The Trash Truck Intifada

In the middle of this summer’s heat wave, mountains of trash suddenly erupted throughout the normally glamorous capital of Lebanon. Beirut’s garbage piled up, blocking the avenues, simmering in the sun, and spreading a nauseous stench throughout the capital. Ever since, the capital has been dominated by an eruption of popular wrath; since mid-July protestors have besieged their politicians, pelting them with trash and sporadically clashing with police.

Western and local media outlets seemed to want to see the filth crisis as a kind of late “Lebanese Spring,” with young, photogenic secular protestors mouthing nice slogans. But they paid little attention to the backcountry, where a full scale intifada seems to be happening, with residents, often led by their local elected officials, taking over highways and roads to block the fleets of trucks bearing the capital’s garbage; frequently not very photogenic and chanting quite vulgar slogans. After paying for decades out of their own pockets for the capital’s garbage collection, they don’t want to now become Beirut’s dumping ground as well.

During the country’s generation-long civil war, the capital’s garbage was mostly piled up at the edge of the sea near the harbor, in what became the 140-foot high Mount Karantina [‘Quarantine,’ named for the plague station the place once hosted]. The road to the present catastrophe began almost 20 years ago, when the politicians ruling the country decided to award a foreign multinational, Averda, generous contracts for picking up the capital’s garbage, and trucking much of it to a landfill on the outskirts of town; the bill for the capital’s trash would however be shared by all the country’s municipalities. This summer, Averda kicked off the crisis when it decided to “blackmail” (as some newspapers described it) the Lebanese government into renewing its contracts by refusing to collect capital’s trash, and the government under the pressure of Beirut’s protesters decided to simply send the capital’s mountains of trash to… the provinces.

From Al-Akhbar, a survey of the day last week when villagers south of the capital suddenly erupted when they realized the government’s solution to the capital’s trash crisis involved filling the foothills of the Chouf Mountains with trash:

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Lebanese Ministry of Environment campaign poster, 2010.

Intense efforts to find an ‘immediate, temporary’ solution to Beirut’s garbage crisis have not led to the immediate removal of the trash. Negotiations between Prime Minister Tammam Salam [Sunni, Mustaqbal Party], Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri [Shiite, Amal Party], Democratic Front Coalition leader Walid Jumblatt [Druze] and Saad al-Hariri [Sunni, and head of the Prime Minister’s party] ended with the garbage still piling up in Beirut and its suburbs, and garbage trucks from these areas have been unable to reach the outlying sites picked by the Environment Ministry to take the capital’s trash.

Not a single dump truck was able to get out of the two sites of Al-Karantina and Al-Amrossia toward their destinations in Mount Lebanon as of late yesterday evening, and more than 30 trucks belonging to contractor Jihad al-Arab [a private company with a government landfill contract]were turned back by residents of the al-Kharroub area before they could dump their loads in the new landfill in Sibline [a village in the mountainous Chouf area south of the capital].

After local residents blocked the road to the Sibline landfill, garbage collectors working for Sukleen [the company contracted to pick up Beirut’s garbage], who had resumed picking up garbage in the morning and had picked up huge amounts of the accumulated trash, resorted to dumping it in some of the capital’s waste sorting centers after “making some room” in them. But by the afternoon, orders went out to those workers to stop picking up garbage; the waste sorting centers were now overfilled; mountains of trash still remained uncollected in the streets of the capital, and dozens of fully loaded trucks had nowhere to go.
South of Beirut

Starting in the early hours of yesterday morning, angry young men had started gathering at various intersections along the coastal highway between Jiyeh and Barja, readying themselves to prevent any trucks from passing. At exactly 9 am, three covered trucks loaded with garbage were halted in the middle of the highway. The blockaders painted the trucks with “You will not pass, you [dogs]of the Arabs,” [the landfill contractor is called Jihad of the Arabs], a clear indication of the amount of rage simmering in the local population after the national government announced its solution to the waste crisis in areas whose garbage has been collected by the [foreign multinational]Averda-Sukleen-Sukomi group.

