Lebanon’s Agricultural Cooperatives: Who Needs the Government?
By: Kamel Jaber
Published Saturday, September 22, 2012
Al-Sharq cooperative was launched in 2005 in Bint Jbeil and the first agricultural experiment began; the planting of savory, which is a thyme-like herb. It was considered a risky venture in an area where water is scarce in summer. They decided to plant six dunums of savory “as an experiment and to ensure minimal losses if the experiment fails,” according to the cooperative’s chairperson, Hassan Ibrahim.
What was not expected was for this experiment to be such a “huge success,” he says. This prompted the cooperative to expand its cultivation of savory and to launch other projects.
Ibrahim says: “We are currently trying to mechanize to the process of stripping the savory to reduce cost and save on labor. This will help the cultivation process to expand horizontally, in terms of planted areas.”
To develop this venture and make it more effective, the cooperative wants to equip a center with a stripping machine. The next phase in the plan is the purchasing of a grinder, which prepares the savory for use in cooking.
Last year “we experimented with watermelon, tomato and all desert agriculture crops, such as cucumber, Armenian cucumber and melon. We planted a limited amount, about 15,000 seedlings, but we were not completely successful until we discovered how to better handle the seeds,” Ibrahim explains.
“We are attempting to transform desert agriculture from a pompous, pretentious and showy agriculture into a productive and lucrative one,” he adds.
Ibrahim points out that “the price of five grams of hybrid tomato seeds is about $30. If we at the cooperative turn these good seeds into saplings and sell them to farmers at cost price, then the price of these saplings would not exceed that of the subaverage kind available in the market. We would save farmers money and their crop production would be a good one.”
After several experiments, the grape tomato proved able to adapt and yield good produce. “If an experiment succeeds we direct farmers towards that crop and provide saplings. If it fails, the farmers are not affected by the adventure,” Ibrahim says.
Work at the nursery is voluntary, which means that the farmers help in conducting the experiments and in irrigation and plant care.
Despite all these successes, the Bent Jbeil cooperative faces the same obstacles faced by all similar ventures in Lebanon.
Based on his experience, Ibrahim believes that “cooperatives are not generally viewed favorably because individualism is more prominent than collective work.”
Also, cooperatives are seen more through a political prism than as a tool for development. This means that a neutral cooperative which does not fall under the auspices of one political group or another faces a harsher siege.
Ibrahim says, “The agriculture ministry asked cooperatives last year to submit requests for receiving forest trees. To this day, we have not received a single sapling. We haven’t received any help or attention from the agriculture ministry.”
Instead, a Spanish association supported the creation of the nursery in partnership with the cooperative. The irrigation networks were provided by the Italian association GVC. The ministry of social affairs gifted equipment totalling $10,000 and the Green Project donated $2,500. “This enabled us to build a water tank which cost about 4.25 million Lebanese Lira ($2830),” says Ibrahim.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.