Her recycling project faced long odds in Lebanon. Still, she persisted.
path to progress
In a country whose inability to collect its garbage has, at times, made headlines, a feisty octogenarian has been running a recycling project for more than two decades. Neighbors have noticed.
Arab Salim, Lebanon—On the outskirts of this straggly, southern Lebanese hilltop village lies a small, tin-roofed warehouse. Packed inside are bundles of crushed plastic water bottles and barrels of empty soda cans, plastic bottle tops, and glass shards.
The warehouse is the hub of a small but thriving local recycling initiative that began when a group of women came together to improve their village’s environment.
But in a country that still struggles to modernize its infrastructure, including an at times headline-grabbing inability to collect its garbage, the warehouse also stands as a testament to the perseverance of a doughty octogenarian who defied local customs, government negligence, official indifference, a lack of funding, and even the perils of intermittent warfare to realize her modest vision.
When, more than 20 years ago, Zeinab Moukalled pulled together volunteers among Arab Salim’s women to sort and recycle the village’s overflowing trash, she says it was an attempt to compensate for the near-total absence of the Lebanese state in tending to their municipal needs.
“We really don’t have any government to help us, so we have to do things by ourselves,” says Ms. Moukalled, now 81 and popularly known around here as Haji Im Nasser. (“Im Nasser” means “mother of Nasser,” and “Haji” denotes she has performed the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.) “What we did was for the environment and to improve our lives in the village.”
And it has served as an inspiration. The success of Moukalled’s campaign has not only ensured a safer and healthier environment in Arab Salim – where it helped eradicate a traditional culture of haphazard garbage dumping – but has also led nearby villages to try and establish their own recycling projects.
Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, yet this tiny Mediterranean country continues to be wracked by infrastructural deficiencies left over from that 16-year conflict: from daily power cuts and water shortages to a lingering crisis over garbage disposal. Two years ago, mass protests broke out against the government when garbage accumulated for weeks in the streets of Beirut after the main dump site south of the capital was closed.
A national solution to the trash problem has yet to be found, as politicians bicker over who stands to benefit from potentially lucrative garbage-disposal contracts. With successive Lebanese governments more often than not failing to adequately address such deficiencies, it is often left to individual civil initiatives to improve living conditions in local communities.
Moukalled came up with the idea for her recycling effort in 1995. At the time, there was no functioning municipality in the village, and community needs were supposed to be handled at the level of the governorate. Moukalled visited the then-governor of the area in Nabatieh, a market town three miles to the south, to enlist his support, but was unsuccessful.
“We tried to persuade him to help us, but we gave up and decided to do it ourselves,” Moukalled recalls.
There was no money for the project, and some women were initially less than enthusiastic about sifting through their household’s garbage each day to separate bio-degradable trash, plastics, glass, and metals.
But these weren’t the only obstacles facing Moukalled as she pressed ahead with her agenda.
Recycling under fire
In the mid-1990s, Arab Salim was on the frontline of the Israeli army’s occupation zone in southern Lebanon. Soaring to the east of the village was a craggy mountain surmounted by a military outpost manned by Israeli troops or their local Lebanese militia allies. Fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah organization routinely fired mortar rounds at the outpost or scaled the mountain to launch close-range attacks. The resulting retaliatory Israeli artillery fire often hit the village and its outskirts, killing and wounding residents and causing damage to property.
“At the time, we were under occupation, and people didn’t care about the garbage situation because we had shelling every day,” says Moukalled.
Another early challenge was finding a place for the barrels and sacks of sorted trash. A public appeal for recycling companies to contact her and collect the trash inspired a newspaper article about her innovative campaign. That exposure led in turn to a meeting with UN aid officials in Beirut and a grant of $29,000. At last, a newly elected governor in Nabatieh – after initially chiding Moukalled for allegedly circumventing the government – gave the volunteer women some money and land for the warehouse. It was built with funding from the Italian Embassy.
Arab Salim lies along the crest of a mountain ridge with views to the west that reach the Mediterranean. Although the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon ended in May 2000, reminders of war are still found across this Shiite village. Hezbollah has a strong presence, and the streets are lined with sun-faded portraits of “martyrs” killed fighting the occupation two decades ago. More brightly colored pictures commemorate a new generation of fighters killed on Syria’s battlefields.
Everyone here knows Haji Im Nasser and speaks of her fondly.
“Her work is the best thing that ever happened to Arab Salim,” says Amin Shrara, 30, who owns a sandwich shop in the village center. “The village was drowning in garbage when I was a kid. But Im Nasser educated us not to throw garbage out of the window, but put it in dumpsters. The village is unbelievably clean because of her.”
'Government gives us nothing'
Lebanon’s national garbage crisis has elicited greater interest in the work of her project, now a non-profit NGO called Nidaa al-Ard, or Call of the Earth. A steady stream of visitors come to Arab Salim to see how the operation runs. The neighboring villages of Kfar Ruman and Jarjouaa also have begun similar sorting/recycling schemes.
“We started six months ago. We have given barrels to all the houses and have employed four people to collect the garbage,” says Ali Moukalled (not a direct relative), the mayor of Jarjouaa.
The problem facing these new recycling start-ups, however, is still the lack of funds – and government inaction. The Arab Salim warehouse is too small to accommodate all of Jarjouaa’s waste.
“We are knocking on the doors of foreign NGOs asking for money for our needs,” says Ali Moukalled. “The government gives us nothing.”
Today Nidaa al-Ard is expanding its activities into water protection and conservation and regulating stone quarries. The Arab Salim warehouse also contains a small classroom for school children to learn about the environment, conservation, and recycling.
“People’s attitudes [toward the environment] have changed, of course. There was a little boy who saw her mother throw trash on the street and he said, ‘Mama, don’t do that or Im Nasser will be angry,’ ” Zeinab Moukalled says with a soft chuckle. “It’s been a long journey, but we have done well.”