Lebanon, The Quarry Mafia

(NowLebanon, August 2010)

In a flagrant display of how heated the quarry debate in Lebanon has become, earlier this month, a Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television crew was attacked while filming a report on stone and sand quarries in Bekaatouta, Mount Lebanon. Quarry workers descended on the crew, wrestled away their camera, and came after them with a large truck, trying to run it into their car.

“There was a big truck full of stones, and he tried to hit us,” said Guitta Kiyeme, the LBC reporter who, along with her cameraman, was involved in the incident. “Luckily, the driver put the car in reverse and backed up, so he missed,” she said.

After failing to strike the news crew’s jeep, they then “got out and started punching the cameraman. When I told him we were LBC, he stopped,” said Kiyeme, who believes the men were trying to kill them. Kiyeme, her colleague and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation have pressed charges against the quarry owner, who happens to be the head of the municipality, Raymond Hajj.

The incident occurred one day after Interior Minister Ziad Baroud announced the government would begin taking harsher measures against illegal quarries in Lebanon, which are estimated to number between 700 and 1,300. Quarries in Lebanon extract stone or sand, which is then used by construction companies to build apartments, shopping malls and offices, and for landscaping. With the construction boom in Lebanon at full speed, there is an increasing demand for such raw materials, and they fetch high prices: $15 to $30 per cubic meter.

The proliferation of quarries began in the early 1990s, at the end of the civil war, as the country tried to rebuild itself after 15 years of large-scale destruction. While quarrying can be performed in a sustainable way, most of the country’s quarries are illegal, unregulated and rapidly beheading Lebanon’s mountains.

“You’re destroying a whole landscape, and in some cases, a whole habitat,” said Dr. Ali Darwish, head of The Green Line, a Lebanese environmental advocacy group. “The explosions they stage to extract the material are huge. They use illegal quantities of explosives and do it in an illegal way, causing irreparable damage to aquifers, rock layers… and also to the neighborhood with noise pollution. In Dahr al Baida, on the way to the Bekaa, we lost three mountain tops. You can’t rebuild a mountain.”

Quarries can generate tens of thousands of dollars a day and have become a favorite money-making scheme for Lebanese politicians, some of whom own them, and others of whom have financial interests in their operation. While the government has attempted to shut down illegal quarries numerous times over the last few years, enforcement is lax, and the so-called “quarry mafia,” made up of politicians and businessmen who generate vast profits from the operations, prevails.

“Every quarry owner is linked to a politician,” said Darwish. “It’s about money. They scratch each other’s backs.”

“It’s all about money,” agrees Nada Zaarour, vice president of the Lebanese Green Party. “They are eating our hills and mountains, they are so greedy. Nobody knows who runs them, and quarry owners are so powerful, they don’t believe that anyone will stop them.”

Zaarour says the Green Party once sent a photographer to take pictures of a quarry site in Aindara, and the owners captured him. “The workers locked our photographer in a container for three hours, in the sun, and then they took him and threatened him, accusing him of trying to steal their equipment.

That quarry, like the one in Bekaatouta, was shut down. But three weeks later, it re-opened. Compounding the problem is the fact that quarry regulation falls between the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of the Environment.

Realizing the unwieldy power of the quarry owners, environmental groups have stopped short of calling for their closure, but are instead simply asking for regulation.

“We are not trying to abolish them altogether,” said Zaarour. “We want to advocate these operations in environmental ways, to find rules and the laws to control them, ” which, she says, could provide a financial boom for the government, which could make money by taxing regulated quarrying, in the same way they could (but haven’t) with cigarettes.

In fact, those rules were established by the Ministry of Environment in 1997, according to environmental journalist Nabil Abu Ghanem, but are not applied.

“They need to choose locations that do not adversely affect the natural surroundings and the living creatures that are there,” he said. “They need to know how to select the site. Also, they extract rocks by putting in a combination of explosives and chemicals and igniting them. This is harmful. It pollutes the waterways, harms bridges, etc.”

He says permits should be given according to standards, rather than catering to interests. “No one is saying we have to close down the quarries. We are just asking for organization, monitoring and application of the correct law.” Importing sand from neighboring countries like Egypt is another possible solution.

But regulation and importation create costs that profiteers are not willing to pay.

The Green Party is trying to entice the ministries to sign an “Environmental Prosecutor Law” that would create an oversight committee responsible for monitoring quarries, among other things.

The Ministry of Environment did not respond to several attempts made to reach them for this article.

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