Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Support Program Helps Lebanon’s Hasbaya Olive Farmers Adapt Amid Crisis

The olive farmers of Hasbaya have held tight to the old ways, but with the help of NGOs, have started to change.

An olive tree over 4000 years old
An olive tree over 4000 years old in Hasbaya. Photo by Maghie Ghali

Maghie Ghali

In the quiet village of Hasbaya, in southern Lebanon, almost every scrap of land on the slopes of Mount Hermon has been devoted to olive trees, some dating back over 4000 years. 

Olive oil has been the lifeblood of the area since ancient Phoenician times. Yet, modern day Lebanon is often overlooked in the global olive oil market, due to outdated practices and a lack of industrial infrastructure – a result of the small country’s turbulent history. 

Hasbaya, 800 meters above sea level, home to 12,000 olive farms and 15 olive oil presses, is now in the midst of harvest season. The presses run at all hours and farmers pick anywhere between 400 to 800 kg of olives a day. 

Olive trees cover the hills of Hasbaya
Olive trees cover the hills of Hasbaya. Photo by Maghie Ghali

It’s a family affair, with each generation passing down knowledge to the next. The children help tend the trees until they’re old enough to inherit their own plot. The women help sort through picked olives and handle brining olives for eating. The rest is pressed into ‘liquid gold.’

“The land has a spirituality and power – our whole life is connected to it, and it can be traced back to all my ancestors,” olive farmer Nabil Badawi, whose family has tended their many groves for generations, told Fanack. “The main livelihood of everyone in Hasbaya is the land and the olive trees, and working with olive trees is a wonderful partnership.”

“They give a lot, take little, and can weather through time and change, as they don’t need a huge amount of caretaking like other fruit trees.”

Background

ribbons tied to olive trees
Villagers often tie wishes with ribbons to the oldest trees, considered holy. Photo by Maghie Ghali

Lebanon’s 2019 economic meltdown and subsequent crises have left the agriculture sector in dire straits. Many now rely on foreign currency to make up for an over 90 percent devaluation of the Lebanese lira, but fresh dollars are still hard to come by.  

With most of Lebanon’s olive farmers still using traditional – yet often inefficient – practices, those unable to adapt to more modern standards are struggling in a market that relies now on being able to export abroad. The olive farmers of Hasbaya have held tight to the old ways, but with the help of NGOs, have started to change.

“The area needs this kind of help. Hasbaya has been doing the same thing for decades without much change because it’s a bit isolated, but we must give value to modern knowledge,” Badawi said. “Some farmers are not convinced and believe that their traditions are better because they have served thousands of years, but everything can be improved.”

“We’re looking forward to being able to export and improve our techniques to create better olive oil and to also look after the trees better, so they give back more in the future,” he added. “Traditions are good, but there is always room to improve and we should use it to better our trade, especially now, because those who don’t adapt won’t survive the crisis we’re in.”

Badawi is one of over 100 olive farmers in Hasbaya that have been receiving aid and capacity building workshops from the Dot-Olive project, implemented by Italian NGO CELIM in partnership with the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation and Al Khalil Foundation.  

The project

Freshly pressed olive oil coming out of the press
Freshly pressed olive oil coming out of the press, ready to be stored for aging. Photo by Maghie Ghali

The project seeks to improve the quality of Hasbaya’s olive oil through better practices both in the field and at the olive presses. This helps make the oil more marketable abroad and gives a benchmark standard, allowing the farmers to export their oil for much-need fresh dollars. It also works more efficiently and cuts the unnecessary costs that traditional methods create.

“Traditionally, olive farmers would use sticks to beat the branches and get the olives to fall and then pick them from the floor.” Olive farmer Rami Hamad, who works with his father on multiple groves, told Fanack. “All this is changing now. Farmers used to say that olive trees only produce fruit every two years, but the NGO has now taught us that it was because of the sticks damaging the trees.”

“The sticks would break the buds and small branches that would give next year’s harvest, meaning we miss a year of olives,” he added. “Now we will get olives every year because we changed our ways and learned new techniques. The trees are recovering, and next year we should expect another harvest.”

By using mechanical pickers offered for rent by CELIM – at a low cost of 60,000 LL ($1.50) per day – farmers are cutting the time needed to pick olives by two-thirds and needing to hire fewer laborers.

Climate and Economic Challenges

Women help pick out leaves and bad olives
Women help pick out leaves and bad olives from the collected olives. Photo by Maghie Ghali

Climate change has moved the olive harvest season from December and January to October and November just in the last 30 years or so, Hamad said. It has also not rained much during the summer months since 2016, meaning farmers need to water the trees during dry spells to ensure abundant and good quality olives. 

