Locals angered as private firms convince grove owners to part with specimens as old as 1,000 years
By Mohammed Zaatari

Saturday, November 20, 2010
Southerners sell ancient olive trees for use as decorative pieces

HASBAYA: For the past three years, ancient olive trees have been growing in popularity, not as a target of preserving the country’s natural wealth, but as decorative pieces.

More than 1,000 trees from the south Lebanon region of Hasbaya have been dug up and sold at very high prices, according to the Agriculture Ministry’s office in Hasbaya.

The increasingly popular transaction is being carried out by private firms and establishments that convince olive grove owners to sell them trees aged between 150 and 1,000 years, or even older.

Locals say the companies’ clientele consists mostly of Beirut and Mount Lebanon residents, and particularly tourist destinations, which are on the look-out for decorative pieces to adorn their villas or establishments.

But while the trade seems appealing and profitable to some, Hasbaya locals have been complaining that their region’s most famous source of natural wealth is being uprooted and sold, with no one held accountable.

Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Qassem Hashem has on several occasions condemned the commercialization of old olive trees and described it as “an agriculture massacre against the environment and the region’s history.”

He has called on the authorities to stop the “questionable deals,” urging the Agriculture Ministry and the public to take action.

Hashem said those responsible for the trade should be arrested, adding that “chopping down and uprooting trees, even on private property, is considered a crime punished by Lebanese law.”

His statements have been welcomed by some Hasbaya locals, who say some of the sold olive trees date back to the Roman era and are known as the “Roman trees.”

Mohammad Shayt, an owner of large olive groves in Marjayoun, said many of his trees have grown too old and no longer bear fruit.

However, he refuses to sell them, saying: “I will never uproot a single tree even if it doesn’t produce any olives. The olive tree is a sacred tree.”

His opinion, however, is not shared by all olive grove owners in the Hasbaya region. Many of them stress that the trees being sold are useless plants that have grown too old to produce any fruit.

Abu Salim complains that the trees are not only barren, but also cost a lot of money to maintain.

“It costs a great deal to take care of these trees and to prune them,” he says, adding that prices of olive oil have dropped, and that “planting olive trees has become nothing more than a burden.”

Locals say a single tree is bought from its owner at prices ranging between $700 and $1,000, and later sold for a value of $3,000 to $6,000.

“You spend more maintaining an old olive tree than you profit from it,” says Abu Majed Hamdan, who affirms that the Hasbaya municipality doesn’t allow anyone to chop down wild trees without its permission. “We chose to give up some of the trees in our fields, including olive trees because of their high maintenance costs,” he adds.

Hamdan said a truckload of firewood could be sold for LL1 million, and notes that a family would need at least LL4 million worth of wood to cover its heating needs for the winter.

The trucks used to transport the trees from south Lebanon to Beirut can be seen daily on the roads. “I’m still waiting for five trees to be dug up, so that I can transport them,” said truck driver Mahmoud Muslmani, as he prepared to haul an olive tree to a Beirut villa.