“They’re going to start burying people here?” responded an elderly man, clearly bothered by the garbage around him, after a news reporter from Lebanese television station Al Jadeed asked him about the potential reopening of the notorious Burj Hammoud landfill.
But this was back in March. Today, the landfill has been reopened after activists from the overcrowded neighborhood ended their sit-in, where they blocked vehicles from entering the landfill.. Reopening the Burj Hammoud landfill for four years, as well as a landfill in Costa Brava is part of the Lebanese government’s temporary solution for the garbage crisis, which was sparked by the supersaturated Naameh landfill in July 2015.
However, while many activists have seen the reopening of the Burj Hammoud landfill as a case of history repeating itself- rather than an improvement for their well-being and the garbage crisis as a whole- it appears that the landfill, and the political and economic framework surrounding it, will yield results far worse than the Naameh landfill ever did. The prospect of that alone is a cause for great concern.
Burj Hammoud Residents Are Suffering
It is important to remember that prior to the garbage crisis reaching Beirut, Burj Hammoud was already suffering. And, unlike Beirut, nobody cared about Burj Hammoud. Known for its large Armenian population, the neighborhood is also home to many Syrian refugees, migrant workers from countries in Africa and South Asia, as well as a small Kurdish population.
Researcher and activist, Kathy Moughalian had lost what little hope she had left for the Lebanese state. “Before they opened the landfill, there was already a lot of trash on the streets. It was already quite unlivable, you know?” says Moughalian, who, alongside her family and neighbors, have been tolerating not only the stench of trash, but also the unbearable odor of burning garbage.
Burj Hammoud activist Carl reported that all the methods of mitigating the odors that were used last summer are futile, including masks. Carl says, “depending on the strength and direction of the wind, people can’t even open their windows anymore.”
So how are Burj Hammoud’s residents taking care of the situation? “The other day, my father told me how he and some others have figured out a schedule for when to open their windows without being impacted by the bad smells,” explains Moughalian, “They keep their windows closed from 5-8 PM, and after 8, the odors are a bit more bearable.” Carl also stated that some of his friends and family in the area have been doing the same, trying to come up with a schedule for when they can open the windows of their own homes.
Environmental Catastrophes And Neoliberal Economics
The Burj Hammoud landfill is only one of several landfills that the Lebanese state hope to open in what they call the solution to the garbage crisis. Another landfill in the works is in Costa Brava, south of Beirut. Like Burj Hammoud, it is also on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. According to Paul Abi Rached, founder of environmental organization T.E.R.R.E. Liban and president of the Lebanon Eco Movement, none of this is a coincidence.
“The landfills in Burj Hammoud and Costa Brava are the continuation of a development project that has been worked on for quite sometime, called “LINOR”,” says Abi Rached. The development project started at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, one of its main features is a large marine highway, which extends along Lebanon’s coast. Having coastal landfills requires what is described as the reclamation of land; in short, it means that land is being plotted over waters and beaches. Abi Rached elaborated on how the project has already been damaging to Lebanon’s environment, including destroying the Antellias valley.
Another environmental concern mentioned by Abi Rached is the emission of methane gas from the landfills, “Methane gas is a greenhouse gas, that alone is a problem.” In addition to that, factor in the impact of methane gas on the health of Burj Hammoud’s residents. While methane gas is not toxic, it can cause asphyxiation. When it comes to Costa Brava’s landfill, which is near Lebanon’s only international airport, there is the possibility of airplanes being impacted. Methane gas can be explosive, depending on its concentration in the air.
“Of course there are alternative solutions! In fact, there is one we can implement within 24 hours!” exclaims Abi Rached. The ultimate question, however, is the following: does the Lebanese establishment want an environmentally friendly and financially efficient solution? Of course not. It wants money.
“It’s all about land,” says Jad Chaaban, Associate Professor of Economics at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explaining that the Burj Hammoud municipality can sell that land to private contractors after the landfill’s term ends. Chaaban is also concerned about the fact that the Burj Hammoud municipality did not even reach out to its residents to cater their development plans and resources to what their constituency needs. “Did they survey the residents of Burj Hammoud? Did they ask the people about what they believe is needed for their communities?” asks Chaaban. The answer is no.
“Burj Hammoud Is Not A Dump”
The idea of reopening the Burj Hammoud landfill was made public by the Lebanese state in September 2015, during the pinnacle of the protest movement. Just one year ago, on September 18, 2015, residents of Burj Hammoud as well as a few activists from Beirut protested together against the reopening of the landfill. Local activists said that many residents are scared to protest, and it appears that things haven’t changed on year later.
“They will cheer us on from their balconies, and tell us in private they appreciate what we are doing,” explained Carl, “But everyone feels hopeless.” Like Carl, Kathy Moughalian feels if more people from Beirut joined protests in Burj Hammoud, then residents may feel less intimidated to get on the streets. “Then there are people who are in the hezb [Tashnag Party] or have family members there. There are spies who come to the protests to see who from the Armenian community is participating,” explains Moughalian.
And what about the far-right Kataeb (Phalanges) Party? Having arguably, and strangely, the most progressive environmental policy in the entire Lebanese establishment, they have filled a gap left by You Stink’s silence. They joined Burj Hammoud’s residents in protests against the landfill, and took part in a sit-in, until they left due to the impact of the stenches and the impact on their health.
Is the worst yet to come? When Naameh landfill was opened in 1997, the plan wasn’t to keep it open for over 15 years. There is a huge fear of the Burj Hammoud landfill being a repeat, despite the state insisting that it will be open for only 4 years. Despite that, nobody’s biting. But at the same time, not enough people are taking action.
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