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Waste Management Conflict (Starting January 25, 2014)

Historical background

Since the onset of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Ministry of Environment has made several attempts at dealing with the waste management crisis in Lebanon. This, however, has been done in accordance with an emergency plan adopted in 1998 which designated the Naameh landfill as a temporary solution to the waste of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

Sukleen, one of Lebanon’s leading private waste management companies, was founded in 1964 by Maysarah Khalil Sukkar, under the name Sukkar Engineering. Sukkar Engineering rose to prominence after winning the 1993 bid for waste management in Lebanon, following a call for tenders by the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction. Sukkar himself had just returned to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia. In 1996, the Lebanese government gave Sukleen the permission to open a landfill in Naameh that would receive waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Though it was originally conceived as a temporary solution, no other national waste management plan has been adopted since. As a result, Naameh has been receiving around 3,000 tons of solid waste everyday, thrice the amount it was designed for. The deadline for the closure of the landfill was deferred several times until July 17 2015, despite protests of residents, as the authorities could not agree on a long-term waste management plan. The Sukleen contract, initially valid for three years, has been renewed until 2015.

Sukleen detractors are critical of the imposed fees on the Lebanese government for every ton of garbage collected, which are higher than the ones implemented in other countries, the reported links with the Hariri family, as well as the monopoly that the company has been granted with regards to waste management. Likewise, civil society organisations maintain that Sukleen’s waste management plan does not take ecological issues into consideration, as the company did not put any of their recommendations into practice, and continued to dispose of waste in landfills.

After activist groups took to the streets to protest the heightening waste crisis, the government awarded the waste management bids to companies that - according to those activists  - are said to be close to politicians in power. However, the bids were cancelled following increasing pressure from the protest movements.

On September 9, 2015, the government approved a waste management plan proposed by the Minister of Agriculture, Akram Chehayeb. It consisted of the following measures: decentralising waste management duties by allocating them to local municipalities; reopening the Naameh landfill for seven days; renewing Sukleen’s contract for eighteen additional months; reopening the Burj Hammoud landfills; and upgrading a landfill in Akkar to a sanitary landfill and opening a new landfill in Masnaa along Lebanon’s eastern mountain rage. The plan was criticised by activists for not taking into account the environmental consequences of the re-openings/upgradings of the landfills and likewise not respecting the prerogatives of the municipalities who - according to the demands of the activists - should be the independent institutions responsible for waste management.

Description of event

The waste management crisis erupted when the Lebanese government decided not to renew Sukleen’s contract, the private company responsible for waste collection and street sweeping in greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Although the issue of the overload of the Naameh landfill had been discussed on several occasions in previous years, the successive governments failed to find permanent alternative solutions for the waste crisis. As the Naameh landfill reached its capacity, closing on July 17, 2015, and with the Sukleen contract coming to an end, the crisis reached its climax.

Garbage started to accumulate in residential areas, mainly in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, pushing local residents to burn waste bags. As the resulting toxic fumes exacerbated air pollution, NGOs and civil society actors started to mobilise. Mobilisation in the first few days mostly took the form of spontaneous roadblocks often accompanied with the burning of trash, that were carried out by local residents while activists called for demonstrations in downtown Beirut to protest the government’s politics regarding waste management. Likewise, protesters and activists considerably mobilised on Social Media, like Facebook and Twitter, calling into existence new movements and political/social groups. These movements ultimately culminated in a larger protest demanding a long-term solution to the waste crisis. But what began as a public outcry over the ongoing garbage crisis slowly transformed into a platform through which citizens expressed their concerns over the Lebanese political system and its poor public services in general.

Twenty-five years after the ratification of the Taif agreement, which put an end to the Lebanese Civil War, the lack of government provided services (running water, electricity, garbage management, and social security, to name a few) remains a continuous and unresolved issue.

The garbage crisis itself was a reflection of the deep-rooted decay prevailing in the Lebanese political system. Under the slogan “You Stink” (tol’it rihetkum), protesters denounced the absence of public services, as well as the clientelistic and corrupt political class, demanding a durable and ecological solution to waste management, and the reform/downfall of the Lebanese political system.

Protesters claim that the waste crisis has shed light on the widespread corruption and clientelistic practices within the Lebanese government, leading many civil society actors to call for the resignation of the current cabinet. Since August 8 2015, thousands of demonstrators marched to Martyrs’ Square at recurring demonstrations, condemning widespread corruption and calling for the resignation of the Minister of Environment Mohammed al-Machnouq. Several protests and sit-ins have taken place since. Some included physical clashes with the internal security forces and riot police, the most violent of which until now took place on August 22, when over 20,000 protesters were reported to have marched to Martyrs’ Square in Beirut.

Confrontations with the security forces intensified on August 22 and 23, when live bullets and water cannons were fired against the protesters, leading to a number of injuries. This, in turn, resulted in an exacerbation of the confrontation, with smaller but regular sit-ins, state violence in the form of arbitrary arrest and abusive drug-testing, and the denunciation of the latter by activists. Solidarity movements from other NGOs have since gained momentum, with the aim of protecting protesters from arbitrary arrests.

At the time of writing this article, the waste crisis has been solved, albeit temporarily, as the chosen landfills to host waste can still hold just a few days' capacity. Residents of the areas in question have thus expressed deep anger and frustration over what they considered to be a betrayal on behalf of their political representatives. Up until now, political actors haven’t been able to come to an agreement on the type of technical reforms that should be launched. Discussions and demands regarding the municipalities’ role in waste management are now increasing among the ranks of ecologist organisations, as well as decentralisation experts and lobbyists.

