Olive Oil Production in Lebanon Becomes Nearly Impossible as Crises Deepen

Local olive oil has become a luxury for most of the population amid financial and political turmoil.

Rose Bechara Perini
Jan. 27, 2022
By Paolo DeAndreis
Rose Bechara Perini

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It is a whole coun­try which has gone default. Its insti­tu­tions, its banks. It is not just a finan­cial cri­sis, it’s all unprece­dented,” said Rose Bechara Perini, founder at Darmmess Sarl, pro­ducer of extra vir­gin olive oils in Deir Mimas, Lebanon.

The coun­try, con­sid­ered the cra­dle of the olive tree, for the last two years has been gripped by a finan­cial cri­sis spi­ral that has now greatly accel­er­ated, envelop­ing its cen­tral bank, gov­ern­ment and local insti­tu­tions.

It has swal­lowed bank deposits and dried up gov­ern­ment sup­port for a host of essen­tial activ­i­ties includ­ing san­i­tary ser­vices, schools and farm­ing.

Electricity in the coun­try is often unavail­able. Teachers strike for bet­ter salaries. Bakeries can­not ensure bread pro­duc­tion. And many resort to once pro­tected ancient forests for wood to make it through the win­ter since fuel has become far too expen­sive for the aver­age cit­i­zen.

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Lebanese olive oil used to be com­pet­i­tive on the inter­na­tional mar­kets. But now [fuel costs] and the halt to many agri­cul­tural funds are push­ing those prices up four or five times when com­pared to 2020,” Bechara Perini told Olive Oil Times. That also means that it has become a lux­ury to buy olive oil in the coun­try for those who are most hit by the cri­sis.”

The local Al Akhbar paper was asked by one of its read­ers, We used to buy a tin of olive oil for 150,000 pounds, and it was not enough for our fam­ily. How could we afford one now that it costs 2 mil­lion pounds? How could we, when a whole salary is not enough to fill the car’s fuel tank?”

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Rose Bechara Perini, founder at Darmmess Sarl

With a pub­lic debt sky­rock­et­ing to 495 per­cent of the gross national prod­uct and the national cur­rency deval­ued by 95 per­cent in the last two years, gov­ern­ment and banks can­not agree on a com­mon strat­egy to emerge from the worst cri­sis since the end of the civil war in 1990.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, infla­tion in December 2021 peaked at an unprece­dented 224.39 per­cent.

The many Lebanon allies in the region that heav­ily invested in the coun­try after 1990, are now recon­sid­er­ing their posi­tions as the polit­i­cal cri­sis deep­ens.

In the next few days, Beirut will start vir­tual talks with the International Monetary Fund to seek help. Still, the even­tual $69 bil­lion in finan­cial sup­port hailed by the gov­ern­ment will be tied to harsh reforms in a coun­try fac­ing ris­ing social ten­sions.

The finan­cial default sig­nif­i­cantly hit agri­cul­tural sec­tors, to the point that some left the mar­ket entirely. Farmers suf­fer from a long drought, a shrink­ing water sup­ply, and inter­mit­tent elec­tric­ity. Some could not take care of their crops, nor sell them.

Olive farm­ers were hit as well since the ones who are good at grow­ing olives might not be that good at sell­ing them abroad when inter­nal con­di­tions change so fast and deeply,” noted Bechara Perini.

Challenges faced by olive grow­ers this sea­son include an olive fruit fly infes­ta­tion and severe drought now men­ac­ing their yields. Long-antic­i­pated relief is yet to be enacted while costs rise, such as those of fuel and pack­ag­ing.

We do not even yet have a uni­fied olive oil price for the sea­son. And while new prob­lems arise on a daily basis, costs are soar­ing. Locally we have the trees, but any­thing else has a price tag in U.S. dol­lars, from the fer­til­iz­ers to the con­tain­ers, from fuel to farm­ing machin­ery and so on,” warned Nassim Raji Al-Maalouf, a local olive oil pro­ducer.

While incen­tives and funds to agri­cul­ture have gone awry, peo­ple in Deir Mimas vil­lage are nev­er­the­less work­ing to boost exports and bring in highly val­ued for­eign cur­rency.

