In his village clinging to the side of the Lebanese mountains, Elias Naïmeh harvested 16 tons of cones every year. Today, its production has collapsed due to the “American bug”, a terrible insect of barely a few millimeters that eats conifers.
If the millennial cedar is a symbol of Lebanon, the small country tucked between the mountains and the Mediterranean has vast pine forests that make up about 10% of its wooded areas.
In Lebanon, known for its refined gastronomy, pine nuts are found in traditional dishes and desserts. This “white gold,” as it was locally nicknamed, represents financial income for producers, especially thanks to exports.
But in his quiet pine forest on Mount Lebanon, near the village of Qsaybeh in eastern Beirut, Mr. Naïmeh auscultates his majestic conifers in the open air: an insect devours the trees. The damage can be seen with the naked eye.
Here the trunk and withered branches. Next, the tree lost its cones, withered and fell to the ground before it reached maturity.
“My personal production was 16 tons of cones. Today it barely exceeds 100 kg,” the manufacturer laments.
Before the appearance of the insect, he harvested about 600 kg of pine nuts each year, enough to provide him with a comfortable income of just over 40,000 US dollars (about 33,000 euros).
Discovered on the American continent, invasive species migrated to Europe before being seen in Turkey in 2010. Five years later, its presence was recorded in Lebanon, even though producers have been recording declining yields for several years.
– Global warming –
According to forest entomologist Nabil Nemer, the insect is present in all Lebanese coniferous forests, but the impact is particularly devastating to pine and its fertile cones.
“Sometimes you can see more than ten insects on one cone,” he says.
The result: the cone sees the seed it contains devour, sometimes losing up to 90% of its pine nuts, and is nothing but an empty shell.
“High temperatures and reduced precipitation contribute to changing the life cycle of insects and weakening trees,” says the expert.
While waiting for the emergence of “natural enemies” that could devour or repel insects – within 10 to 20 years according to Mr Nemer – the only weapon remains the use of insecticides.
What to bring a little respite, confirms Mr. Naïmeh, who heads the pine forest union. “Production improved for the 2016-2017 season,” he recalls, while the percentage of wilted cones fell from 85% to 30%.
But in a collapsing country, where citizens criticize the separation of the state, agriculture is not immune to shortcomings.
Therefore, it is impossible to spray insecticides annually in all pine forests, especially since dead trees would also have to be cut down to prevent insects from jumping on neighboring conifers.
“There are no more than 200 tonnes of pine nuts harvested in Lebanon today,” laments Mr Naïmeh, who is calling for a government mobilization. Previously, production reached 1,200 tons, or $ 120 to $ 130 million in annual revenue for the sector.
With the depreciation of the currency, the price of a kilogram of pine nuts exploded and is now almost twice lower than the minimum wage, while the erosion of purchasing power limits consumption in the local market.
– “Leave the forest” –
The village of Bkassine, in the south of the country, boasts the largest pine forest in the entire Middle East, with about 100,000 trees planted on approximately 220 hectares.
Some pines are over 40 meters high. The American beetle is also present here. Just like Tomicus piniperde, a beetle that reproduces by sucking the bark of trees under the bark, before it attacks the buds.
“The last major production dates back to 2013,” recalls Habib Fares, the municipality’s leader, citing a drop of about 70% due to insects.
Without sufficient funds, the other part of the forest receives insecticides every year, when all the trees should be treated.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture is involved in spraying and forest maintenance campaigns, this support has diminished with the economic crisis.
“The scale of the phenomenon is beyond our capabilities,” laments Mr. Fares, calling on international donors.
In a bankrupt country, Mr Nemer notes that forests can be part of the solution for “local societies (which) in principle live off these cultures”.
But he laments, “if it continues like this, they could leave their forests.”