Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Reviving traditional sustainable practices

A new NGO is working to introduce permaculture and its sustainable values to Lebanese farms

Permaculture workshop in Saidoun
Bona Terra farm
Joseph Brakhya
Bassam Khawand
Damascene roses at Bona Terra farm
The beekeeping workshop

In the face of mounting water and environmental crises in Lebanon, multiple groups have begun a campaign to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon, a non-governmental organization founded by Rita Khawand, Alexis Baghdadi, Bassam Khawand, and Jihad Chanehsaz, is one such initiative, attempting to introduce Lebanese to “permanent agriculture,” or “permaculture” for short.


According to SOILS, which offers activities geared toward sharing sustainable skills and resources, the philosophy of permaculture relies on an inclusive understanding of the interconnections between all the elements of an ecosystem: plants, animals, people, and climate. “This allows us to design a sustainable productive system in terms of providing food and shelter, while respecting all supporting elements of an ecosystem and requiring minimal effort and interference,” said Rita Khawand, SOILS’ general coordinator and administrator.


Permaculture incorporates many elements of traditional farming as well as modern science and technology. But what makes permaculture unique is the fact that it is modeled very closely on natural ecosystems.


It is this desire to farm land in a sustainable way through creating a closed ecosystem that has drawn Hani al-Ayoubi to consider permaculture for the 20,000-square-meter family property he started cultivating last year in Deddeh (Koura). After an experimental phase last year, this spring Ayoubi harvested a ton of sweet peas and succeeded in organically growing tomatoes in greenhouses. He now has customers buying his produce directly from his Bona Terra farm in Deddeh as well as from Nova Vida, an organic shop in Tripoli.


Between rows and patches of over 15 different vegetables and herbs, Ayoubi has planted 800 trees and shrubs, including macadamia nut, avocado, peach, and Damascene roses, adding to existing old olive trees.


“You have to know your plants and weeds and how they interact with each other,” Ayoubi told NOW. “One may be a problem and needs to be removed. The same goes for pests: you need to know them and always keep an eye on every single crop. Coriander is a pest control, and aphids, for example, I combat with ladybugs that I collect. Then there are times you need to step back because nature knows how to fight back and build immunity.”


Jad Khadij, a freelance accountant who farms organically on a smaller scale in Balloune, attended a beekeeping workshop organized by SOILS to mark World Permaculture Day on May 4.“These kinds of workshops allow me to connect with people interested in preserving our mother nature,” he said. Like other participants, Khadij found the structure of the workshop – an even split between theory, demonstration, and practice – interesting and beneficial.


Curious about the lives of bees, an eclectic group of young professionals gathered in beekeeper Bassam Khawand’s lounge in the small village of Saidoun (Jezzine). Together the group learned about the importance of bees to humans, their elaborate division of labour in the hive, their different life stages, and the impact of global warming. This year’s mild winter and lack of rain has translated into a shortage of flowers, as a result of which, Khawand said, the bees are not well.  


Khawand also spoke about the bees’ sex life and elaborate communication systems. He said that honey bees are the original twerkers: through their astonishing waggle dance, they indicate the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources, or to new housing locations.


Whereas Markus Imhoof’s documentary More than Honey showcases how in California, home to the largest almond plantations in the world, beekeepers get paid large sums of money to bring their hives and honey bees to pollinate the almond blossoms, here in Lebanon, beekeepers often have to negotiate to be granted access to blooming orchards, while some landowners expect to be remunerated for having their trees pollinated.


Before the sweet finale of Khawand’s workshop – a honey tasting session – participants had the opportunity to step into a beekeeper’s outfit and get up close and personal with some of the approximately 50,000 bees he keeps in his 130 hives.


“Apart from learning about bees, how they live, produce honey, reproduce, and many more secrets that seem to be very specific to bees, the exactitude of their hives’ geometrical designs impressed me,” urban planner Sarah Lily Yassine remarked. 


“The workshop allowed me to be more sensitive to bees and perhaps insects in general and to reflect on these aspects when working on an urban site, but also rural typologies to allocate spaces to incorporate beehives. More generally, it taught me to being aware of other users of the land. We tend to always see people as the sole users of the city or even a rural area.”


With SOILS hosting Lebanon’s first Permaculture Design Course (PDC) this month in Saidoun, the village may well become the Lebanese capital of permaculture. The two-week course, taught by certified international teachers in permaculture, was made possible after SOILS received start-up funding from USAID.


The PDC curriculum seeks to instill permaculture ethics (“Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share”) through teaching and applying sustainable practices in all aspects of life and work.


SOILS has been collaborating with the agricultural cooperative in Saidoun to reintroduce traditional methods of growing and irrigating, as well as regenerating soils and preserving local seeds. The association has also been actively encouraging the use of traditional farming and irrigation methods in the village, as well as natural means of regenerating soils and controlling pests. It has also felt compelled to offer the hands-on course in order to build local capacity there and across Lebanon and catch up with other countries in the region where the course is available, namely Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey.


Beirut-based architect Joseph Brakhya pursued a PDC 20 years ago in Australia. He has since completed permaculture projects in Australia as well as South Lebanon. “I designed and watched over a food-producing garden in South Lebanon, where I composed and incorporated a large variety of elements in such a way to have it self-sustained, with minimum work, and all organic," he said.


“This involved incorporating features such as rain water catchment and tanks, compost bins, earthworm growth area, a small seed bank, hens, small habitats for birds and snails, and bee hives.”


Brakhya is convinced that there is a great potential for permaculture in Lebanon: “Many, especially people in the villages, have lived it or experienced it in the past. From my experience in explaining permaculture to people, I noticed that so many know the principles and have used them. They just don’t call it permaculture.”


For more information on SOILS view their Facebook page or website. 

Bassam Khawand inspects his beehives near his home in Saidoun, Caza Jezzine. (NOW)

“You have to know your plants and weeds and how they interact with each other.”

  • fadi c

    Hope for Lebanon's tragically raped agricultural sector!!! Thank you SOILS!

    May 19, 2014