American Univesity of Beirut

Agrarian Transformations by Dr. Rami Zurayk

​Dr. Rami Zurayk, professor at the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management, FAFS, teamed up with Professor Emeritus Martha Mundy (Anthropology, LSE) as Principal Investigators (PIs) on a research project that explores the relation between secure, long-term access to land for farming households, and the capacity of those households to contribute to local, regional, and national food security. Zurayk and Mundy collaborate​d with Dr. Saker El Nour, post-doctoral researcher (AUB); and Ms. Cynthia Gharios, Research Assistant (AUB), in an effort to understand the projection of agrarian transformation in time and space. The research, funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy and the London School of Economics (LSE), was carried out between June 1, 2012 and December 30, 2015.

Dr. Zurayk explained that while issues of food insecurity and ‘land grabs’ are frequently news highlights in Middle Eastern countries and neighbouring regions, the historical layers behind conflicts over the capacity to produce food and gain access to land are remarkably poorly documented. This is somewhat surprising in regions where written documentation is ancient and land registration pre-dates the Mandate regimes of the twentieth century. This project aimed at understanding the agrarian transformations and their spatial projection: how changes in land-covers and land-use can impact food security and how agrarian transformations impact the landscape.

The PIs developed a detailed field research methodology that combined archival research, analysis of land registration, intensive participant-observation, as well as research and interviews with older villagers regarding their family and individual work histories. The team of scientists directed focus toward a question often omitted from the discussion of ‘food security’ in terms of trade flows: the longer-term linkage between food production and land tenure. This methodology was applied through a study of a community in which the cultivators were historically landless. Sinay, a small area located near Ansar in south Lebanon, was the main village selected for this purpose. 

The village of Sinay historically belonged to the governorate of Saida. It is an agro-pastoralist community of landless cultivators where urban capital played little part in land transactions. When land registrations began in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire obstructed the process in different areas under its governance, with the result that residents of these areas were deprived from becoming registered owners of the land. The research team used this historical background to explore mechanisms for integrating household-level family and labour histories of men and women into the emerging history of landscape. 

The research project explored both the documented rights and the manner in which use-rights have been exchanged and passed down over time. This vernacular history of access-to-land must be set against the formal history of registered land rights. In this research on the southern village of Sinay and its surrounding environment, the PIs had participated in different capacities to the production of a significant body of work, and revealed that the documentation of these rights was very poor.

Dr. Zurayk explained that the end goal of the project was to study agrarian and social transformations in order to formulate hypotheses and theories that can help with the development of policies. The research project has now been completed. Dr. Zurayk anticipates that the project will make a fundamental contribution to the resolving the problem of ‘food insecurity’ in the Arab East, whether through fundamental research or through informed debate over food policy.

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