Koura’s Olive Trees Being Used as Firewood

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What on Earth was my father thinking when he decided to trouble himself and grow olive trees (Photo: Khaled Ghourabi)

By: Danny al-Amin, Robert Abdallah

Published Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lebanon’s olive farmers are still trying to sell last year’s surplus harvest, but with little rain and costly labor, this year’s harvest will test their mettle.

“Thank Goodness, I have managed to uproot 50 olive trees this year,” declares Alfred Daher, one of the most prominent olive growers in Koura. The 70-year-old, who hails from the town of Kfarhazir, is finally convinced that “only madmen accept to work at a loss.”

Daher wonders, “What on Earth was my father thinking when he decided to trouble himself and grow olive trees, leaving a trade behind that has brought us nothing but heartache?”

Daher has come to believe that the problems of olive cultivation are but a drop in the ocean in a country whose government is ultimately only interested in the tourism sector. He remarks that the only profit he makes from his olive trees is by selling them as firewood.

Of the many problems impacting olive cultivation, Daher believes one in particular is most disastrous: the low market price of olive oil due to the influx of impostor oils. Fake olive oil is billed as the real thing and doesn’t cost more than $10 per can (about 16 liters).

The Koura region is olive country. Most of the region’s towns have olive groves or at least an olive oil mill. Some operate traditional cold presses, which produce high-quality oils, and others have modern presses, which produce oil in larger quantities.

George Constantine Ainati, chairman of the Olive Growers Association in Koura, said that many farmers have not harvested their crops this year.

The reason for this, according to Ainati, is that they still have large stocks of olive oil from last year that they could not sell because the Lebanese market is flooded with imported olive oil. This is despite the fact that Lebanese olive oils are lauded internationally, making Lebanon among the top five producers of quality olives.

Ainati finds it odd that the government has abandoned domestic olives in favor of what he calls “the mafias that import or doctor olive oil.” Ainati contrasts Lebanon’s position with Jordan, which decided to ban olive oil imports a few days earlier.

In the southern towns of Bint Jbeil and Marjayoun, residents and farmers say this season is promising, with trees producing bounties of olives. “This season comes at a time when it is most needed,” says Fadi Haidar, citing fewer jobs and sources of income. For this reason, townspeople are laboring in the fields themselves to save on labor costs.

In the town of Aitaroun, the townspeople say economic conditions are extremely bad. One resident remarks, “Everyone must pull their weight to harvest the olive trees without hiring laborers, so we can maximize production to prepare for any lean days ahead.”

Men and women thus went to the fields, taking leave from their day jobs. “A large number of parents even took their kids out of school to help with the olive harvest,” says Ahmad Qashmar, a resident of Adaisseh.

In the early morning, Qashmar and his family go to the distant field that he owns in the village of Yuhmur to pick olives from its 50 trees. He has not hired any help because that would cost him half of the season. “We don’t know if we will be able to produce a lot of oil, because it has not rained yet, unlike in previous years,” he says.

Mohammad Khalaf also predicts less olive oil this year. He observes that last year, 40 trees yielded yielded ten cans of oil. This year, the same amount of trees has produced only four.

Khalaf points out that laborers are indispensable to the harvest. Due to emigration, the number of farmers has dropped, so olive field owners “have no choice but to hire costly labor.” Khalaf says that the laborers receive the equivalent of half the season’s value, while oil mill owners ask for about ten percent of the oil produced.

Mohammad Yaqub stresses, “Olive oil needs a lot of attention. It should be stored in dark containers made of non-ordinary plastic, since its quality is quickly affected by air, light, temperature, and the quality of the container itself.”

The second issue on farmers’ minds this season is the drought. Ahmad Qashmar says that since the trees receive little rain the summer, farmers rely on rainfall in September and October.

This year, however, there has been no rainfall, prompting all the olive tree growers to bring the harvest forward. “The trees do not dry up only because of changing climate, but also because farmlands, which depended on natural fertilizers in the past, are no longer cared for, and are gradually disappearing,” says olive farmer Sami Rammal.

Mohammad Safadi, a resident of Tibeh, said that he is one of dozens of Lebanese who used to live in Syria and who returned to their villages in recent months because of the conflict.

“We look for any chance to work, including in picking olives,” says Safadi.

The wage currently paid for doing this kind of work ranges from $25 to 30 per day.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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