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Back to the land: “Habaq”, an ambitious project by militants in northern Lebanon

One of the aims of this ambitious project is to create an exchange network between farmers and to free them from the dominance of seed production and distribution companies.

Young activists at work in Northern Lebanon. Ornella Antar picture

"If the state is not willing to encourage agriculture, then we will do it ourselves." While smoking a cigarette in the shade of an olive tree in his parents' property in Ras Masqa near the city of Tripoli, Tamim Abdo talks about the challenging project that he launched with a handful of activists from northern Lebanon. The 30-year-old man is the co-founder of “Habaq” (basil); an initiative which aims at returning to one’s land, given the difficult times Lebanon is currently facing.

How do they intend to achieve this project? “Habaq promotes an economy based on solidarity and participation, with the aim of setting up an economic system based on local and sustainable development,” replies the young man. “We have chosen to take charge of boosting agri-food production in public spaces in an attempt to revitalize the agricultural sector.”

Since mid-December, Tamim Abdo, Murad Ayache and Ahmad Kabbara got into the habit of keeping a shovel and a hay fork in the trunk of their cars. "We are not farmers,” said Ayache, a 30-year-old engineer. But we are learning to become one”. Ever since the “Habaq” project was launched, the three activists have been learning by trial and error. Sitting on his knees, Abdo excitedly points at their first cultivated onion. In the field at Ras Masqa, the activists plant a wide variety of vegetables, all organic, provided that the crop does not harm the already present olive trees. "Among other things, we plant lettuce, cauliflowers, broccoli, onions, and of course basil,” he said, a mischievous smile on his face. The trio is impatiently awaiting the harvest, which they are planning to share with the most vulnerable communities of the region.


Creating a nationwide network

For Murad Ayache, one of the main objectives of this project is to create a popular network that would protect the farmers, the consumers and all those who work in the agribusiness. "We have a seed storage where we keep a wide variety of seeds,” said engineer Ahmad Kabbara. In the future, seeds will be produced from cultivated plants.” This process will free the farmers from dominance of seed production and distribution companies, and will ultimately ensure their autonomy.

Where did the idea of this project come from? Kabbara explained that the idea of cultivating a piece of land came to them when the three activists were sitting on the balcony of his house. "Inspired by the view of the plants on my balcony, we started talking about compost and agriculture. This is when the idea of cultivating a land came to mind”, said the young man, wearing a gray t-shirt despite the February cold weather.

This idea gave way to the three young men’s first initiative, which originally saw the day at Abdel Hamid Karameh’s square (al-Noor square), the hotbed of Tripoli’s protests. Last December, barely two months after the popular uprising started, Abdo, who is a professional chef, came up with the idea of cooking at al-Noor’s square. "Preparing meals and sharing food in this location was not a charity initiative”, said Abdo, who believes that charity initiatives would build a fence between those who organize them and those who benefit from them. "The idea was to build bridges between people, who did not know each other, by sharing a meal,” he explained. It was Murad Ayache who had the idea to start producing the ingredients as they do for the ready meals. "So, we took a shovel, and started to plow the soil in al-Noor square" to plant vegetables, he recalled with enthusiasm. "Within few minutes, everyone wanted to give us advice and guidance … and to help!” To the three activists, the main idea of the project is sharing and solidarity. Because of the ongoing socio-economic crisis in Lebanon, they seek to reshape the system, as well as the citizens’ different social roles.


The spirit of the October 17 revolution

In one of the tents at al-Noor square, the three young men are organizing interactive sessions on the basics of agriculture. As a result, some young people are starting to follow suit, notably in the region of Akkar.

They are not claiming that their project alone can fix the flaws of an entire system. "We produce very little, and we do not produce everything that is needed,” admits Kabbara. "It is not self-sufficiency that we are aiming for, but interaction and sharing. One day I would like to call a farmer from the Beqaa region and ask him to send me radishes, because I don’t produce them, and to offer to send him what he does not cultivate in his land.”

Asked whether this project could have seen the light before October 17, knowing that the agricultural sector has been abandoned by the state for a long time, Abdo said: "Yes, it could have, but the popular uprising has turned everything upside down. Today, the Lebanese are rethinking their way of life, their means of survival, and they are communicating with each other like never before. And I hope that all those who feel aggrieved by the Lebanese state, its policies and its politicians, can work together in order to find adequate solutions.”

"We are the state,” said Kabbara, who does not mince words. Standing next to him, Ayache retorts: "We are not the state, and we do not aspire to replace such a state, because we want a different state, a different society, and a totally new economic and social system." However, to end the debate, Abdo concluded:" How can we claim taking the place of a state that does not even exist? A Lebanese State? You have to build it.”


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of February)




"If the state is not willing to encourage agriculture, then we will do it ourselves." While smoking a cigarette in the shade of an olive tree in his parents' property in Ras Masqa near the city of Tripoli, Tamim Abdo talks about the challenging project that he launched with a handful of activists from northern Lebanon. The 30-year-old man is the co-founder of “Habaq” (basil); an initiative...