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If there is some­thing that we are good at, it is agri­cul­ture. We have such a high qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil that if it was bet­ter known through­out the world, it could con­tribute to reviv­ing the local econ­omy,” Bechara Perini said. Our EVOOs are as spe­cial as our mil­len­nia-old trees.”

According to the Public Investment Promotion Agency (IDAL), in 2019 Lebanon agri-food exports reached $434 mil­lion, account­ing for 12.4 per­cent of all Lebanese exports. Olive oil exports grew eleven per­cent in the 2010 – 2019 period.

Lebanon olive farm­ing is con­sid­ered a key sec­tor for the econ­omy. According to Ministry of Agriculture data, olive orchards cover around 62,000 hectares, or 23 per­cent of the total agri­cul­tural sur­face.

Among beau­ti­ful hills dot­ted by hun­dreds of thou­sands of olive trees, Bechara Perini’s vil­lage farm­ers con­tinue to oper­ate against all odds.

It is part of our cul­ture. Everyone in Lebanon, from north to south, from fathers to sons, have been grow­ing olives, for thou­sands of years. Here the cli­mate is ideal for the growth of the trees and their health, and both pos­i­tively affect the qual­ity of the final prod­uct,” she told us.

Bechara Perini buys fruit from many of Deir Mimas’ olive farm­ers for her Darmmess organic mono­va­ri­etal extra vir­gin olive oil.

It is a social enter­prise, as it all comes from here. We work hand in hand, help­ing them to prac­tice organic agri­cul­ture at its best. We pro­vide them with tech­ni­cal assis­tance for their olive trees all year long and we com­mit to buy­ing the early har­vest,” noted the Darmmess founder.

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There are a series of farm­ing con­di­tions that grow­ers fol­low in order to con­tribute to Darmmess. The olives of a large por­tion of Deir Mimas 130,000 trees get sorted, processed, fil­tered and bot­tled within a max­i­mum of 24 hours from the har­vest.

The trees in the area are 600 years old on aver­age, but some reach two mil­len­nia, liv­ing wit­nesses of human farm­ing,” as locals here say.

The olive cul­ti­var is the Souri vari­ety, con­sid­ered to be among the ear­li­est to be grown by mankind. Known in the region under many names, includ­ing Nabala and Roman, Souri is com­mon in Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jordan. It is con­sid­ered highly resilient to drought and it is highly praised for its yields and the unique fruity fla­vors of its oil.

Darmmess EVOO is a high-end prod­uct that allows us to finan­cially sup­port our farm­ers and give them new rea­sons to chal­lenge the dif­fi­cult times. It allows us to pro­mote the coun­try’s periph­ery with a busi­ness model that can be dupli­cated else­where. We are actu­ally pro­mot­ing a small vil­lage on a global scale,” noted Bechara Perini.

She told Olive Oil Times how University of Athens schol­ars have exam­ined Darmmess and found that it sported 620 mil­ligrams of polyphe­nols per liter. That is way more than stan­dard EVOOs,” noted Bechara Perini, and a mile­stone for Lebanon.”

The suc­cess of Darmmess is crit­i­cal for the care of ancient trees and sus­tain­ing the region’s bio­di­ver­sity. Our farm­ers get more engaged with nature and, in such a cri­sis, they are still moti­vated to take care of the trees,” added the Lebanese entre­pre­neur.

As our con­ver­sa­tion wrapped up, news agen­cies around the world announced the step­ping down of Saad Hariri, for­mer prime min­is­ter and one of the most impor­tant politi­cians in the coun­try for decades — a devel­op­ment that observers warn could spur more polit­i­cal tur­bu­lence.

That is the sit­u­a­tion, but Lebanese are very resilient peo­ple,” Bechara Perini assured. We will always fight for our rights. I can not recall a time this coun­try has ever lived in peace.

As a come­dian once said: Lebanon is a coun­try so small it almost does not appear on the maps of the world, so where do all these prob­lems come from? We have learned to be resilient. And to pro­duce excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oil,” con­cluded Bechara Perini.



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