Cooperatives have not only empowered the women who run them in rural regions, but are helping to create a more sustainable field of tourism. Martine Btaich, a professional in community and sustainable development and vice president of the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, explores the women-run local agro-food cooperatives.
Traveling is about seeking experiences, and when rural and agro-tourism is considered, food and crafts are at the heart of them. Tourism in rural regions is also highly dependent on agriculture as a resource. There is a growing demand for healthy food, authentic discoveries, and sustainable practices, as visitors seek fresh, seasonal produce and the culinary specialties of the region, sourced directly from farmers, local small-scale producers and rural cooperatives. Today, more than 151 rural cooperatives run by women are active around Lebanon (crtda.org.lb). They promote healthy, natural and authentic agro-food produce and preserves, along with local crafts; all produced in a traditional way. Some cooperatives are also developing creative fusions that suit an evolution of tastes and flavors.
It is thought that the first agricultural cooperative in Lebanon was established in 1937 in Aabadiyeh. The concept further expanded to other areas, with support from the Ministry of Agriculture and in the early ‘60s, cooperatives were legally recognized. Through the years many agro-food cooperatives have developed. The interest of donor agencies in rural development, job creation and women empowerment, has helped local farmers and women entrepreneurs in developing small scale agro-food cooperatives. Almost all of them are offered training programs and technical support in production, hygiene and food safety, quality standards and marketing.
Rural cooperatives and tourism
Rural cooperatives have always been a tool for economic and social development in marginalized rural areas. The Rural Tourism Strategy for Lebanon defined rural tourism as “experiencing the country” through a variety of tourism activities that have positive impact on the local environment, community or culture. It highlighted food discoveries, agriculture and contact with local farmers as one of the key ingredients of tourism activities taking place in rural areas. Rural agro-food cooperatives fit well within this mission, becoming a destination for visitors to rural areas and a channel for discovering local agro-food specialties and crafts.
According to Samira Akiki, Director of Atayeb, a rural cooperative run by women in Kfardebian, the cooperative “has helped remind people of authentic flavors.” The cooperative produces all types of preserves and local food produce and is best known for its sour grape juice, apple and prune paste and all apple derivatives. The cooperative employs 10 full time women and 25 seasonal, and also offers catering services at tourism and private events and supplies hotels and restaurants. “Women have grown economically, psychologically and socially. They are more exposed through their participation in trainings and in local and international exhibitions,” says Akiki.
“Women have a big role in promoting their own village. It is so nice to see women evolve on a personal level too. They tell me they love life even more and that they are happier,” says Dunia Khoury, director of the Women Association of Deir El Ahmar (WADA). While the organization is not a cooperative but an NGO, their culture is similar to one. They have been working since 1997 on the development of tourism in the area of Deir el Ahmar and surrounding villages through community women based agriculture and hospitality initiatives. The women were previously housewives and have now decided to support themselves and their families without leaving their houses or villages. Fourty of them have opened their homes as guesthouses and offer meals and many are also engaged in crafts and agri-produce.
Oumaya el Qadi, from Ain Ata, Rashaya, and the 11 women who work alongside her in the Ain El Loz Cooperative have been active since 2005. Their lives have changed and their self-esteem and personality has been boosted. They feel they are more respected by their community. Working together like a family, they have become renowned for their catering skills and the distillated herbal derivatives that Jabal el Sheikh is famous for. Namlieh network and Souk el Tayeb have helped them market their produce and develop their business. They are always present in regional exhibitions and festivals to promote their village.
The success achieved by WADA, Atayeb and Ain el Loz Cooperative are often the result of the qualities of the women themselves, their hospitality and their authentic interest and passion in promoting their local identities. Though cooperatives alone are not enough to create a tourism destination – with a full use of resources needed such as nature, culture and history – they remain a major link to bringing visitors to rural destinations.
Meet the co-ops
Ain El Lawz Cooperative
Ain Aata, Rashaya
Najmat Al Sobeh
El Mheidsseh, Rashaya
Wadi al Taym
08 592567, 71 349410
Aita el Fokhar Coop
Ain El Aarish
Bint Jbeil Cooperative for Agricultural Food Processing – Zouwada
Al Imad Cooperative for Food Processing
Haris, Bint Jbeil
Women’s Agricultural Cooperative in Deir Kanoun Ras el Ain
71 220874, 03 242979
A network of 42 women-owned agricultural and artisanal cooperatives.
Promoting more than 36 rural women cooperatives.
Fair Trade Lebanon
A network of several cooperatives around Lebanon.
The Women’s Association of Deir El Ahmar
Food produce and crafts.
Souk el Tayeb
A farmers’ market where several cooperatives exhibit every Saturday at Beirut Souks, 9am to 2pm.
01 442664, soukeltayeb.com
The Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Tannourine Nature Forest Reserve, the Association for the protection of Jabal Moussa, Ehden Nature Reserve and many others, are acting as channels for local agro-produce from cooperatives in their respective areas.