“For every hashish plant, we will plant a vine.” This was the slogan chosen by the vine-farmers cooperative in Deir al-Ahmar ten years ago, when the pilot project was launched in the town of Aynata al-Arz with cooperation between the French Aloiz Association and Sami Rahme, head of the vine-farmers cooperative les Coteaux d’Heliopolis. The cooperative ensured communication between the farmers and the Aloiz Association, which provided the grape plants for free. They also lent their expertise and supervised the project until the production phase.
But the project ran into difficulties because of the farmers’ fear of unguaranteed results, especially since their experience with previous projects cultivating drug alternatives was disappointing or incomplete. One example of this is the United Nations Integrated Rural Development Program in the Baalbek-Hermel region.
However, the persistence and insistence of the cooperative’s board of directors on taking the initiative raised the amount of cultivated land during the past few years to 2,100 acres, cultivated by 285 farmers. Those farmers are members of the cooperative’s general assembly and belong to the villages of Deir al-Ahmar, Btad’i, Aynata, Barqa, al-Yamouni, al-Safra, Bishwat, al-Zarazir and al-Kunaysah. The cooperative is also working on a plan to expand the cultivated area to 12,000 acres after providing the necessary plants.
Michel al-Imad, a member of the cooperative’s board of directors and the person responsible for the Deir al-Ahmar area, declared that “the cooperative is going to establish a collective winery at a total cost of $3 million whenever the size of the cultivated land reaches 4,000 acres. This is aimed to increase the farmers’ income since they will be partners in this winery.” The detailed arrangements for the establishment of this winery began a while ago through the farmers’ contribution with 5% of the production revenues, in addition to the plants’ price, which will be paid once production begins. Imad also pointed out that the “Aynata al-Arz municipality offered the cooperative land to establish the winery.”
Imad estimates that the farmers’ income will increase four times over after the winery is established, saying that “the cost of cultivating one acre of vineyard ranges between $800 and $1,000. Each acre should have 333 vines, while production begins after four years and reaches its full capacity after the sixth.” Data from past years showed that one acre of vines produces around 600 kilograms of grapes per year, while the price of one kilogram ranges between $1 and $1.40.
Imad added that “the cooperative allocated 10 acres for every farmer who will be paying for the plants in case of additional cultivation.” Imad also stressed that “this project aims to help the small farmer stay in his town, mitigate migration and provide additional income for families since viticulture does not require much time and the families will be able to take care of this agriculture without neglecting their primary jobs. In order to support this venture, the cooperative contacted the Lebanese financial firm Kafalat and urged it to open an office in Deir al-Ahmar. This would allow farmers to easily take out soft loans so they could reclaim their lands and start planting vines on them. It is noteworthy that Kafalat has supported 70 farmers so far with zero-interest loans.
In order to reduce the cost for the farmers and exploit the region’s water supply, the cooperatives and the donating associations created artificial lakes in Deir al-Ahmar in order to drip-irrigate the cultivated lands. The number of artificial lakes has reached 18, with a total volume of more than 400 thousand cubic meters. In other words, this is a quarter the volume behind al-Yamuni dam. These lakes are spread throughout the villages and mountainous areas and are fed by the excess water coming from al-Yamuni dam, and by some artesian wells when needed.
For his part, Subhi al-Khoury, head of the Agricultural Cooperatives Union in Deir al-Ahmar, announced that “the union supports the vineyard project as an alternative to planting drugs.” He added that “this project helps citizens earn a living and keeps them on their land,” noting that “the union did not only offer moral support but also established a lake with a volume of 36 thousand cubic meters in the Deir al-Ahmar mountainous area. They also constructed a 5,600-meter pipeline network, a sewage system and a 5-inch artesian well to feed the lake at times of scarcity, enabling the irrigation of five thousand acres of vineyards using drip irrigation in the northern part of Deir al-Ahmar that were originally rain-fed.”
Khoury pointed out that “the total cost of this project reached $900,000, provided cooperatively by the United Nations Development Program, the Municipality of Deir al-Ahmar and a number of donors.” Khoury said that “the viticulture is a vital project for the area’s citizens and it can be classified as a pioneer in replacing drug agriculture. This is especially important because the citizens prepared the land for cultivation by removing stones.” He also declared that “the best gift a farmer can receive is a truck of red soil,” calling on the concerned ministries — namely the ministries of agriculture, economy and environment — to support the farmers. He also highlighted that “the union demanded that the Ministry of Economy fund three million vines, in order to expand the cultivated land to reach 12,000 acres.”
Farmer Jean Keyrouz expressed his joy for the opportunity to receive an additional source of income from planting seven acres of vines and earning almost $5,000 per year. He also urged the government to “support this agricultural project by facilitating the establishment of the winery.” He is also proud of contributing “$1,000 toward its construction by deducting 5% of his grape income, which he received for free.” Keyrouz added that the money he paid “is part of his share in the winery.”