Many protestors said they resented the political decision made yesterday to transport Beirut’s garbage to the Kharroub region; they hurled insults and crude vulgarities at Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Mustaqbal Party chief Saad al-Hariri and [PSP] parliamentary deputy Walid Jumblatt.

In a statement to Al-Akhbar, Jumblatt said that he had agreed to the prime minister’s proposal to transport the garbage to the Kharroub region as a transitional solution, to prevent the garbage crisis in Beirut from deepening. The road blockade, he said, was just the result of a political problem in Barja [the main town of the Kharroub region]; there are sectarian divisions in the town, he said, and a problematic relationship between the town and the ruling Mustaqbal party, whose local leaders do not get along with anyone else, from the communists to the [Islamist] Jamaa al-Islamiya.

Asked about possible choices that might end the crisis, Jumblatt said that as of now, he still cannot see any possible way for a company to successfully bid for the waste management of Beirut and its suburbs; the capital needs a landfill outside of its own region before companies can make new bids.

Jumblatt did not rule out proposing a very short term extension (of a few months) for using the [filled to capacity]Naameh landfill, but he said that this very sensitive option could only be discussed if it remained impossible to transfer Beirut’s waste out to the new temporary sites, and even then only if the issue of the waste transportation bids is actually resolved. Otherwise, he said, the road to the Naameh landfill will remain closed.

As for those calling for building a seawall enclosing part of the bay and making an undersea landfill, Jumblatt said he understands why this proposal is being opposed by many political currents. He also pointed out that a report from the Lebanese Aviation Administration had opposed building a waste facility next to the airport because it would attract swarms of birds to the west side of the airport, inevitably causing aircraft safety problems.

Road Blockades

On the roads [to the south of Beirut]from the Jiyeh crossroads and up to the crossroads of Barja, dozens of young people were blocking the highway, causing a huge traffic jam which stopped hundreds of vehicles in their tracks. Drivers complained that they had nothing to do with the government’s failure to solve the garbage crisis, while some of the young men blocking the road explained their actions and tried to convince the stalled drivers to support their cause; they were trying, they said, to protect public health and the environment from the machinations of Prime Minister Salam.

One truck driver, an employee of Jihad Al Arab company, told Al-Akhbar “I was attacked by more than 50 enraged young men. They took the truck’s keys away from me, heaped insults on the boss of the company and prevented me from going to my destination.”

Some protestors resorted to emptying out trucks that were loaded with garbage or rock, using the material to construct barricades across the highway. They said the protests would not stop until the government decision to transport Beirut’s waste to their region is revoked.

As he himself participated in the roadblock, the mayor of Jiyeh, George Qazi, told Al-Akhbar that the blockade would be maintained into the evening, and that protestors would later be fanning out onto side roads to make sure that trucks would not find alternative routes into the Kharroub region. He stressed the municipality’s total rejection of the government’s waste disposal plan.

The mayor of nearby Baasir likewise absolutely rejected allowing garbage trucks through, saying that it was ‘revolting’ that the government was solving Beirut’s garbage problem with another measure damaging to public health in the area; already, he said, locals were paying a high price due to pollution from the Jiyeh thermal plant, and the Siblin cement factory, and now the government wanted to add to the list with more pollution from the capital’s garbage.

An emergency meeting was eventually convened between the Minister of the Interior and the mayors of the Al-Kharroub municipal area to discuss the waste crisis. The Environment Minister, Mohammed Mashnouq, was also present, as well as the Minister of Agriculture, Akram Shahib, Mustaqbal Party Secretrary Ahmed al-Hariri, and parliamentary deputy Alaa al-Din Terro.

Following the meeting, the Interior Minister announced that “It was a very important and necessary meeting, even if it came a bit late. I assured the mayors of the al-Kharroub municipalities that nothing will happen in their area without the assent and agreement of the local people. This is a non-negotiable point, and there is no reason for political opportunism in this matter.”

Mayors who attended the meeting said that the Interior Minister has “committed to not bringing any garbage into the region as long as local residents are opposed to it.” There would be more meetings with the national authorities in the coming days, they said, and local mayors would meanwhile be convening with each to keep tabs on what is happening on the ground locally.

