The Palimpsest of Agrarian Change

In collaboration with the American University of Beirut (AUB)
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 used comparative case studies from a single small area, southern and eastern Lebanon. The project explored 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 were compared in depth, but a wider number of cases were explored 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 was used as case study. Second, in charting  the historical changes in landscape  the study combined 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 were 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 was 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 is 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?


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. 


Saker ElNour, Cynthia Gharios, Martha Mundy and Rami Zurayk, ‘The right to the village? Concept and history in a village of South Lebanon’ in a special issue of the journal justice spatiale | spatial justice, n°7 janvier 2015,  (The article appears in both French and English on the site.)

Cynthia Gharios, Saker ElNour, Martha Mundy and Rami Zurayk, 'Transformation rurale, paysage et conflit dans un village du Liban Sud, Sinay' will appear in a special issue of Economie Rurale on agricultural property (foncier agraire) in July 2016. 


Project Directors

Martha Mundy

Dr Martha Mundy

Martha Mundy is Professor Emeritus in the Anthropology department 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