Lebanese Diaspora Extends To Africa, Easing Crisis Back Home

Funds sent back by emigrants to Africa are helping residents in Zrariyeh, about 75 kilometers south of Beirut, survive Lebanon's full-blown economic crisis.

A young woman in the village of Zrariyeh
A young woman in the village of Zrariyeh
Laure Stephan

ZRARIYEH — As a glowing dusk gives way to darkness, this southern Lebanese village succumbs to a kind of drowsiness when the COVID-19 curfew begins. Indeed, activity during the day is already moving at a slower pace as a result of the multiple crises that are shaking the country.

But the inhabitants of this Shiite town, where most make a living from trade or construction, say they are closing ranks in the face of the economic and financial collapse. "We live from day to day. But in Zrariyeh, solidarity is at its best," says Mohamed Fakih, a young pharmacy employee. "Here, for example, chronically ill patients who cannot afford to pay for their treatment are taken care of by benefactors."

Benefactors? "People who are in Africa," says 23-year-old Fakih, born in the Côte d'Ivoire city of Abidjan, where his parents still live.

Lebanon is famous for the extent of its diaspora. In Zrariyeh, nearly a third of the 15,000 registered voters live in Côte d'Ivoire. The flashiest Zrariyeh houses belong to the wealthiest among them, and the shutters only open during the summer visits. There are also many families living elsewhere in Africa, Europe or the United States.

"Our diaspora in Africa has ensured the development of the village," says Adnane Jezzini, the president of this municipality, who understandably cherishes these donors-voters. "For the past year, some inhabitants have really depended on the financial support of their relatives emigrants to live. Their generosity also allows us to support the poorest."

With his family to take care of, Hassan Zorqat struggles financially with his job as a painter. To survive, the 46-year-old traded his car for a moped and received help from the diaspora. "Everything has become very expensive," he says.

In the grocery stores, Syrian or Turkish products have replaced their European counterparts.

In Zrariyeh, nearly a third of the 15,000 registered voters live in Côte d'Ivoire — Photo: Live Love Zrerieh

"Money from abroad plays the role of a shock absorber for our society. It is true here, and for all Lebanese families who have someone who has emigrated," says Mohamed Mroué, a former resident in Abidjan, while smoking a hookah at the foot of his expensive house, not far from Zrariyeh.

In this country, the support of the diaspora probably explains in part why hyperinflation, coupled with the collapse of the local currency, hasn't yet led to a social conflagration.

"There are also the reflexes of unstable countries. Many households keep cash at home, just in case," Mroué, 55, explains. "When that cash dries up, things will get more complicated."

Mroué was a long-time entrepreneur in the plastics industry in Côte d'Ivoire before handing the business over to his sons. He now participates in mutual aid through "collections." One of these private initiatives has enabled the purchase of tablets for students in Zrariyeh, who are forced to attend school online because of the coronavirus.

Sending money, however, has become more complicated. The Lebanese living in Africa have lost confidence in Beirut's banks. For the past year, their savings have been frozen there, like all deposits from ordinary customers. In addition, "People in the South of Lebanon feel like a sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads because of the U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah, even though they and their people have nothing to do with the party's finances," says Mroué.

Since 2016, Washington has increased these sanctions, hoping to cut off the tap to the powerful armed Shiite movement. Tehran's ally is the sworn enemy of the United States and Israel.

As the financial crisis looks set to be long, some are also thinking of leaving — Photo: Mohamed Zorkot

To provide for the needs of their relatives in the village, the diaspora in Côte d'Ivoire has taken to conveying currency in person, according to several sources. "Every end of the month, families withdraw small sums in dollars sent by their relatives from the West. Little is coming from Africa," says Ali Hachem, 44, in his Western Union office in front of the central square of Zrariyeh. This square is lined with bougainvilleas, palm trees and black flags with the name of Imam Hussein, the central figure of Shiite Islam.

Dominated by Amal (the party led by the incumbent speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri), the village claims a certain diversity. If there are the portraits of Moussa Sadr, the founder of Amal, or Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, there is also the face of Che Guevara on communist banners.

Young people from here participated in the uprising of 2019 against the political class. But Washington's pressures against Hezbollah and its allies are causing a boomerang effect in the South: They contribute to strengthening community solidarity and are denounced as an effort to impose a new political deal in Lebanon.

As Lebanon prepares for difficult days, many people try to diversify work activities. According to several locals, land that was no longer cultivated is now sown, sometimes on a small subsistence scale. "My uncle grows everything we need for cooking," says Mohamed Fakih, the pharmacist.

As this financial crisis looks set to be long, some are also thinking of leaving. Adnane Jezzini, the president of the municipality, says that more than 70 men from Zrariyeh have joined the ranks of expatriates in Côte d'Ivoire in recent months — sometimes as laborers. His wife, Dalida, sent their eldest son to Senegal to stay with her own parents.

As for Mohamed Fakih, who aspired to live in Lebanon "to break the cycle where we only think about one thing all year round — coming back here in the summer," his dream is in jeopardy. He plans to leave, but doesn't yet know where to go.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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