7 Jul 2016

Building Bridges in Lebanon

201606 Charbel El Fakhri

Isaac Newton famously said: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges”. Here in my wine cooperative Coteaux de Heliopolis and also in the wider fair trade movement in Lebanon, we certainly echo that sentiment. With 18 different religions and sects in Lebanon, and more than a million refugees fleeing from surrounding countries we don’t want to build walls but instead work together to face our common challenges.

That’s why we were so proud to host the International Fair Trade Towns Conference in Lebanon last weekend, under the theme “Building Bridges through Fair Trade”. We believe our country can lead the way in building bridges between people and countries, and that fair trade has an integral role to play.

We want to build bridges between the global North and global South, shortening the distance between us and facilitating relationships. Bridges that act as beacons, encouraging others to participate in the construction of a better world, and empowering people to improve their own livelihoods and standard of living.

Lebanon is strategically located, both geographically between the global North and the global South, and also culturally between Western and oriental cultures. It is perhaps this unique position that has helped Lebanon to become one of the few countries where Fairtrade products are both farmed and consumed – true South-to-South trade. Now we are strengthening the movement further by establishing Fair Trade Towns – nine so far in our small country, and growing.

Baskinta, the host town for this year’s conference is a striking example of the power of Fairtrade. Nestled high in the Lebanese mountains, the entire village has struggled in recent years through the refugee crisis, low prices for their produce and few opportunities to keep farming viable for future generations. But now they are uniting to tackle their social and environmental challenges. The community’s fruit and vegetable farmers are taking on Fair Trade principles and becoming Fairtrade certified. In partnership with local association ‘Baskinta Baytouna’ the villagers are tackling environmental issues, implementing a local recycling programme for example. And the extra money generated through Fairtrade sales has helped to improve living conditions, to integrate Syrian refugees' into Lebanese life, to drive gender equity and to improve the natural environment through better use of scarce water resources, to name but a few. Many other Lebanese villages are following the same steps, creating greater awareness about Fairtrade.

It was a privilege to show Fair Trade Town representatives from across the world some of these projects during the conference, and also to have the opportunity to share our experiences and achievements. From Brazil to the UK, India to Ghana, representatives from 18 countries explained how they have implemented Fairtrade principles in their home towns. I was particularly inspired to hear about the Fairtrade universities concept, which is doing a great job of raising awareness about Fairtrade among the youth. A workshop about "shortening the distance between the consumers and the producers" led by Philippe Adaime of Fair Trade Lebanon was also really interesting – highlighting the challenges producers faced and how traders and consumers can help provide solutions.

At the end of the conference, we all gathered around for a good glass of Fairtrade certified Lebanese wine, and having met as anonymous participants, we parted as friends.

When a stonemason starts building a bridge, each stone needs to be shaped and placed in the best position for the bridge to hold. I see Lebanon as a keystone, leading the way for towns in producer countries to implement Fairtrade principles on their farms but also in wider society. Now, having met so many other inspiring Fairtrade farmers and campaigners from across the world, I am confident that we can each put our stones together, bridging the gaps between our countries and cultures, and creating a lasting movement for change.