With Lebanon’s crisis meaning virtually no state power, water pumping has also been affected. This year has seen huge water shortages across the country, especially in rural areas. Combined with skyrocketing fuel prices, generators cost exorbitant amounts of money, all of which the farmers must put up before making any money from their olive oil at the end of the year.

 “Fortunately, Hasbaya has two rivers, and our farms are near one of them, but it’s still not easy. The river needs pumps to push the water over the top of the mountain to get enough water to the other side, so a generator is needed these days, and the cost of diesel is very high,” Hamad said. “Established trees don’t need as much water because their roots are deep, but it does mean the olive fruits are smaller, less plump, or there are less olives on the tree if they don’t get enough water in the summer months.”

“The costs of harvesting olives have also become very high because of the crisis – everything, from the cost of the laborers, the fuel needed for trucks; the food to sustain us the whole day,” he added. “Even at the olive press, things are very expensive because of the fuel, or even if you just want to buy a plastic crate to transfer the olives, the price is a lot.”   

In order to survive, oil is now priced in dollars or at market rate to account for the price hikes across the board, trying to find a balance between affordable for locals earning in lira but still enough to sustain the business. A 16-liter tank now costs about $100 dollars, with farmers only making about $30 in profit per tank, but still, many can no longer afford it. 

Some farmers, unable to front the costs of harvest and the fees for the olive press, have had to cut their season short, processing only a small amount of their olives. Hamad said others have cut costs by not using weed killer or pesticide – an imported expense – which has led to olives overrun with fruit flies, and poor harvests as trees compete with weeds. 

Old Ways vs New Ways

A man uses the electronic picker to harvest the olives
A man uses the electronic picker to harvest the olives, rather than beating the tree with sticks. Photo by Maghie Ghali

The quality of olive oil depends on many factors, from the type of soil the tree grows into the type of containers taking the olives to the press. CELIM has been providing large perforated plastic containers to transport the olives instead of the normally used plastic bags that lack oxygen and increase the temperature of the olives, leading to a more acidic, lower-quality olive oil.  

While traditional stone mills are still used in Hasbaya, CELIM encourages farmers to use the more modern automatic presses, to help properly regulate and standardize the quality of their oil. 

Another issue is the liquid waste made from the milling process that farmers usually just dump in the nearby Hasbani River, polluting it. 

“With the traditional mill, you have the three parameters affecting the oil: light, oxygen and temperature. That’s three potential problems for the oil,” CELIM project officer Rabab Aouad told Fanack. “Automatic presses are made of stainless steel and enclosed, so these issues are eliminated and the press is made of non-reactive metal that can be sanitized properly.”

“We’re also trying to lessen the environmental impact on the Hasbani River, regarding the liquid waste from the mills,” she added. “We’re telling the farmers to use the liquid waste for fertigation, rather than buying expensive fertilizers or manure – which some farms don’t even need because their soil is already rich in nitrogen and phosphates. It also acts as a natural weed killer, making it a perfect solution for the farmers.”

bottling olive oil
Hasbaya’s first bottling station. Photo by Maghie Ghali

The final step in standardizing the oil and enhancing its marketability is bottling. Dot-Olive recently inaugurated the first bottling station in Hasbaya and launched the Mount Hermon extra virgin olive oil brand, which ages and bottles the oil of the olive farmers in the program. Farmers not in the program may also use the bottling station for a small fee to age or bottle their own oil to take advantage of the more regulated process. 

Rather than the common practice of filling 16-liter metal tankards, the brand uses smaller glass bottles and cans – a more affordable alternative to customers and an easier product to export. 

Fairtrade and organic certification, as well as full traceability of the oil, means the farmer will make more money for their oil. They have already started exporting the product on behalf of the farmers to Africa and intend to expand further.

Resilient as the Olive Tree

Olive farmer Nabil Badawi
Olive farmer Nabil Badawi. Photo by Maghie Ghali

For the farmers, Lebanon’s crises have been a challenge, but many are still hopeful that through adapting, they can weather the storm. Hamad is certain that no matter how difficult the situation, a resident olive farmer will never give up their land or change profession.  

“Maybe owners who now live abroad and can’t secure people to take care of it for them, might have sold their land, but for those still living and working off the land here, no way, it would be too hard,” Hamad said. “We work it the whole year; it’s not just the harvest months – the trees need pruning, the soil needs turning, and weeds need to be removed. This isn’t the first time Lebanon has had problems. There is a lot of love for our land.”  

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