Evolution of the mobilisation

As the protests continue, the mold they take on and the claims put forward have been evolving.
Protests that took place on August 22 and 23 not only witnessed riots between the security forces and the protesters, but also amongst protesters themselves. Protesters that used violence against security forces and other protesters were seen as infiltrators by the dominant “You Stink” movement. The clashes led to a number of injuries. Protesters held the Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Nohad al-Machnouq, and the Minister of Environment, Mohammed al-Machnouq, accountable for the abuse perpetrated by security forces, as well as for the failure to manage the waste crisis. On August 24, security forces erected a wall in front of the Grand Serail to stop the protesters from getting closer to it. However, the decision seems to have been taken without Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s knowledge, who ordered the removal of the “wall of shame” less than 24 hours after it was built.

Though the parliament’s resignation has been called for since the beginning of the movement, the demand was rather secondary in comparison to the claim for an ecological and financially sustainable solution to the issue of waste management. But as the movement’s popularity and activities increased, the parliament’s resignation has become a priority for the protesters. This caused the protesters to call increasingly for “the downfall of the regime” (“isqat al-nitham”), thereby echoing a Lebanese movement in 2011 that was calling for the downfall of the confessional system (“isqat al-nitham al-ta’ifeh”), in the vein of the popular uprisings in many Arab countries against their ruling dictatorships in 2011.

The apparent street radicalisation has led to increasingly violent clashes between the protesters and the riot police and internal security forces, which in turn has contributed to additional daily protests, sit-ins, and marches.

What is clear from the course of the mobilisation is that the protesters’ demands went beyond lobbying for a permanent solution to the waste management crisis, and tackled a wide range of sociopolitical issues, from low employment rates and minimum wage to water shortages and power cuts, among other issues as well. Moreover, protesters denounced the prevailing corruption and clientelism in state apparatuses.

Another chief characteristic of the movement is that is has succeeded in bringing together different sections and confessions from Lebanese society, including the middle and upper class and the youth from more popular backgrounds. The trans-confessional and trans-communitarian characteristic of the movement is undeniable so far as these groups of individuals unite under common goals.

In the context of social mobilisations in Lebanon, this movement carries an exceptional status, especially among previous protests addressing socioeconomic issues. 20,000 people are reported to have joined the protests on August 22 and 23 — a modest number compared to the March 14 protests in 2005 following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination – but significant nevertheless compared to similar demonstrations on social and economic issues.

Though just a few weeks old, the movement, initially launched by the You Stink campaign, soon became rather diverse, with other groups/movements partly originating from You Stink, relating to already existing political and social movements and parties. Those include “badna nhasib” (“We demand accountability”), “tol’it rihetkun, al harakat al tas’hihiyat” (“You stink, corrective movement”), “‘al chare’” (“To the street”), “Youth of the 22nd of August” (“chabab 22 Ab”), and “al-cha’b yurid” (“The people want”). These groups’ beliefs range from the nationalistic to the radical and anti-system left.

Some of the other groups can be seen as an attempt on behalf of certain sections of demonstrators to distance themselves from the You Stink organisers, who have lately been criticised for adopting “limited and reformist” demands, and for requesting that the internal security forces arrest protesters who have been reportedly described as “thugs” and “infiltrators.”

This is also suggestive of an old but persisting cleavage between civil society organisations, with bloggers and other cyber-activists as the main organisers on the one hand, and more politicised collectives and groups on the other.  

Who are the main actors?

Lebanese Government, Internal Security Forces, Citizens, Civil Society Actors, You Stink Campaign (طلعت ريحتكم), Sukleen.

Recycling initiatives

Fed up by the authorities’ failure to launch green projects, local actors have decided to come together to promote recycling projects. The trash crisis gave these actors the opportunity to strengthen their initiatives and shed light on them. Beyond finding a solution to this crisis, their efforts aimed at triggering a deeper reflection among Lebanese citizens in order to make them more aware environmentally damaging practices. These range from civil society organisations to private companies and include:

- Association l’Ecoute: The association is collecting “household and industrial waste” in order to finance its activities, “while helping at the ecological level.”

- Arcenciel: The association has decided to “collect recyclable waste free of charge.”

- Beeatouna: The association recycles computers, air conditioners, and several kinds of devices battery chargers.  

- Chreek: The “social business” aims to “convert junk and non-recyclables” into new products with environmental value.

- Food Establishment Recycling Nutrients: F.E.R.N’s organizes the collection of waste and provides assistance to donate meals.

- Green Area: Aims to inspire change in Lebanese people’s behaviors. By proposing reforms regarding the treatment of waste to people from all socio-economic backgrounds, Green Area aspires to reach a fully ecological treatment for Lebanese waste.

- Indevco Unipak Tissue Mill: The mill produces recyclable and recycled products in order to trigger an evolution in the Lebanese ways of consumption.

- Lefico: The company is a PET Polyester Stable Fiber Producer that recycles plastic bottles to produces PET flakes.

- Liban fonderies: Liban Fonderies recycles all kind of metals.

- Mimosa Sanitary Paper: Mimosa Sanitary Paper’s products are made using environmentally-friendly manufacturing principles. All their products are recyclable.

- Mohamad Tawil & Sons: The company buys and sells ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metal of all grades and recycles them.

- Solicar: The company produces recycled paper and cardboard.

- T.E.R.R.E. Liban: This independent NGO founded in 1995 has been a leader in the promotion of environmental solutions for sustainable development, and has been recycling paper, plastic, glass, metal and aluminum, and electronic waste.

- Waste: Created by Lebanese designers in 2006, Waste handcrafts and produces bags, accessories, and furniture from reused advertising banners.

[Article last updated in August 2015]