Mashnouq suggested that the government would pay municipalities to allow the garbage to be trucked to Siblin, Al-Akhbar has been informed.

Despite Prime Minister Salam’s commitment to only dumping garbage in sites agreed to with local mayors, Al Akhbar has learned that this settlement was apparently being ignored on Mount Lebanon; environmental activist Pierre Abishahin reported that trucks were arriving after dark from Mansuria and Rabia, and dumping their waste along the highway in the municipality of Kafrieh. The local mayor was obliged to have it picked up and transported to Kafrieh’s local landfill. “Underhanded acts like this are unacceptable,” he said. “We will ensure that they are stopped if they are attempted again.”

And in Tyre [in South Lebanon], the president of the federation of municipalities warned against “Solving Beirut’s garbage crisis on the backs of the people of the provinces by smuggling trucks filled with the capital’s garbage down to the landfill in Ras el Ain.” He threatened to blockade the roads to prevent the trucks from passing, and even to confiscate the trucks.

In the southern province of Nabatiyeh, rumors spread that waste was being dumped at a farm in the municipality of Ansar, but when Al-Akhbar called the local mayor he explained that the source of the rumors was a farm owned by a local doctor, who was having truckloads of compost delivered to enrich the soil.

In the north in Zgharta, the president of the Harakat al-Istiqlal party, Michel Maoud, announced that “all municipalities of Zgharta are a red line [for garbage from Beirut].” In Akkar [near the northern border with Syria], young men began non-violently gathering in the main square, though without blocking any roads, to protest bringing any garbage into Akkar. And in the Beqqa valley, the mayor and residents of Braliyas staged a protest with signs saying “Beqqa already has enough, dealing with the pollution of the Laitani River and with our own trash.”

Bassam Alkantar

MEANWHILE IN BEIRUT, PROTESTERS PELT THEIR POLITICAL LEADERS WITH TRASH

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Lebanese Ministry of Environment campaign poster, 2010.

Denouncing the garbage crisis, and what they called the ‘fake solutions’ offered by the government, activists from the Tilaat Rihatkum [‘You Stink’] campaign, which got its start on the social networks, gathered in Beirut for a rally and marching demonstration that shut down several downtown streets.

The message of the protestors, that they would “not accept any deal that endangers public health,” and that they “rejected in general and in the details,” the previous decisions by the Environment Minister regarding the trash crisis, since the outcome would be “even more dangerous than the trash piling up in our streets.”

The protestors chanted “no to incineration, no to burying trash in the sea, we want recycling, we want garbage to be collected and taken away.”

A group of demonstrators gathered in Solh Riyad square starting in the early hours of the morning, in front of the Prime Minister’s office near the parliament building, to ensure that they would be there when the minister arrived for the cabinet meeting; the meeting was eventually cancelled and postponed until Thursday.

Slogans and signs called for “revolution,” demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Salam and Environment Minister Mashnouq, and called for entire governemnt’s removal.

Some signs read “the stink of your dealings is more hideous than the stink of the garbage (on the streets)”; others read “you are disgusting, your filthy stink is getting worse”, or “we are suffocating, we can’t breathe,” or “no to your fake solutions, yes to real, sustainable solutions.”

Protestors threw eggs at the Prime Minister’s office building and shouted “leave.”

Demonstrators then walked to the headquarters of Al Mustaqbal TV [Future TV, owned by the family at the head of the ruling political party] and blocked the car belonging to Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbass. Some demonstrators threw garbage on the minister’s car, he later told Sawt Lebnan channel interviewers. “I was surrounded by 15 people who insulted me, called me a thief, and threw garbage on me.” The minister told the TV channel that he recognized one face in the crowd personally, a man called ‘Tareq Mallah,’ and said that “these were not protestors, they were just 15 people with no broader support base. They not only assaulted me, they were attacking some of the passersby; they were just vandals.” According to Al-Akhbar’s information, Tareq Mallah was subsequently arrested by intelligence agents.

