The Orchards of Lebanon

A wise person once said that collapse is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Looking around the world, a growing list of locations serve as sputtering canaries in our collective coalmine. Sri Lanka is the latest to take a nosedive, but in this post I wanted to focus on the situation in Lebanon. The similarities between them are considerable, but I might revisit the situation in Sri Lanka at a later date.

Lebanon is a small country off the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with the 18th highest population density in the world (only 0.05 arable acres per person, or a 14 m square plot). Around 90% of the population live in cities. The only higher density agricultural country is Bangladesh, which occupies a fertile river delta in the tropics. All the others are tiny trade centres (e.g. Singapore) or small petrostates (e.g. Bahrain). The Lebanese population grew from 1.3 million in 1950 to 6.7 million today (including 1.5 million refugees).

A prolonged civil war damaged the local transportation infrastructure and reputation of the banking system from 1975-1990, and when it ended the new government borrowed heavily to fund reconstruction. That debt defaulted in 2018, resulting in a currency collapse and banking crisis. Poverty recently increased from 28% to 55% of the population when food prices more than tripled.

Agriculture in Lebanon produces around 20% of local demand, with the remainder imported, mostly in the form of industrial wheat from Russia and the Ukraine. A massive explosion in their main port in 2020 destroyed the main route for importing grain, plus the grain silos that store three months’ worth of supply. The conflict in Ukraine has since further constrained wheat imports. The national electric grid frequently shuts down due to lack of imported oil, and the water system is facing crisis due to lack of diesel for pumping and chlorine.

Before the most recent crises Lebanese agriculture focused on growing fruit and vegetables, grown by low cost migrant labour from Syria (now in question due to changes in their civil war) for export to Saudi Arabia (now sanctioned due to drugs being smuggled in amongst the produce). This profit driven type of agriculture is the same fruit and vegetable focused trap that most permaculture falls into. Since the crisis farmers, have struggled, often relying on imported seed and chemicals sold in US dollars, only to sell produce in worthless local currency. Distribution of fresh produce into cities is also proving challenging due to fuel shortages. Urban farming initiatives are spreading but are unable to replace missing calories.

A local bakery has taken to growing their own wheat, tapping into seed banks that had saved preindustrial varieties that require less chemical input. They have run into issues with milling, since the local mills operate on much larger quantities of imported grain, so they settled for lower quality processing.

What is unfolding in Lebanon is a mirror image of another crisis that happened generations ago. When industrial wheat production skyrocketed during the green revolution and long distance transportation costs plummeted, driving the local wheat farmers in Lebanon of business, the few survivors forced to shift to higher margin crops like fruit and vegetables, increasingly dependent on long distance transport to high paying markets themselves.

Now energy and currency shocks are breaking apart that global system, leaving Lebanon with nobody else to rely on (and often carrying the burden of other country’s problems at the same time). The same meteoric rise in population during the 20th century will likely be reflected in equally stunning declines as the inevitable effects of resource shortages continue. Centuries old friction between diverse ethnic and religious groups will probably reignite when people experience such pressure. A very even three way split between Sunni, Shia and Christianity has the potential to fuel some very protracted conflicts.

Lebanon as we current circumscribe it is in many ways a fiction. The country was only created in 1942 when France was bogged down in its own war. Before that it was an ever shifting patchwork of city states that fell in and out of the control of a long list of empires. I don’t believe in Lebanon, yet, despite their many challenges I do believe in the people that live there. Their ancestors found a way to survive all manner of cataclysms for the last seven millennia and are likely to prevail once more. We should watch how they do it since the rest of us will be following in their footsteps in coming years.

A Lebanese Apple Orchard (from https://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/apple-orchard-lebanon.html)

2 thoughts on “The Orchards of Lebanon

    1. Totally agree- suburbia and denser places cannot continue without cheap transportation and mechanised farming. In the depopulating abandoned rural wastelands, that is the place where semi-wild crops have the potential to scale up and provide an enduring buffer when a source of calories is desperately needed one day.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: