This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

ILO response to Syrian refugee crisis

Lebanese farmers pay heavy price for Syrian crisis

The tranquillity of Lebanon's fertile north belies a brewing crisis. Just two miles from Syria and its civil war, local farmers say the conflict has been disastrous for business

Feature | Beirut - Lebanon | 25 May 2015
BEIRUT (ILO News) - Since the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, the devastating civil war has bought over one million refugees to Lebanon. They now account for one fifth of the tiny Mediterranean country’s population.

Large numbers of refugees settled in northern Lebanon. Many of the local residents traditionally work in the agricultural sector in this fertile coastal land. The new arrivals need to make a living, and this has had a profound effect on agriculturalists in the host communities.

"Please click on the"cc" button on the bar below the video for English subtitles".

“Here we are very close to the Syrian borders. This area has been heavily affected by the Syrian crisis,” said Elie Keldany from the North Lebanon Local Economic Development Agency (North LEDA.)

“And the people who were most directly affected were the farmers in this area, and most specifically the potato farmers,” Keldany said.

The ILO has partnered with North LEDA, the Rene Moawad Foundation, the Safadi Foundation, the Mada Association and others on an ambitious project to support Lebanese host communities in the northern Akkar governorate. The ILO project Enabling Job Resilience and Protecting Decent Work Conditions in Rural Communities Affected by the Syrian refugees Crisis in Northern Lebanon investigates the causes of the farmers’ difficulties – and implements solutions needed.
“There’s been a lot of focus – rightly so, of course – on the Syrian refugees. However, very little attention has been paid to the Lebanese people, who also need help,” said Annabella Skof, the ILO Chief Technical Advisor who oversees the project in the Regional Office for Arab States.

The project has just launched crucial interventions in the northern Lebanese governorate of Akkar to support the local farmers who have been most affected by the Syrian crisis.

Higher costs, increased competition, fewer markets

Specifically, the ILO will address problems facing farmers in the potato and leafy greens sectors. With local and national partners, it will help the farmers counter challenges such as increased competition, rising production costs and loss of markets.

Some of the refugees with adequate financial means have started leasing land off Lebanese landowners and farming it themselves. This increased demand has raised the rental price of land for local tenant farmers as well, and has led to rising production costs.

“Rent for land has gone up,” said Lebanese tenant farmer Farouk Mahmoud. “For example, the people from Aleppo (in Syria) plant vegetables. They have now started leasing land, and they’ve raised the cost of leasing land. So instead of renting a piece of land for 250 (thousand Lebanese pounds, about $US 166,000,) now it costs you 500.”

“Before, I used to be comfortable with my production, I was at ease, I had no problems,” said Mustapha al-Saleh, another Lebanese tenant farmer. “Now I am in debt to one broker and another.”

Elie Keldany from North LEDA explained: “Many investors came in from Syria and tried to invest here. There was high demand for the land, and the rising cost of the land is raising the production costs for the farmers.”

In addition, recent Lebanese restrictions imposed on the Syrian border have seen local Lebanese farmers lose access to Syrian migrant workers – and the cost of labour has increased since the beginning of 2015.

“In order to hire workers, we used to pay about 1,500 liras (Lebanese pounds, about $US 1) for each worker, and there used to be workers. But today we pay 3,500 liras per hour and there are no workers,” said Lebanese potato farmer Ali Othman.

We used to harvest 100 tonnes a day, but now we harvest 20 tonnes or 30 tonnes. The potatoes that remain are going to rot. We call out to the Lebanese authorities to help us. We don’t have workers other than the Syrians. Let them open the borders for us to let the workers in.”

Added to the increased production costs, the Syrian crisis and subsequent border restrictions have cut off the traditional export markets of the Arab world.

“Most of Lebanese potatoes used to be exported by land, and with the crisis in Syria, exporting has stopped,” said Keldany. “So the potatoes are rotting here in the land, and they are being bought for extremely low prices, which are less than the production costs of potatoes.”

Upgrading value chains

Local farmers say they can’t face these challenges alone.

“The farmer can raise his voice, but he cannot do anything. You need someone to respond,” said farmer Farouq Mahmoud.

The ILO project in northern Lebanon is now working to upgrade the value chains of the potato and leafy green agricultural sectors by supporting farmers’ cooperatives, improving production processes, providing targeted export support, and accessing new international markets.

“What we’ve actually found in our research is that there is a market that is practically untapped, and that is the European market,” Skof said. “What we will do is work with the exporters, the farmers and the European importers in order to enable the export of the next potato season in Akkar.”

The ILO believes keeping the farmers of Akkar in business is not just an economic urgency.

Skof said: “One of the key issues at stake here is social cohesion. The longer you wait before helping the Lebanese people, the more unhappy they will be with the situation. It will increase radicalization of – in particular – youth. It will encourage the Lebanese to blame the Syrians in the area, and to become increasingly unwelcoming to the thousands of refugees around them.”