In another demonstration on the same day, protestors marched from Solh Riyad square to the Aswaq Beirut upscale shopping district, where they laid on the ground to stop traffic. Later they staged another sit-in at Shuhada Square.

AKKAR, STRONGHOLD OF AL MUSTAQBAL, RISES AGAINST THE RULING PARTY

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Lebanese Ministry of Environment campaign poster, 2010.

Just two days before a public meeting was to be held in the main square of Tel Hayat [in Akkar district, in the country’s north]in which all the mayors of the district would discuss the waste crisis, the mayor of Tel Hayat, Khaled Khaled, who is also president of the local federation of municipalities, got a phone call from the Interior Ministry. The Ministry was informing him that a meeting between himself and the Interior Minister had been scheduled in Beirut. Mayor Khaled apologized and said it would have to be postponed until after the gathering of Akkar mayors had finished.

Of course, the Interior Ministry never called him back to schedule a new meeting; in fact it was clear to the mayor that the call had really been intended to pressure him to call off the public meeting in his town, and prevent the local mayors from discussing strategies for preventing waste from Beirut and its suburbs from being sent up to Akkar. Khaled Khaled got the phone call because he is leading the local rebellion against the government’s decision [to send Beirut’s trash to Akkar].

Anger is spreading fast here against those who have decided to turn their region into a dumpster for the capital’s garbage. Protests have been staged in the squares of Halba and al-Abda, a matter which is of serious concern to parliamentary deputies and senior members of the Mustaqbal party in the Akkar district. That is one reason that the Interior Minister, himself a Mustaqbal member, called mayor Khaled before the mayors’ meeting took place, to assure him that “the government will not send a single garbage truck to Akkar, if there is even a single local kid who is against it.”

The meeting of mayors took place nonetheless, and was attended by the mayors of 65 municipalities, representing every Lebanese sect – Sunni, Christian, Alawi- and every political party.

And because these are elected officials with popular legitimacy, prominent in their local towns, all the eyes of the Mustaqbal party were turned worriedly upon them. Particularly after a local party gathering of Mustaqbal in [northern coastal city]Tripoli was a half-empty humiliation for the party.

Particularly distressing for the leaders of Mustaqbal is that in Akkar in particular, half of the local leaders of the protests against the government’s garbage crisis decisions are themselves Mustaqbal members, one of them a relative of parliamentary deputy Khaled Zahraman; they have recently been distancing themselves from the party.
The vehemence of the criticism of Mustaqbal in the Akkar region is indeed surprising; since 2005, Akkar has been the stronghold of the party and the source of its popular base. The violent reaction of the locals at present is a shock to Mustaqbal leaders, who were not anticipating this response here and at such a critical moment.

The incipient change of heart in Akkar, which has not yet been exploited by Mustaqbal rivals, is a signal that there is important local discontent that the ruling party did not carry out any of the promises it previously made for the region. The consequence has been the unusually audacious and direct criticism of party leaders here, unprecedented, and some here say “only the beginning of the rebellion.” They add that “Mustaqbal is losing its popular base, and will have a hard time getting it back.”

Statements regarding the garbage crisis issued by seven parliamentary deputies from Akkar, all of them members of Mustaqbal, and in particular one by Moeen al-Moarabi, show clearly how far they have gone against a party to whom they were once extremely loyal, and they show the scale of these deputies’ embarrassment in the face of those who elected them, and who are now demanding that the longtime promises of the al-Hariri dynasty now be honored.
Making matters worse is that a heated quarrel has broken out between parliamentary deputies and local authorities over the government’s offer to award Akkar 100 million dollars in exchange for becoming the capital’s garbage dump.

Both sides, apparently, counting their chickens before they hatch.

Rumors are spreading already that the money has been preemptively divided up among the wealthiest parts of Akkar, leaving nothing for the most needy and neglected areas such as Sahel, Wadi Khaled and Akroum. All of which might well explain the active and ongoing popular organizing against the government’s dumpster project.

Abdelkafi Alsammad Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard