Adonis Diaries

Archive for February 29th, 2016

Seed bank aims to protect world’s agricultural inheritance from Syria war

Lebanon project aims to recreate Aleppo collection of 150,000 seeds representing knowledge of generations of farmers in Middle East

in Baalbek. February 24, 2016

The wild wheat seed had travelled from Aleppo to the Arctic circle in northern Norway. It has now come almost full circle to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where an effort is under way to save the world’s agricultural inheritance from the ravages of the Syrian civil war.

Mariana Yazbek, who runs the gene bank at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), held up the specimen. “Think how much potential is in this seed,” she said. “Humanity is in our hands.”

The return journey from the Arctic to the Middle East was not one the seed had been expected to make.

The Svalbard global seed vault, buried in a Norwegian mountain, contains hundreds of thousands of native seeds from around the world, preserved in the event of a doomsday scenario to help humanity rise from the ashes and help feed a broken world.

The war in Syria, beginning in 2011, changed the calculus.

Icarda’s Aleppo facility, which held a collection of 150,000 seeds representing the knowledge of generations of farmers in the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began, is now all but inaccessible to the organisation’s staff so out in Lebanon’s agricultural hinterland a grand project is slowly coming to life to recreate it using samples from the Svalbard vault.

Go back 10,000 years, all the farmers that worked in this region and on those crops, there are varieties you cannot find anymore in the field,” said Yazbek. “The only place where you can find them is in the seed bank.” The specimens sent from Svalbard were the first ever withdrawals from the bank.

The young men and women at the Icarda building in the town of  Torbol, Lebanon, methodically go about their business in silence, separating the hay from the seeds, counting and recounting them, treating the fragile little plants for disease with a pink dye meant to ward off fungi.

Their sternness matches the gravity of the task at hand. “What we are losing is the history of these thousands of years represented in crops, and you’re losing your safety net for the future,” said Yazbek.

The aim is to recreate the whole collection that existed in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital before it was devastated by war, in seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco using the samples from the doomsday vault and other replicas that had been sent to seed banks around the world.

About 85% of the Aleppo collection had been replicated in Svalbard, a process that accelerated when the war began and inevitably reached Aleppo in mid-2012. A third of those samples have now been sent to Lebanon and Morocco.

Many of the wild varieties no longer exist, and those seeds that have been saved represent decades and centuries of genetic selection by local farmers that contributed to humanity’s collective knowledge of agriculture.

Maintaining them is crucial in order to preserve the broad genetic base and diversity of plant life in the region – biodiversity is already under threat as a result of droughts and climate change, over-exploitation and urbanisation that has eliminated the natural cover for much of the region’s plant life.

Icarda, which holds seeds from the Middle East and other dry regions of the world, conducts research to improve the livelihoods of local rural communities, providing technology that local farmers use, improving and breeding plant varieties to make them resistant to harsh climate, and working on land and water management and animal health.

Biodiversity – maintained by the seed banks – offers a form of insurance policy, as it allows local farmers to grow plants and produce that is resistant to extreme weather conditions and disease, proving resilient to diseases that may severely impact mass-produced crops that have high yield but are genetically nearly identical.

A short drive away, in a centre owned by the American University of Beirut, are two cold rooms, one at -20C and another at 4C.

In them are black boxes labelled “Syria” that came directly from the Syrian government, as well as other black boxes containing thousands of silver packets filled with seeds, meticulously labelled, that made the journey from Svalbard.

“It is wonderful to see the vault is already proving its worth and that we have been able to help our friends in the Middle East to continue their vital work,” Árni Bragason, director of the NordGen government agency, which helps to manage the Svalbard seed vault, said. “This is proof that the global system is working.”

Recreating the Aleppo seed bank is a major undertaking.

First they will be planted and allowed to germinate, then they will be replicated, and

second, new copies will be sent back to the doomsday vault for safekeeping. It is a task that keeps Yazbek and her team up at night.

“It’s a burden, the responsibility is immeasurable,” she said. “We have to make sure we give them everything, to make sure they germinate and multiply.”

“We are the keepers of this history and knowledge,” she said.

Can Municipalities Take on the Refugee Crisis?  
Five years into the Syrian crisis during which more than 1.5 million refugees have flowed into Lebanon, two things are apparent:
One, the Lebanese central government has been largely inept at dealing with the refugee crisis, as its policies have ranged from denial and indifference in the early phases of the crisis to forming a ministerial committee that has yet to develop a strategy to confront the problem head-on.

And beside closing the borders and imposing legal restrictions on Syrian refugees, the government’s ineptness is largely due to bickering among political parties that has led, like other issues facing the country, to paralysis.

Two, in the meantime and as a consequence of the first issue, refugees became de facto a local problem, leaving many municipalities with the tremendous challenge of not only governing for local Lebanese residents but also refugees.

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. February 2016 

Some government officials have welcomed the larger role of municipalities in the crisis, saying that municipalities are now “tools of development”.

As much as this ought to be the case, the question is: Are municipalities able to handle the refugee crisis, especially in areas where their number considerably exceeds those of Lebanese?

More precisely, do they have the administrative capacities and fiscal resources to address these challenges?

Municipalities’ ability to handle the refugee crisis is largely constrained by two factors:

1. Weak administrative bodies that are unable to provide adequate services  and

2. low municipal revenues.
These two constraints feed into each other, with weak administrations constraining local revenue collection and poor financial resources hindering the establishment of sound administrative bodies.

Before dwelling on these problems, it is essential to highlight that municipalities suffer from a structural problem, in that there are too many small municipalities with a weak tax base to be able to perform their responsibilities as stated by law and be fiscally independent, which are two key elements of decentralization.

Lebanon has more than 1,200 municipalities, which is 25 times more than Cyprus (which has forty municipalities), a country with nearly the same surface area as Lebanon, and more than twice the number of municipalities as Croatia, which is five times larger than Lebanon.

Moreover, 70% of these municipalities have a registered population of less than 4,000 people.

Effectively, these municipalities have almost no tax base to be able to generate their own revenues.

After all, 90% of the revenues for such small municipalities come from the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF). With such a low revenue stream, these municipalities are not capable of building administrations and hiring the personnel needed to perform their duties, if they wished to.

Looking more closely at existing municipal administrations, one can deduce that many municipalities cannot provide developmental services either because they have weak administrations or suffer from a bloated bureaucracy.

Those with weak administrations have a small number of full-time employees, averaging four.

Many municipalities suffer from vacancies: 400 municipalities have only one employee and 87% of municipalities have up to six employees.

Only 13% of municipalities—which is around 130—have more than six employees, a number considered standard for carrying out the duties of a municipal administration. Also, only half of the municipalities have bothered to generate a reliable cadre of employees

Based on a relatively new survey, 70% of municipalities are in need of new employees.

In brief, municipalities have too weak an administrative structure to be able to handle the excessive number of refugees that are on municipal door steps, let alone deal with their own constituencies.

Furthermore, many municipalities rely on part-time workers rather than full-time ones, which exacerbates the pressure on the administrative and institutional capabilities of municipalities. The share of temporary workers to the total number of employees is about 50% compared to 28% of full-time employees.

While many municipalities are unable to provide services due to weak administrations, others face the same fate for a different reason:

They suffer from having an excessive number of employees, who end up consuming a large portion of their budget, hence hampering their ability to undertake development.

This is the case in the municipalities of Sour, Bourj Hammoud, and Dekwaneh, whose total number of employees—both full-time and temporary—exceed one hundred, far above the national average.

The average share of administrative to total expenses of these municipalities is about 60% compared to 20% in the other under-staffed municipalities.

Having a weak administration is a function of low revenues, which in Lebanon hovers around 6% of central government revenues, a low number compared to the average of more than 25% in other countries.

To boost municipal revenues, most of the talk concerning revenue rests on the IMF and whether the government has distributed money from it or not.

However, the focus should be elsewhere.

For one, even though the focus on the distribution of the IMF is important, one must also highlight the size of the fund i.e. how much money has gone into the fund in the first place, which remains a state secret.

Also, there is a need to discuss the distribution criteria of the IMF, which is currently based on the registered population and revenues collected in the last two years. The current criteria favor municipalities with a large registered population and correspondingly larger revenues collected directly.

Since the latter is highly dependent on real estate—rental value fees on residential and commercial units—this means that the criteria favor urban rather than rural areas.

Boosting local revenues should also be a local affair.

That is, municipalities must exert effort to directly collect their own fees.

As stated earlier, municipalities rely on thirty-six direct fees, of which three form 85% of total collected revenues.

The weak direct revenue collection faces its own sets of challenges that include valuation of real estate, collection of the fees, and managing accounts.

For instance, most municipalities are unable to revalue properties—both residential and commercial—to revise rental value fees, which is an important source of revenue. Municipalities should have the ability to count the number of both residential and commercial units, develop valuation criteria, and revise the values of properties every three to five years.

None of this is happening in most, if not all, municipalities in Lebanon.

The problem is not limited to revenue but also budget preparation and execution, as municipalities are unable to separate the different functions of administrative and executive jobs to ensure there is not an obvious conflict of interest.

For municipalities to play a developmental role, there is a need to undertake major reform on various levels. Municipalities must be able to raise enough revenue to build a capable and efficient administrative body.

But they need an administrative body to be able to raise revenue. Hence, there is a need to enlist the help of the central government, where it can lead to serious reforms that can improve municipal revenues through timely and better distribution of the IMF, as well as remove constraints in hiring municipal staff.  If the central government has finally seen the light and considers municipalities to be tools for development, it ought to take the next step and empower them so they can effectively shoulder the burden of development.




February 2016

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