The Palimpsest of Agrarian Change

In collaboration with the American University of Beirut (AUB)

1. Aims of the project

Food insecurity and ‘land grabs’ are very much in the news for the Middle East as for neighbouring regions such as Africa.  The historical layers that lie behind the conflicts over the capacity to produce food and access to land remain, however, remarkably poorly documented. 

The structural force of the historical layers of agrarian relations goes beyond some minor rural problem: it forms a palimpsest for social definition and contest over generations. From the late 1960s the growth and circulation of oil rent across the region seemed to relegate to the background the erstwhile political centrality of control over land and of the agrarian sector more generally.

This project takes comparative case studies from a single small area, southern and eastern Lebanon. The aim of the project is straightforward: to explore the relation between secure, long-term access to land for farming households and their capacity to contribute to local, regional and national ‘food security’.  Two villages will be compared in depth, but a wider number of cases will be brought in at a more superficial level.

A land system is a long time in the making, with layers lying upon earlier mappings of right.  The research begins with the registration of land ownership of the late 19th-century; a ‘palimpsest’ overlain but never erased by earlier gradual and then more radical transformations from the 1970s. The village of Sinay near Ansar in south Lebanon will be taken as case study. Second, in charting  the historical changes in landscape  the study will combine official documentation and oral testimony.  And lastly, to answer the questions posed about the relation between secure access to land and the capacity to make land express its productive potential, the contemporary markets within which the communities live in terms will be documented, including the price of imported goods, the flows of oil rent (often channelled at a higher level through ‘political money’) and of migrant remittances, and the value chains of the products of the land. 

This monographic work on a community of landless cultivators will be contrasted with work on a village where land registration took place only much later and where, being an agro-pastoralist community, urban capital played little part in land transactions. The village of Irsal in the eastern anti-Lebanon has seen a very different pattern of agricultural development and investment in land to that of Sinay. Lying behind the monographic sketch will be the basic question: how much can the differences in land-use and investment in land be attributed to land tenure and how much to other constraints?

2. Activities

The senior researchers will develop the detailed field research methodology on the ground and conduct both archival and field research; they will select and mentor the post-doctoral fellow appointed to the project at AUB.  Toward the beginning of year 3 they will convene the specialized comparative workshop.  They will write and oversee material for the website and prepare major work for publication. 

3. Outcomes and Impact
  • The project will make a fundamental contribution to the problem of ‘food insecurity’ in the Arab East. ‘Food security’ is generally conceived in terms of trade flows, with alarm expressed at the fact that the Arab World exhibits the highest rates of food trade deficit in the world. 
  • In terms of publications the project team will develop a publication strategy including on-line publication with a possible book-length study as well as journal articles.  It also expects to produce working papers from the workshop to be held at the beginning of year 3.
  • This project forms part of on-going academic and policy research and the building of a wider network on the problems of the agricultural sector in the shadow of the oil economy. 
4. Timeline: February 2012 – May 2015
  • June 1st 2012 – December 30th 2012:  Gathering and analysis of relevant existing research; identification of civil society and government interlocutors; confirmation of field sites; advertisement, interviewing and selection of post-doctoral fellow; preparation of first summary review of prior research.
  • January 1st 2013 – September 30th 2013:  Development of detailed field research methodology in situ; Mundy archival research and field research; Zurayk field research; post-doctoral researcher field research under joint supervision.
  • October 1st 2013 – May 30th 2014:  Outreach lectures or seminar at LSE MEC for London audience early autumn and submission of progress report; Mundy/Zurayk continuing field research; post-doctoral researcher begins writing up of results in Beirut;
  • June 1st 2014 – December 30th 2014:  Analysis of results and writing by Mundy, Zurayk and post-doctoral scholar in Beirut; comparative workshop on food security and land tenure to be held at AUB; post-doctoral researcher completes research report and gives second seminar.
  • January 1st 2015 – May 30th 2015: Completion of writing-up of material generated in the field research and the comparative workshop for publication and policy briefs by Mundy and Zurayk.
5. Personnel

Project Directors

Martha Mundy

Dr Martha Mundy

Martha Mundy is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science


Dr Rami Zurayk

Rami Zurayk is Professor of Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut