A Network Of Community-led Initiatives Is Giving Answers To Lebanon’s Structural Issues

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By Emmanuel Haddad

George Tekle, once a taxi driver, turned to cultivating the land in his hometown, Majdel Meouch, located in the Chouf region, during the crisis.

“We need to make ends meet,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.

The rising costs of imported fertilizer, however, strained his budget.

Luckily, one day, he bumped into a group of young people passionate about agroecology. These people were part of an NGO called Jibal, which runs a support program for farmers transitioning to agroecology. The program leverages emergency funds sent in the aftermath of the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that occurred in the port of Beirut in 2020.

With Jibal’s assistance, Tekle revitalized the local village co-op. Three additional farmers also adopted the integrated method and reduced their use of pesticides to a minimum.

 

          At the Nation Station farmers market, George Tekle chats with a customer. (Credit: Emmanuel Haddad)

 

“My parsley thrives solely on water from the Damour River,” Tekle said as he handed a customer four fresh bunches at Nation Station in Geitawi, Beirut, where he sells his products.

Nation Station is a former petrol station transformed into a solidarity kitchen after the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

“The crisis presented an opportunity,” explained Jad Awada, one of Jibal’s team members and a former executive with the auditing firm Deloitte. “After the explosion, I was shot in the face by a policeman during a demonstration,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour in the offices of al-Beit al-Aam (“The Common House”) in Ashrafieh. Al-Beit al-Aam houses various initiatives and cooperatives.

“I resigned overnight. Working for the system that caused the crisis no longer held meaning for me.”

Currently, Jibal trains approximately 15 farmers in agroecology techniques and cooperative establishment and assists them in entering new markets.

Several farmers, including Hadi Awada, Jad’s brother, have already embraced the advantages of sustainable agriculture. Hadi started an earthworm farm. Unfortunately, it faces disruption due to the ongoing conflict between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group based in Lebanon , and the Israeli army on the southern border.

Those who have embraced sustainable agriculture currently find themselves in a dilemma. To tap into the organic market, which remains a niche, they must secure certification from organizations such as Libancert or the Mediterranean Institute of Certification (IMC), which takes several years. Otherwise, they sell their produce at discounted rates in the wholesale market.

That’s why they need an alternative: “We established the ‘harvesters’ market’ at Nation Station [in Geitawi] last year to enhance accessibility to agroecology and provide a platform for producers in transition,” said Awada.

Creating a self-sustaining ecosystem

Yet, how does one provide quality food at affordable prices without public subsidies?

Karim Hakim, a member of a co-op grocery shop in Beirut’s Basta neighborhood, believes he has solved this seemingly impossible puzzle through the Dikken al-Mazraa grocery store.

The store features stalls selling Tekle’s cabbages, natural cleaning products, and homemade mouneh (dried or preserved foodstuff) products from 40 Lebanese producers committed to sustainable farming practices.

The store also has a unique feature. “When customers register with us, they can fill a questionnaire that enables us to assess their capacity and adjust the pricing of goods based on their social category,” explains Hakim.

“To stay afloat, we’ve introduced food baskets at Nation Station in collaboration with the Mada association,” Hakim said. “We’re exploring additional revenue streams, such as workshops and catering services.”

“Additionally, we’re contemplating cost-sharing initiatives with like-minded ventures,” added Hakim, who is also a former primary school teacher turned grocer in 2020.

 

  Farmer George Tekle carries a customer’s vegetables into the Nation Station market. (Credit: Emmanuel Haddad)

While Hakim recognizes that the Dikken al-Mazraa grocery shop has yet to discover the ideal model in the past three years, Layal Boustani, Mada’s director, believes the survival of these emerging players hinges on their ability to establish an autonomous ecosystem. Their website states that Mada is a Lebanese NGO that aims to reinforce the relationship between local communities and their natural environment.

“We are developing a project for an alternative agricultural model that will empower around a dozen similar initiatives to directly engage with 20 farmers, aiming to pool transport costs and reduce expenses on both ends of the chain,” Boustani said.

Mada, who collaborates with Jibal on a national agroecology coalition project, is also keen on “formulating the long-term strategy for these initiatives, many of which have spontaneously emerged in response to the crisis.”

Emerging after the crisis, this network of initiatives, cooperatives, and social solidarity enterprises, some long in the making, is merging into what Joan Chaker described as “a critical mass.”

Three years ago, Chaker enrolled her only daughter, Dunya, in Horshna (“our forest” in Arabic), an open-air nursery school where mutual assistance is a core value.

Around a dozen pupils aged 3 to 5 gather three times a week in the Baabda forest and twice a week in Horsh Beirut under educators’ guidance in alternative education, alongside its director, Dahna Abourahmeh.

“Our program adapts to the seasons, and it’s the children who shape it through observations, leading to the creation of games and stories,” Abourahmeh said. “For instance, during winter, many stories originate from exploring mushrooms.”

Much like the mycelium of mushrooms, the vital underground network in the forest’s life, children from diverse social backgrounds are learning the importance of cooperation over competition. “We strive to nurture empathy by mixing genders and ages and respecting each individual’s pace,” explained Abourahmeh.

The school headmistress and parents collaborated to create a redistribution system to avoid closure due to a decline in purchasing power. “Everyone pays what they can,” Chaker explained. “This ranges from $8,000 a year for the most affluent to $250 for Syrian families with precarious jobs.”

 

 Two girls from the Horshna school program examine a mushroom under a magnifying glass in Pinewood. (Credit:  Emmanuel Haddad)

Sarah al-Sharif, the director of the NGO Ruwwad al-Tanmeya in Tripoli, had been actively practicing the benefits of collaboration long before the crisis.

“Since 2012, we’ve been offering higher education scholarships to youth in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, providing an alternative to the conflict affecting these impoverished neighborhoods. Recognizing the need for employment for women, we established Atayeb, a catering service, in 2014,” she explained.

“Who came to the rescue of our scholarship recipients during the crisis? These cooks! While donor funds were locked in banks, Atayeb secured up to 65 percent of student grants.”

A couple of months ago, the organization inaugurated Beit al-Mina, a restored traditional house serving as a restaurant in Tripoli’s port district. “The crisis experience emphasized the necessity of diversifying our income sources for greater independence,” Sharif said. “This restaurant currently supports 15 families.”

“In the future, it will also empower us to fund our students’ scholarships, reducing our reliance on donors,” she said as she sat at a table in the restaurant, where Rozana Mohammad and Ali al-Ali, two Ruwwad scholarship recipients, came to take her order.

Not far away, in the heights of Jabal Mohsen, Laurence Dergham works at the social enterprise Roof and Roots, founded by local resident Julia Abbas. Her husband is a day laborer.

“With no fixed salary, we struggled to make ends meet for our two daughters, and I didn’t want to be entirely dependent on him,” said Dergham.

For the past three years, Dergham has produced sanitary towels alongside fifteen employees from the poorest neighborhoods of Tripoli. This 100-percent women-owned business has received support from UN Women and the NGO Acted, especially for procuring machines.

“However, most of the time, it’s the company’s earnings that cover the salaries [$100], so we can’t solely rely on NGOs,” Abbas explained. And emphasized the importance of adjusting the price of her towels: “We sell them for less in the neighboring districts than in the rest of Lebanon.”

“It’s what we call the ripple effect,” said Charif. “You invest once in a student grant or vocational training, and that initial investment creates a lasting ripple effect.”

Regaining control

In Beirut, the ripples from Mansion, a self-managed public art space, continue to extend despite its closure last September.

“It was a vital space that allowed us to host numerous free workshops and meetings, leading to the formation of several cooperatives,” said Rasha Ghanem, who sat on a sofa in Beit al-Aam, one of the new places that took on Mansion’s legacy. The other is Hostel Beirut, a youth hostel damaged in the Beirut blast. Ghanem is a member of Beit al-Aam and Hostel Beirut initiatives.

“The owner had shut [Hostel Beirut] down, but we were unwilling to let the place perish,” Ghanem said. “Together with a collective, we raised funds to renovate it, and we’ve been operating it cooperatively since reopening three years ago.”

Hostel Beirut has transformed into a hub for free events, featuring art exhibitions, film evenings, and collective dinners — a welcomed array of activities in a city becoming increasingly unaffordable for its residents.

At Beit el-Aam, a new performing arts cooperative, Baah, was created. Ghanem is also a member there. “Artists are ensnared in a competitive system where everyone vies for funding and launches their projects,” Ghanem said. “Through the cooperative, we all contribute to administrative, logistical, and creative tasks.”

“Cooperatives empower us to regain control over how we want to live,” she added.

However, most cooperatives emerging in the aftermath of the crisis operate informally. “It’s nearly impossible to register a cooperative, especially if it’s unrelated to agriculture,” said Ghanem.

With a cooperative law dating back to the 1960s, a cooperative directorate shunt aside within the Ministry of Agriculture in the early 2000s, and the misuse of this status by politically connected companies seeking tax exemptions, challenges abound.

“Today’s cooperative sector is stifled by poor legal frameworks, significant funding gaps, and cynical politicization,” stated a 2020 report by the Triangle Research Center, revealing that 300 cooperatives had been shut down that year due to inactivity.

 

‘The system is gridlocked’

But Alaa Sayegh, co-founder of Daleel Tadamon in 2020, an organization supporting cooperatives and social enterprises, remains optimistic.

“Convinced that we needed an economy different from the system that led us straight into the wall, we approached the cooperatives directorate,” he said. “Surprisingly, they didn’t have any contacts for us!”

 

                 A Roof and Roots employee makes sanitary napkins in Jabal Mohsen. (Credit: Emmanuel Haddad)

“So, over three months, we traveled around Lebanon to compile a list of some 1,000 existing cooperatives, specifying those that were inactive and those that needed support,” Sayegh explained.

He made the list available to management and the public on the organization’s website, which aids struggling cooperatives and supports people looking to set up new ones.

When economist Jad Chaaban initiated Shreek (Arabic for “partner”), Lebanon’s first cooperative bank, in 2021, which has now come to a standstill, he faced challenges in obtaining official status.

However, like others, he persevered in launching this initiative and provided dollar loans to micro-businesses struggling with a lack of credit. “For two years, we demonstrated that an alternative existed, but we also encountered obstacles,” he remarked.

Shreek came under immediate scrutiny by the central bank’s commission, responsible for overseeing the microcredit sector since the adoption of Banque du Liban (BDL) Circular No. 93 in 2004.

“The system is gridlocked,” said Chaaban, a researcher and political activist. “There are numerous solutions in Lebanon, but the corrupt system allows them to exist only as long as they don’t disrupt the established monopolies.”

 

                    The children of Horhsna, in the Bois des Pins park in Beirut. (Credit: Emmanuel Haddad)

In the meantime, initiatives continue to emerge informally, addressing practical needs rather than catering to grand aspirations.

“At the moment, I’m mobilizing a network of influential individuals to address emergency cases, especially when a Syrian refugee faces deportation or a domestic worker is threatened by her employers,” said Ghassan Halwani, the father of little Dunya and co-founder of Mansion. “The prevalence of crises compels us to seek solutions on a case-by-case basis.”

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, Lebanon. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. Its republished within the Human Journalism Network program, supported by the ICFJ, International Center for Journalists.

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