Kareem Shaheen| The Daily Star

BARJA, Lebanon: “Stop belittling our minds: It will not pass,” read the sign in the town’s central square. In the distance, a gigantic plume of gray smoke was belched out of the sand factory that dominates Barja’s skyline, in nearby Sibline.

The Chouf town, home to about 55,000 residents, can barely breathe, besieged by pollutants on all sides. The nearby Jiyyeh power plant supplies most of Lebanon’s electricity – its telltale signs are the white strands of smoke coloring the air above the blue Mediterranean.

Then there is the sand factory, which towers above a massive pit that scars the mountain range, home to rock crushers that have turned the greenery that once stood there over the years into a barren swathe of land with gray hills of pebble.

“This all used to be oak trees, 10 meters high,” said Mahmoud Daqdouq, a resident of the town, pointing to the location where the Lebanese government wants to open a new garbage dump and landfill. “Now it is all gone.”

Local officials say the decades of pollution have contributed to a rise in cancer rates in the area, including among the youth population, and respiratory problems ranging from lung cancer to asthma.

But if a Cabinet plan to move the infamous Naameh dump to the outskirts of Barja is approved, the town residents could find themselves forced to leave or be further throttled by what they see as the outrageous and arbitrary ruination of their homes by the government.

“We were surprised, we have a factory and an electricity company, so let’s also add garbage dump,” Nashaat Hamieh, Barja’s mayor, told The Daily Star in an interview. “As if these people are now used to poisons so their bodies can handle it.”

Residents protested over the weekend against a draft resolution that would allow the site near Barja to be used as a substitute to the Naameh dump, which is slated for closure early next year after exceeding its capacity by five-fold and its expected lifetime by 11 years, and after complaints and sit-ins condemning the damaging impact of the landfill on locals. The resolution has not yet been approved by the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

Hamieh said the “confrontation” was part of a broader campaign to “protect the lives” of the town residents, who have suffered decades of pollution, and includes a lawsuit that will be filed this week against Electricite du Liban, which he said aims at forcing the company to install filters in its plant to protect residents from noxious fumes.

“We had to move,” he said.

The municipality, which is backed by local officials in neighboring villages like Jiyyeh, Sibline and Baasir, all of whom are affected by the fallout from the industrial facilities, knocked on the doors of residents to inform them of the dangers of allowing the dump to be built and urging them to attend the weekend protest.

“We explained to citizens that even if your home is 3 km away from the landfill, you are in danger,” Hamieh said, adding that protest attendees numbered around 6,000. “We want projects to live, not projects that kill us.”

Local officials said they were forced to act because of what they describe as a health crisis among residents, with cancer rates that they claim are higher than elsewhere in the country.

“A lot of the deaths in the town are due to cancer,” said Maan Hadadeh, a local doctor in Barja.

Hadadeh said the most common types in the town were lung and digestive tract cancers.

He also said the town would be more vulnerable due to the impact of the dump, which will attract insects and vermin that are likely to be disease carriers. The health fallout could affect the Syrian refugee population too, estimated at about 12,000.

Moreover, he said organic waste will seep into the soil and natural water sources, affecting crops.

“We will eat the accumulation of this garbage,” Hadadeh said.

For these reasons, Hamieh said the residents’ demand was for the dump to be built in an isolated, uninhabited area in Lebanon, where it will not affect people even if it costs more to transport the waste to the landfill.

Indeed, homes in Barja are not far away from the supposed location of the dump, or even from the electricity plant and the factory.

Hamieh threatened that residents would escalate their demonstrations if the government does not back away from the plan.

“If the state does not preserve our lives, we will confront it with all legitimate means,” he said, giving closure of the highway to the south nearby as one option. Local municipalities are planning a larger demonstration with neighboring towns, and are demanding meetings with premier Salam and the environment minister to urge them to block the proposal.

The protests have already prompted statements by some officials supporting reconsideration of the plan. “If the government persists, we will escalate,” Hamieh said. “We will continue our popular movement until the end.”

Hadadeh agreed. “I hope all the politicians and civil society and people keep up this momentum, because if you demand your rights, you will not lose them,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 16, 2014, on page 4.