Lebanon continues to experience a surge in hostilities. The near-daily exchange of fire at the southern border began on October 8th, in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza, only temporarily stopping during the Israeli-Hamas truce in late November. The strikes have significantly impacted crops, lands, residential houses, and civilian infrastructure, directly affecting the civilian populations living in southern Lebanon.

According to official sources, at least 93,881 people have been displaced from the area, 355 have been killed, including 83 civilians.

The conflict is also causing major losses in the agriculture, livestock, poultry, and aquaculture sectors. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, at least 47,000 olive trees were directly destroyed in the conflict area, but this number is likely to have increased over the months of conflict, resulting in significant financial losses.

South of Lebanon’s economy largely relies on the agricultural sector. For example, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reported that the national olive production profits amounted to nearly $23 million in exports in 2020.

“Most of the land is damaged,” Sheikh Salman Derbieh, a farmer from the village of Ain Jarfa said. He is one of the few farmers in the area who was able to harvest before the start of cross-border fires and during the week-long truce. “It was a quick picking, but it allowed me to produce 70 tanaka [approx. 1,134 liters] out of a seasonal average of 100.”

Derbieh estimates that several lots of land have been severely damaged, but he is not able to assess losses while the exchange of fire is still ongoing. “Last time I checked during the truce, at least 17 of my over-50-year-old olive trees were damaged.” According to him, the Lebanese army, who patrols the area together with the UN Mission UNIFIL, informed the farmers of the risk of finding unexploded devices among the overgrown weeds.

“The financial loss is around $50,000,” he added.

Other farmers, like Faisal Shahrur from Hebberiye, had to stop their production. The strikes damaged his land, impacting approximately 200 olive trees. “Even 200-year-old trees,” he said. In addition to his land, the shakes resulting from the strikes damaged his house.

“Most of the people have left the village,” mayor of Hebberiye, Ayman Shqair said. According to him, only 3,000 people remain in Hebberiye, which normally has almost triple this figure. “During the harvest season, it was impossible to find workers, and now it is impossible to access the lands,” he explained.

Like many in the area, the municipality remains active, but the situation does not allow it to operate at full capacity. A thorough assessment of damages has yet to start and is postponed until the end of the hostilities.

“The soil will have to be tested,” Derbieh added.

“We received many requests from farmers asking for soil analysis,” said Amira Youssef, Head of the Hasbaya station of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI). However, according to the Institute, a joint effort of research labs, NGOs, and universities in the country would be required to perform the task, collecting samples and creating a database. “Once the situation allows,” she added.

Although the region has a long history of hostilities with the involvement of explosives of various kinds, soil contamination’s tests are far from being a well-established practice. During the last Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, LARI was not present in the region, “but it seems that no analyses were conducted after the war,” Youssef said. Only in 2017 did LARI investigate the presence of heavy metals.

“Over the last month, I have contacted several entities to help us perform such analysis. We need to know what to look for,” she explained. The impact of the shelling is multifaceted, “it ranges from crops burning to chemical substances on leaves and soil fertility.” Bio soil remediation practices might be required to restore the properties through the use of compost and living organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to remove contaminants.

Approaching the border, the extent of the strikes’ impact only gets worse. In Rashaya Al Foukhar, only 500 people are left. The rural village is normally home to approximately 5,000 people, increasing in the summertime.

“People’s presence is minimal now, and depending on how harsh the situation is every day, the municipality is not always open. Many employees cannot always go, and all the services have been disrupted,” reported the mayor of Rashaya Al Foukhar, Salim Youssef.

“It’s a disaster,” said Wassim Khalil, one of the farmers who remains in Rashaya Al Foukar, when asked to describe the situation in the area. “I used to trim the trees every season: It’s my life.”

“Several 100-year-old trees are gone, I grow angry and sad every time I think of that.” The cost loss is equally heavy. As in the case of Derbieh, Khalil estimates loss for approximately $50,000, “assuming that no trees have been severely damaged”, he added.

“Despite everything, we try to keep the village’s main entrance clean,” can be read on the municipality’s Facebook account page.

The village of Hasbaya is the only one in the area that saw its population increasing. “Hasbaya has not been directly impacted, and we host at least 500 people from the villages of the hinterland,” mayor Labib Al Hamra said. Against the trend, the municipality increased the services such as waste collection, but without assistance, “the city is left alone,” he added.

With summer approaching, the farmers’ common concern is the weeds turning yellow and dry. “This would be a tragedy,” Khalil said, referring to the use of white phosphorus bombs that may easily set the lands on fire.

According to UNDP, around 351 fires have been reported as a result of white phosphorus bombing, affecting 53 villages along the border. The National Council for Scientific Research has assessed that the total area impacted by those fires is approximately 637 hectares. The impact on human and wildlife encompasses various aspects, causing burns and organ failure and leading to long-term detrimental effects on ecosystems.

Between 2019 and 2023, CELIM together with its partners ISF, Chico Mendes, El Khalil Foundation and the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), implemented the AICS-funded ‘DOT-Olive’ project in the Hasbaya district. The project aimed at structuring an efficient and sustainable olive oil supply chain, increasing the quality of the oil produced while reducing the impact on the environment.

Currently, CELIM, together with its partners CESVI, OXFAM, ISF, PoliMi is working in the area under the AICS-funded project ‘Waste or Resource’. The waste management project involves the municipalities of Hasbaya, Chebaa and Rashaya Al Foukhar and aims to improve the quality of air, water and soil by introducing separate waste collection at household level and building a more sustainable waste management system.

Article: Agnese Stracquadanio and Debora Vezzoli
Photos: Consulted farmers