How tobacco is enabling women in southern Lebanon
“It fertilized the soil, protected our honor and guaranteed the loans.” These are the words Hajji Naaimeh used to describe the tobacco plant. In her opinion, in addition to fertilizing the soil and insuring bank loans, tobacco plants have helped women gain an income without having to work for other people, mainly as housemaids. That’s why she says tobacco has protected the honor of women in the south of Lebanon. From Houla, at 55 Hajji is a highly-respected figure in the tobacco business of southern Lebanon. She says tobacco has become the main business propping up the economic balance in the villages of the south.
Prior to 2000, the economy of southern Lebanon was characterized by activities directly related to the Israeli occupation, such as employment in Israel, enrollment in the “South Lebanon Army” militia (SLA), and economic supplements of the Israeli military presence. UNIFIL’s presence also brought money to the region, as did financial allowances granted to the children and families of resistance soldiers. But the majority of these sources have dried up since the Israeli withdrawal. According to the Lebanese government’s Conference on the Reconstruction of the Liberated Territories and the Adjacent Areas, “Southern Lebanon is primarily an agricultural region with around 28% of the surface occupied by agriculture. Owner-operated farms are predominant, constituting more than 76% of all agricultural exploitations. Tobacco cultivation, which is largely subsidized by the State, plays a crucial role in the economy of the region.”
The resistance plant
“I have been working in the tobacco business since 1995,” Hajji Naaimeh told NOW. “I have already won four competitions organized by the Lebanese tobacco regie. I made a fortune out of this business. I have 10 kids who always try to convince me to retire without knowing that quitting the tobacco business is losing a bit of who I am. For me, tobacco plants are the resistance plants. They are the only thing that resisted the Israeli occupation and provided jobs for people who did not want to work in Israel, especially women, who are now taking the lead. A few years ago, when new machines were introduced, this business invaded the area.”
Tobacco cultivation, largely supported by the state, has encouraged people to quit other businesses. According to Naaimeh, it is very easy to get a bank loan to start a small tabacco-related business. “A tobacco cultivation permit costs 4 million LBP (around 2,660 USD) and banks easily give the loan for it. Some people, who do not plant tobaccos themselves, buy the permit in order to lease it for 400,000 LBP (around 260 USD) per season. Our whole life became related to the cycle of the tobacco plant; we even pay grocery shops in town at the end of the tobacco season, when all the products are sold.”
Many towns in the south now rely on tobacco as a primary source of income, including Houla, Rmeish, Markaba, Meis, Ayta, Aytaroun and others. Although olives still play a significant role in the region, they are becoming less popular, and a lot of residents have left the trade.
“I still have a few olive trees for personal consumption,” said a resident of Markaba, a woman in her late 50s. “A few years ago, I bought a tobacco cultivation permit. The only thing that encouraged me to do so is that I am sure that the state will buy all the products. Now I don’t spend time and energy worrying whether the harvest will be sold or not.”
Farmers who grow fruits and vegetables face the same problem. In Hasbaya, residents are struggling to export and sell their harvests. “We plant a lot of tomatoes, peaches, cherries, apples and other fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the cultivation of these goods is not supported by the state. We are obliged sometimes to sell them at a very low price to avoid throwing them away when they rot,” a farmer in Mimes told NOW.
“Women are taking the lead here,” said Sabah, who also lives in Houla. “Men who aren’t farmers cannot find jobs here. They are obliged to go to different regions to work. My husband drives a school bus in Beirut. This kind of job is rarely to be found here. This is the situation of the majority of southern men, especially that agriculture has started to become a woman’s business, especially the cultivation of tobacco, wheat and olive trees.”
For a generation of youth, the south is not a feasible place to live anymore given the job prospects. Aside from joining the Lebanese Army or Hezbollah, a many young men in the south have moved to Beirut, leaving women and elderly men are left to tend to the agriculture.
Most locals NOW spoke with confirmed tobacco and olives have become female-dominated businesses. “Some old men, like me, work in this field,” said Saleem, a 65-year-old from Rmeish. “Young women who are not educated enough to move to Beirut and find a job there, or married women who live in the south, have to stay here and help their families. So the majority of them are out taking care of tobacco and olive trees by the time their husbands are at work.”
“A very small number of men still work in the south,” Hajji Naaimeh said. “Some of them work with UNIFIL, others have small shops, but their jobs do not really count when we speak about the economy of the south. Here, the economy is about agriculture, and women who are always present here are trying to keep this economy stable.”
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve worked in this business with my parents,” Naaimeh told NOW. “We used to water the plants carrying small bins of water across the village. Now, with technology and machines, it’s become a lot easier. A lot of women lived the way I did. We feel useful when we work outside the house and help our husbands by ensuring an additional income. The money we make from tobacco is a fortune compared to our husbands’ salaries.”
Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah