between them and enhances stability, in addition to securing additional income and improving livelihood.
Finally, Mr. Gary Mayhew, director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Lebanon, spoke about livestock as an alternative to agriculture to improve livelihoods. To illustrate this, MCC’s experience with LOST presented the support of dozens of Lebanese families with livestock, and how these families were able to achieve their food security and additional income.
To conclude the conference, round tables were held between the Lebanese farmers and representatives of iNGOs to discuss programs boosting agriculture in Baalbeck-Hermel, food security and facilitation after the Syrian crisis, and recommendations. Lebanese farmers had the chance to express their opinions and concerns.