Export ban hits Libya’s ‘green gold’ industry

Libyan children help to harvest olives in the town of Tarhuna, 80km south of the capital, Tripoli. 27 December 2018
Libyan children help to harvest olives in the town of Tarhuna, 80km south of the capital, Tripoli. 27 December 2018
Image: AFP

Stretching as far as the eye can see, groves of gnarled olive trees in northwest Libya have proudly withstood the country’s devastating conflicts.

But the industry of extracting olive oil, often dubbed “green gold”, is now under threat after Libyan authorities halted exports in a bid to “protect” local produce.

Libya has depended heavily on exports of its ample crude oil reserves since the 2011 fall of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The North African nation, mired in bitter internal conflicts since Gaddafi’s ouster, has failed to diversify its economy despite the enormous potential of its tourism and fisheries industries.

Authorities repeatedly express a desire to develop the promising olive oil industry.

But in Tarhuna, farmers and workers at olive presses view such pledges with scepticism.

“We constantly have problems getting spare parts, which are getting expensive because of the collapse of the dinar against the dollar, but also because of the cost of the oil extraction process,” Zahri alBahri, owner of a press in Tarhuna, said.

On his farm, olives heavy with oil are harvested by hand so as to not damage the trees.

Laid out on huge sheets, the ripened crop is transported in flour sacks to the presses where the rich oil is extracted. “There is enough production in Libya,” Bahri said.

“I don’t understand why we can’t export anymore.”

Exports of Libya’s most emblematic products – dates, honey and olive oil – have been halted since 2017.

A decree at the time said the suspension would be “temporary” to meet domestic market needs. But no date has yet been set to resume exports.

Justifying the ban, an official in the agriculture ministry said produce had been “exported in bulk at low prices and without adding value for the Libyan economy”, leaving domestic demand for oil to be met by expensive imports.

Frustrated farmers continue to grapple with a dearth of specialised bottling and packaging plants, leaving them unable to climb the value chain.

Although olive trees have grown on the Libyan coast for centuries, most of the current groves were planted by Italian settlers in the 1930s.

“My farm has existed for almost 90 years when Italians occupied Libya and brought the land back to life,” Ali al-Nuri, a farm owner in Tarhuna, said, posing proudly in a grove.

Libya, the 11th-largest olive producer in the world, grows about 150,000 metric tons of the crop annually.

But only 20% is turned into oil, well behind neighbours Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Nuri emphasises the industry requires more attention and resources to prosper, beginning with better irrigation in this desert region.

Olive trees, he recalled, had “saved” Libyans during lean periods before the discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s.

Among the hundreds of olive trees on Nuri’s vast farm, there is a particularly rare variety – white olives.

Originating in Tuscany in northern Italy, the tree – olea leucocarpa – grows olives that keep their light colour even when ripe. But Tarhuna only has five or six specimens, planted by the Italians.

Only 2% of Libya’s 1.7-million square kilometres is arable land, in a country famed for vast swathes of desert.

It boasts more than eight million olive trees, according to the agriculture ministry.

Cutting down olive trees had been strictly forbidden before Gaddafi came to power in 1969, Mokhtar Ali, whose farm has 600-year-old trees, said.

And the chaos that has engulfed the country since Gaddafi’s fall has further diminished the stock of trees.

Nowadays “olive trees are torn up with impunity to make charcoal or to replace with concrete,” Ali said. -AFP