In the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Europeans and Syrians have created an organic farm, distributing seeds and know-how in the hope of rekindling old farming practices in Syria.
Tucked away from the highway between the Lebanese cities of Chtaura and Baalbek, an unusual group tucks into Saturday lunch at the edge of a field. Some come from nearby refugee camps, others from Beirut’s upscale neighbourhoods. They include farmers, agricultural engineers, bakers and NGO workers. Discussion is animated and centres on freshly baked bread. Which is best, rye or wheat? Iranian or French?
We believe seeds are a common good created by generations of farmers who selected them,
Later the group gathers at Saadnayel organic farm in the fertile Bekaa Valley, to listen to a presentation on organic bread techniques by the American baker Matt Saunders, in Arabic. French siblings Ferdinand and Zoé Beau are behind the series of events which kicked off in April 2017, supported by the Lebanese NGO Sawa for Development and Aid.
Ferdinand, an agricultural engineer, and Zoé have spent years working to boost organic agriculture in the area, setting up a vegetable garden in the lush soil of Taanayel, 70 miles from Syrian capital Damascus. The farm is registered as an NGO under the name Bouzourna Jouzourna, which translates as “our seeds, our roots”.
Agriculture, a key plank in the pre-war Syrian economy, has been hit hard by the conflict, and the Saadnayel project seeks to secure food production for populations on the move due to the crisis.
“Traditional components of modern agriculture, such as improved seeds, pesticides, fertilisers or fuel, are not easy to access in Syria anymore,” Ferdinand tells zenith. “In this environment, it’s necessary to innovate.” As violence has spread, Syrian farmers have been forced to make do, often using smaller plots of land, exchanging seeds with neighbours or making their own pesticides.
Back in 2014, Ferdinand and Zoé toured France and collected 1,500 small bags of heirloom seeds, meaning they have been used over years, often for generations. “We believe seeds are a common good created by generations of farmers who selected them,” Ferdinand says.
The idea is to use this window of opportunity to share knowledge of organic farming, so that when a strong government comes back, farmers can say, ‘We don’t need your help’,
They drove their truck over 4,000 kilometres to the Turkish border with Syria, where they met with activists who smuggled the seeds into the country to be planted by local farmers. To preserve heirloom seeds in the region, they started their own organic farm in the Bekaa Valley, where they run it with the help of Walid Abou Ahmad, a Syrian farmer who owned five hectares of wheat near Aleppo before the war. Their small plot of land is planted with different fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, melons, aubergines and beans.
Produce is sold to locals, and seeds are collected and distributed in refugee camps – officially there are one million Syrian refugees registered with the UN in Lebanon, but Lebanese officials put the number closer to two million. They have also set up a farming school to encourage organic farming techniques among the people living in the camps.
“To preserve our ancient seeds, we take ideas from Lebanon, Syria, and Europe,” explains Walid. He says chemical fertilisers were only introduced to the region over the last 50 years, but many refugees still find their farming techniques odd. “People didn’t understand how we did it without fertilisers. We use traditional techniques, such as protecting the earth with straw.”
Walid also shares his methods via WhatsApp with his family back home in Syria. “They send me pictures of their sick plants and I send them recipes of bio-pesticides that can be made with garlic, for example. It’s cheaper than chemical products.”
Until 2006 Syria was self-sufficient in many commodities, including wheat, legumes, vegetables and fruit, according to the World Health Organisation. But Pierre Blanc, the French author of The Near East: Power, Land and Water, argues that the agriculture sector was already in trouble ahead of the 2011 uprising.
“Climate hazards, population growth and urbanisation which increased the share of other water usages, the dwindling relative weight – meaning political weight too – of Syrian farmers, neighbouring countries’ water projects… everything was threatening [agriculture],” he writes.
With Syrian agriculture still in turmoil, the team at Saadnayel hopes organic farming will help make the local population more self-sufficient. “The idea is to use this window of opportunity to share knowledge of organic farming, so that when a strong government comes back, farmers can say, ‘We don’t need your help’,” says Ferdinand.
Citing the example of Iraq, he argues that post-war international interventions in agriculture are potentially destructive for farming communities. That point is underscored by Bénédicte Bonzi, a PhD student at the French School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), who did field research for her master’s thesis on the disappearance of farmer communities in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2015.
“Even before the American invasion, Kurdish peasants suffered under Saddam Hussein’s agrarian reforms. What is shocking is that today they are still ostracised. A few wealthy land owners that had close ties with the Americans are making money on a pseudo-reconstruction of the region,” she says. “They say they are regenerating soils and keeping farmers on their lands, but in the field you see families have left for the city and are not coming back.”
This is the area of the world where agriculture started 10,000 years ago.
Syria’s agricultural policies before the war were highly centralised and its seed market was officially controlled by the government, according to Salvatore Ceccarelli, who worked for 30 years in Syria with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), an international institution that had an office near Aleppo until the war. As the manager of the barley breeding programme, he worked closely with farmers all over the country. He has now lost contact with them, as most have been displaced during the war.
According to Salvatore, the official system was dysfunctional. “Only 40 per cent of wheat seeds and 10 per cent of barley seeds in the country were coming through official channels. The rest was exchanged between farmers.”
He says the Syrian government was trying to impose a European model of releasing only a small number of highly tested seed varieties. “This could not work. Syrian farmers were still growing very old varieties that were well adapted to the soil, the climate and their usage. And they knew what they were doing. This is the area of the world where agriculture started 10,000 years ago.”
But some equate certified seeds with higher quality yields. “The informal seed sector is less regulated, and may not give access to seed of modern high-tech plant varieties which play an important role in increasing yield and food security,” Csaba Gaspar, programme manager at the OECD in the Directorate of Trade and Agriculture. writes in an email to zenith.
Looking to the future, the outlook for resuming agriculture in many parts of Syria remains up in the air, as does the scope for starting organic farms.
Syria’s future agricultural policies depend on who wins the war, argues Charbel Hobeika, a Lebanese consultant in agriculture and director of a local association of fruit tree nurseries. “Syria has the advantage of space, which is necessary in organic agriculture to avoid contamination from non-organic farms. But it all depends on the Ministry of Agriculture’s policy. If they are not interested, it can’t work.”