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One seed at a time: Lebanese project promotes agroecology for farmer autonomy

Serge in a greenhouse.

Cultivating heirloom seeds is an effective way to foster food sovereignty, promote soil health, and help prevent species extinction, as well as combat the monopolization of crops by multinational corporations suppliers. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

  • Lebanese organic seed farm Buzuruna Juzuruna is on a mission, part of a growing network of agroecological efforts in the country, to change conventional farming through seed sharing and communal education.
  • Despite its location in the Fertile Crescent, Lebanon today relies heavily on imports to feed its population due to economic collapse, conflicts and political upheaval.
  • Buzuruna Juzuruna is using multiple efforts, including free classes, festivals and even circus performances to expose local farmers to older, more ecological methods of farming.
  • In its work, Buzuruna Juzuruna emulates the ecosystems it treasures, by being open-source and horizontal in design.

SAADNAYEL, Lebanon – Located in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a region that has been farmed for millennia, a small experimental farm known as Buzuruna Juzuruna (BuJu) is establishing an agroecological network across the country, as well as setting up an heirloom seed cooperative to promote resilience and sovereignty within communities, near and far.

“The biggest success is seeing our seeds growing tomatoes from Chile to Sri Lanka,” says Serge Harfouche, a co-founder of the project, pointing to the scalability of heirloom seed production.

Harfouche says the project draws inspiration from forests: BuJu has a decidedly decentralized operation, allowing free access to education and experimentation — and, of course, seeds.

Seeds of a plant.
“People have been starved to submission,” says Serge, illustrating the dire need for an initiative such as BuJu in Lebanon. “Heirloom seeds are reproducable seeds,” returning power back to farmers who had become reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

Somewhere under the rainbow

Buzuruna Juzuruna, which in Arabic means “Our Seeds, Our Roots,” probably doesn’t look like what you’d expect of a farm in Lebanon. The first thing that stands out is a large yellow and red circus tent. The tent tends to overshadow the few brown houses on the land, built of clay, with wooden facades made using locally grown poplars.

The farm of just 2 hectares (4.9 acres) does a lot with a little space, growing more than 70 crop varieties, including 13 types of wheat, interspersed with flowers and aromatics, and fenced in by young trees. Below the mountainous horizon, a green plain stretches out, some 8 kilometers wide and 12 kilometers long (5 by 7.5 miles). The earthy scent of soil lingers in the air, as the sun beams down on the farmers, dressed in reds, greens and blues, and working the land that contains up to 7% organic matter.

“We have hundreds of microclimates, and we are the only country in the Middle East with high enough mountains to attract, and block, the Mediterranean winds. We have a lot of rain. And this, even with climate change, will not stop very soon,” Harfouche says, pointing to the incredible resource of this fertile land, which experts are researching intensively due to its potential in preparing for a warming world.

Harfouche, a librarian turned agroecology activist, has been involved since the initiative’s founding in 2016. Today, he’s one of 22 core members — whose expertise includes agronomy, engineering and decades of hands-on farming experience — working horizontally to make BuJu run its course as the first organic seed farm in Lebanon, and only the second of its kind in the Middle East. Horizontal working refers to a system where all voices within the project should hold equal weight. Most of the staff live on or near the farm.

Serge on the phone.
The 22 core-members at BuJu collaborate on the basis of expertise, rather than in a hierarchal manner – and are constantly learning from each other. “It’s the best way to work, but it takes patience,” says Serge. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

Seeds for sovereignty

The regenerative seed farm/school farm/circus facilitator sits near the Syrian border. Although the valley has been an important agricultural region for millennia, much has changed in the past few hundred years.

“In the late 1800s, before globalization and international trade took over, farmers would adapt their agriculture to the climate. In Beqaa, they used to plant wheat and legumes, since these crops didn’t require much water [which is scarce in the region],” says Yara Ward, project officer at Jibal, a Lebanese NGO working to promote social and environmental justice. “Today, farmers plant mainly vegetables, and modern forms of wheat in Beqaa, both of which require a lot of water.”

Ward, who has a background in sociology and anthropology, practices what she describes as “amateur permaculture farming,” which is part of what began her interest in agroecology. After her first crops planted with hybrid seeds didn’t produce any new seeds, she understood the importance of heirloom varieties: they provide independence.

Since its foundation, BuJu has collected more than 300 heirloom seed varieties, which it preserves and shares with the community. It also shares seeds of knowledge with anyone willing to receive them.

Serge with seeds.
There are enough seeds in their library to plant 30,000 km2 (11,500 mi2), which is three times the area of the surface of Lebanon. “All of this would produce many million tons of food. Many millions,” says Serge. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

The farm runs free classes, including courses on beekeeping, tree grafting, seed cultivation, soil management, composting, producing organic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as wheat and bread production. To extend its educational reach, BuJu has published a book, Towards Peasant Autonomy.

“It is one of the rare resources that exists in Arabic, because there are not a lot of agroecological resources available in this language,” Harfouche says, explaining that although ancestral farming was aligned with agroecological practices, the latter were never properly documented.

“That’s how we’re doing things differently today. We are adapting the practices of the old days, but adding the scientific rigor … so it can be spread around fast, and people can have access to it,” Harfouche says, adding that Lebanon lost a lot of knowledge over the past two generations due to conflict, colonial legacies and political upheaval, leading to the adoption of today’s chemically dependent industrial farming practices.

