South Lebanon farmers fear grim harvest if war breaks out

Olive harvest has started in Deir Mimas but the sound of cross-border attacks brings back memories of the 2006 conflict with Israel

A farmer and his wife harvest their olive trees in Marjayoun, near the border with Israel in southern Lebanon. Reuters
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“The biggest risk is that what happened in 2006 will occur again,” says Merhej Shamaa, a farmer in the picturesque south Lebanon village of Deir Mimas, nestled on a promontory surrounded by olive fields overlooking the Litani River.

That war between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia militia whose exchanges of fire with the Israeli military have raised fears of a new conflict, caused significant damage to the village, injuring one resident and injuring several others, Mr Shamaa said.

The 60-year-old farmer said that despite being a Christian village, Deir Mimas was shelled heavily by the Israeli army.

“The bombings also severely affected the quality of our crops until now,” he said.

With the sound of bombs heard once again after Hamas, a Palestinian militant group and Hezbollah ally, carried out a deadly attack in southern Israel on October 7, residents of Deir Mimas are keenly aware that further escalation would be disastrous.

“Our economy hinges on tourism and agriculture, with a war, both will vanish,” Mr Shamaa said.

Sitting at a table, Mr Shamaa and his fellow farmers discuss the looming spectre of war over a dish of hummus and freshly pressed olive oil, the distant hum of Israeli planes in the background.

“In 2006, the whole village had to leave: this idea that Israeli bombs only target Shia villages is a misconception. Israel is against all Lebanese, regardless of their religion,” he said.

Villages in the deep south have, for the most part, become deserted as families escape the daily clashes. “Only journalists visit nowadays,” Mr Shamaa said with a smile.

Deir Mimas has remained untouched so far, allowing olive farmers like Michel Beshara, 27, to continue with their harvest even in the face of nearby shelling.

A dozen Syrian workers, mostly young men and women, use manual or electric olive rakes to shake the fruit from branches of the trees in his field.

“The main issue right now revolves around finding workers, who are predominantly Syrians,” Mr Beshara said.

Deir Mimas's farmers needed 400 workers for the olive harvest last year, he said, but this year some of them had left the conflict-affected border areas, “making it challenging for some farmers to find replacement”.

Asked whether he had a backup plan in case of escalation, Mr Beshara simply said: “For now I'm staying, I will leave with the workers if things get worse”.

Emergency plan

Mohamad Hussein, the head of the farmers' union for south Lebanon, said there had been no help from the government to cope with the situation.

“There is no official emergency plan in place for Lebanese farmers, leaving them to make individual decisions,” he said. “The government is always reactive rather than proactive when it comes to responding to emergency.”

Agriculture is crucial to the economy in southern Lebanon, where a significant portion of the population is engaged in farming. The crops affected by the continuing clashes so far are olives, of which the region accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of national production, and tobacco, said Mr Hussein.

“At present, the challenge is that some farmers are worried to approach areas frequently bombed to collect their crops.”

Other crops cultivated primarily in coastal areas of the south, such as bananas, citrus and exotic fruits, have not been affected, added Mr Hussein.

“However, in the event of a war, farmers might also encounter difficulties for the current season regarding these crops,” he said.

Mr Hussein said that about 90 per cent of banana production, 70 per cent of lemon production and 80 per cent of avocado production was concentrated in the south, between the coastal cities of Saida and Naqoura.

“A war could potentially lead to shortages,” he said.

The primary challenge in the event of a conflict would be the transportation of produce, he said, based on the experience of 2006 conflict when road infrastructure was systematically targeted and destroyed by Israeli raids.

“Of course, we are concerned, especially with a neighbour like this,” Mr Hussein said.

“Lebanese farmers are essentially left to fend for themselves. In 2006, they had to absorb their losses alone, as no one came to their assistance.”

Updated: October 22, 2023, 12:03 PM