How activists have brought Lebanese farmers back to their roots

When the financial crisis hit, crop growers had to adjust quickly

In the town of Saadnayel in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley, Serge Harfouche is giving a tour of a storage room lined with boxes containing over 300 varieties of seeds native to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Inside the Tupperware boxes are strains of wheat grain, barley, chickpea, tomato and onion once commonly found in the Levant but which have become increasingly rare in Lebanon as imported – and often deliberately crossbred and patented – seeds have dominated farmland.

Harfouche, a former librarian turned agricultural activist, recoils at the collection being called a seed bank. “We don’t like banks here,” he says, “it’s a seed library”. As one of the founders of the farming collective Buzuruna Juzuruna (“Our Seeds, Our Roots,” in Arabic), Harfouche advocates for Lebanese food sovereignty and for classing seeds as public goods freely available to farmers growing food.

“The underlying idea is that this is open to everyone,” he says standing in the storage room. “They can borrow from this library and give back. The idea is to have one in every village.”

Over the last five years, Buzuruna Juzuruna’s members have been working to weaken the hold corporate monopolies have on food production in Lebanon by training farmers in organic agricultural practices and showing them how to grow the native heirloom seeds commonly used by older generations. The small crisis-ridden Lebanese state has a high percentage of arable farming land but decades of economic mismanagement and a heavy reliance on imported food and agricultural supplies have crippled the farming sector.


Karim Osseiran, whose family has run a farm outside the city of Tyre for generations, explains how the economic crisis that began in 2019 in Lebanon drove many farmers reliant on imported supplies out of business.

Before the crisis, many farmers in Lebanon were encouraged by suppliers and wholesalers to practise intensive monoculture farming, where typically one type of crop is planted using crossbred seeds which produce artificially high yields when enough chemical fertiliser is used.

“Farmers used to rely on the suppliers for financing because the banks didn’t finance the farming sector,” he says. These suppliers would typically provide seeds, fertiliser and irrigation pipes on credit; farmers would then pay back the suppliers when they harvested their crop, meaning many farmers were permanently in debt.

“Farmers noticed that every year they needed to use more fertiliser because every year, the soil was more and more depleted,” says Harfouche. “It’s a business model that works for chemical producers but creates destruction [for the environment] and a vicious cycle for farmers.”

Farmers thought Harfouche was a ‘complete lunatic’ when they saw him planting 30 to 70 varieties of plants on the same plot of land where they would normally grow just one crop

When the financial crisis hit, the Lebanese lira began to rapidly devalue. Suppliers stopped operating on credit and instead demanded payment upfront from farmers in dollars. Imported farming supplies quickly became prohibitively expensive for most farmers who predominantly earned their income in Lebanese lira.

Without access to fertiliser and imported seeds, farmers began exploring alternative ways to farm but the change from what Osseiran describes as “synthetic agriculture” to sustainable and organic forms of farming is not straightforward.

“When you put synthetic fertilisers and pesticides into the soil, these chemicals kill all the soil; they kill the worms; they kill the insects; they kill the bacteria and you end up with a dead soil,” explains Osseiran. “So, what happens is that your plant becomes dependent on external inputs for survival.”

Regenerating soil after years of chemical use is a long and delicate process. “You must feed the soil with bacteria and enzymes so that it really starts living again,” says Osseiran who began transitioning from synthetic farming in 2017.

Osseiran developed a cheaper alternative to compost to regenerate his soil by creating “compost tea”. This involved putting a small amount of compost into a water tank, feeding it with sugar molasses made on Osseiran’s farm and oxygenating the liquid so that over time it became rich in bacteria. The compost tea is then fed into an irrigation system to slowly revive and regenerate the soil.

As he resuscitated his land, Osseiran also switched from monoculture to permaculture farming where complementary crops are grown on the same plot. Osseiran points at papayas, bananas and avocados all growing in the same plot on his farm. “They’re all in the same area because they don’t need the same kind of nutrients and they don’t compete,” he says.

Although this approach yields smaller quantities of each crop, it provides Osseiran with a diversified and more stable income. When executed properly, permaculture or rotational crop farming means fewer inputs such as fertiliser are required because the agricultural ecology naturally supports the nutritional needs of the different crops.

“You have to understand how plants work and how soil works. There is no ready-made solution for your microclimate,” says Osseiran. “You have to do the homework and do your research to find out which plants grow well in your area and with what companion plants they are compatible. It involves a lot of trial and error and it will take years before you get a solution that works.”

Farmers in the Bekaa Valley thought Harfouche was a “complete lunatic” when they saw him planting 30 to 70 varieties of plants on the same plot of land where they would normally grow just one crop.

Now lacking the dollars to buy imported seeds and fertiliser, local farmers have been turning to Buzurna Juzurna in increasing numbers for cheaper native seeds and advice on transitioning from monoculture farming to more ecologically sustainable practices such as rotational farming. Harfouche says the farmers now understand “how important it is to be autonomous and independent and to be able to produce everything locally”.

When farmers approach Burzurna Juzurna, the collective helps them with seeds, compost and biopesticides. “We’re very honest though and show them the process with our data,” says Harfouche. “We’re very clear that heirloom seeds will never be as efficient yield-wise as hybrid F1 seeds or deliberately crossbred seeds, but when you have a diversity of crops you have a sustainable yield throughout the year – and this is very attractive to them.” Farmers who make the switch also report seeing bees and birds nesting on their land again and plants flowering that haven’t grown on their farms in years, says Harfouche.

Some of the heirloom varieties of wheat grains from Syria and Iraq are also grown without water and are more robust when faced with droughts that have become increasingly common in Lebanon, pushing up the cost of irrigation. “My grandfather never had to irrigate his olive trees,” says Osseiran, describing how the rainy season has shortened in Lebanon in recent decades as the country struggles with the fallout from climate change.

Harfouche is critical of the lack of financial support from aid agencies for farmers transitioning to sustainable farming. He says there’s too much emphasis on programmes for farmers that last a few months – “barely one farming season”- and not enough tailored support in Arabic for farmers in a country with highly-variable microclimates.

Harfouche says: “Bringing back the memories of old farmers who used to work with their grandparents when they were kids is the best thing we can do to link the generations.”