For the first time in a month, Issam Hamdanieh forced himself to walk through his fields in a small village in the fertile Bekaa valley. He only agreed to do so because he wanted me to understand what had happened to him.
He stood in the middle of his crop and sighed. All around him, yellow-looking and dried-out plants swayed gently in a light breeze. Barely peeping from the cracked soil, beetroots had been attempting to make an entrance.
‘But suddenly the crop became sick,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know who to turn to so I went to a pesticide company for help.’
The firm promptly sent an agricultural engineer to inspect the harvest. The problem, concluded the engineer, was the spread of harmful insects and the only solution was to douse them with pesticide.
‘And so they sold me several kinds of pesticides, but in the end none worked,’ said Hamdanieh. ‘I lost my entire crop. All 15,000 square metres of it. A whole year’s work and all my savings went into this land. All for nothing. I haven’t been able to walk through here since then.’
It was too late by the time the farmer realized that it was a plant disease and not insects which had afflicted his crop. ‘The pesticides probably made it worse,’ he reflected.
Like most farmers in the Bekaa, Hamdanieh had resorted to one of the few sources of agricultural guidance available to him: the pesticide companies. In theory, the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture should be providing the necessary advice. But the cash-strapped Government has other priorities. Finding the perfect hassle-free market, pesticide companies have stepped in, routinely sending around their engineers to farms.
Not surprisingly, their advice is always the same: douse the crop with pesticide.
While the Government seems to be absent from the scene, a handful of agricultural engineers are desperately trying to teach the farmers otherwise. Their work at the Agricultural Research Centre in the Bekaa is supposed to be purely research. But the abundant misuse of pesticides in the area has also turned them into advisors - often making rounds to as many farms as they can reach.
‘Come and see for yourself,’ said one engineer as he invited me into his jeep with his partner. ‘It’s frightening.’
Hour upon hour, we visited farmers. Patiently, the engineers tried to reverse the advice of pesticide companies.
‘No, no,’ they said. ‘You don’t spray your strawberries every day. And you do not pick your produce a few hours after they were sprayed. Have you ever noticed a white ring inside the cucumber? Well, that’s dead cells full of pesticide that you’re eating.’
But despite the long hours which the Centre’s engineers are putting in at their own expense, their work remains limited to only a few farmers who are within reach of roads.
All along the main road, pesticide companies advertised their wares and outlets. In one shop, the owner was busy prescribing the use of a pesticide over the phone.
‘These days farmers only look for the cheaper pesticides which are usually made in China,’ he explained. ‘This means they have to use it many times before it takes effect. But if the problem is very big, we have the company send in an engineer.’
The engineer then ‘advises’ farmers and opens credit accounts enabling them to obtain a variety of pesticides.
Judging by the huge amount of pesticide containers in garbage dumps, in the fields and by the side of the roads, farmers are easy prey for the companies.
‘If it weren’t for us, nobody would check and extend credit to farmers,’ said an engineer from a pesticide company. ‘We are the ones who are checking up on them. We are the ones advising them about new technology and helping them find solutions to their problems. Nobody else is doing what we do for them.’
And nobody seems to be supervising pesticide companies either. For a long time, farmer Ahmad Monzer faithfully followed the companies’ instructions. ‘I did everything they told me,’ he said. ‘But the pesticides were not taking effect. So I kept using more.’
One day, however, he took a closer look at the label on the pesticide container and peeled it off. ‘Underneath was another label with an expired date. All this time they must have been selling me expired chemicals, but they obviously forgot to take off the label on this container before pasting on a new one.’
His complaints led nowhere. For a while he refused the companies’ help. But eventually he had to go back to them. There’s no-one else to offer him the guidance he needs.