Pierced, plastic hoses are placed among the crops.
Pierced, plastic hoses are placed among the crops. “This drip-irregation system is the most resourceful way to water our fields,” says Serge. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

The destruction of disregard

An investigation by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism found that 52% of tested vegetables in Lebanon contained pesticides that are banned there, some at levels 18 times the maximum allowable limit. Some even included pesticides that have been banned abroad since 1984 due to their connection with Parkinson’s disease.

“It was really hard for apple farmers in Lebanon to sell their apples to any other country than Egypt. It’s the only country that would accept how chemically rich they were,” Ward says, adding it’s the systems that push farmers to use such chemicals, rather than the farmers themselves, that are to blame.

The top 1% of farmers in Lebanon own a quarter of the country’s agricultural land, while the quarter wealthiest own 61% of the land. However, nearly 70% of the agricultural plots in Lebanon are smaller than 1 hectare (2.5 acres), meaning there are plenty of small-scale farmers making do with little. For most of these farmers, agriculture is a supplementary source of income.

Lebanon imports at least 80% of its wheat, along with many other food staples, despite falling within the Fertile Crescent, an area named after its rich soils where ancient peoples first grew cereals. Additionally, several wild varieties of wheat, barley, legumes and fruit that are crucial to sustaining biodiversity can be found here. To Harfouche, safeguarding these requires patience.

“People live to around 90 years old, tops. But a tree lives for 500 years, so we need at least a generation or two just to make sure that it’s stable and thriving. Such a time frame is very different from the global, neoliberal approach to farming,” Harfouche says, explaining his thinking behind disseminating all the knowledge they’re cultivating through films and books.

BuJu has both sheep and chicken colleaguesThis is our first book, 'Towards Peasant Autonomy,'Wassim Samaha at Brut BarWheat crop.The one tree that was not covered in lime has died from a worm infestation

An economy of well-being

BuJu’s participants include farmers and gardeners, vulnerable families (an estimated 340,000 refugees live in the area, making up about 25% of the local population) and children. In an effort to bond local and refugee children, the farm hosts a clown association, Bulaban Circus, for workshops and shows.

“Community-led organizations in Lebanon play a huge role, since the government isn’t very active,” Ward says, pointing to the added benefits of building a strong and healthy community, such as resilience, social ties and joint efforts.

One community member who has benefited from the seeds of BuJu — both physical and metaphorical —is 28-year-old Erica Accari. She runs a neighboring regenerative farm named Turba, the Arabic word for “soil,” and regularly collaborates with BuJu.

“They are so helpful, I don’t know what I would do without their community and guidance,” says Accari, who works Turba’s land on her own.

Three girls on their way to the Bulaban circus tent.
Three girls on their way to the Bulaban circus tent. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

Creating a supportive, resilient community is part of BuJu’s vision for how to pursue agroecological practices. It also organizes bread festivals to create new links between consumers, producers and bakers, who can then continue their collaborations without BuJu’s involvement. Its aim is to create a thriving local, circular economy, without any “gray energy waste” in the form of middlemen claiming most of the profits — replicating a healthy ecosystem, but adapted to a society.

“Usually, in Lebanon, bakers use the industrial wheat to bake bread. Our proposition is to use the local, ancient varieties of wheat,” Harfouche says. He cites their superior nutritional value, lower environmental impact, and more circular robust local economy.

“The more I got into farming, the more I realized that this sector touches on … social, political, economic and environmental concerns,” says Ward, who recently wrote a report on the scalability of agroecological practices in Lebanon — featuring BuJu, among other initiatives.

“One of our biggest findings was the importance of focusing on training a few key farmers when trying to scale, rather than trying to educate 120 people at once,” she says. These first farmers will then go on to share the knowledge with their communities, she adds.

Serge in the farm.
30% of BuJu’s funds come from sales, the rest are earned through fundraising initiatives. “Our economic model is fragile. We aim to move towards more sales, to be more self-sustainable,” explains Serge. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

Outreach, reaching out

Harfouche says the local community first perceived the group as clowns. But after Lebanon’s socioeconomic collapse in 2019, neighboring farmers came knocking, asking for help and advice. Many are no longer able to afford the chemical pesticides and fertilizers they’ve grown dependent on, and come here to learn about alternative methods for growing food.

“We have also managed to make great deals with farmers whose land lays abandoned. We get to borrow the land for free, in return for us cultivating it for them,” Harfouche says. It’s a win-win all around, he adds: The farmer doesn’t have anything to lose; BuJu gets to test various pilot projects; the land gets regenerated; and if the farmer is impressed by the result, it may spur them to adapt agroecological methods.

Through cultivating heirloom seeds and seeds of knowledge, BuJu is planting both physical and mental systems of diversity and resilience. Unlike the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of nature as everything but humans or what humans create, BuJu is putting itself inside the ecosystem — not above it or outside it, but as just another puzzle piece. And this, in its eyes, is the essential component of agroecology.

Banner image: Cultivating heirloom seeds is an effective way to foster food sovereignty, promote soil health, and help prevent species extinction, as well as combat the monopolization of crops by multinational corporations suppliers. Image by Áine Donnellan for Mongabay.

Lebanese research preserves heat-adapted seeds to feed a warming world


Tohmé Tawk, S., Chedid, M., Chalak, A., Karam, S., & Hamadeh, S. K. (2019). Challenges and sustainability of wheat production in a Levantine breadbasket: The case of the West Bekaa, Lebanon. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 8(4), 193-209. doi:10.5304/jafscd.2019.084.011

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