Libya's olive industry hit by own export ban

Exports of Libya's most emblematic products -- dates, honey and olive oil -- have been halted since 2017.
Friday 04/01/2019
Promising industry. A Libyan laborer tips a bag of olives into a vat at an olive oil factory in Tripoli. (AFP)
Promising industry. A Libyan laborer tips a bag of olives into a vat at an olive oil factory in Tripoli. (AFP)

TARHUNA, Libya - Stretching as far as the eye can see, groves of gnarled olive trees in north-western Libya have proudly withstood the country's devastating conflicts but the industry of extracting olive oil -- "green gold" -- is under threat since 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 long-time ruler Muammar Qaddafi. The North African country, mired in bitter internal conflicts since Qaddafi’s ouster, has been unable to diversify its economy despite the enormous potential of its tourism and fisheries industries.

Authorities repeatedly express the 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," said Zahri al-Bahri, owner of a press in Tarhuna.

On his farm, olives heavy with oil are harvested by hand so the trees are not damaged. Laid out on huge sheets, the ripened crop is transported in flour sacks to the presses where their rich, redolent oil is carefully extracted.

"There is enough production in Libya," said Bahri. "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 was 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 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," said Ali al-Nuri, a farm owner in Tarhuna, while posing proudly in a grove.

Libya, the 11th largest olive producer in the world, grows around 150,000 tonnes of the crop annually but only 20% is turned into oil, well behind neighbours Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation indicate.

Nuri said the industry requires more attention and resources to prosper, beginning with better irrigation in desert regions, as well as state help to ensure quality control and set up bottling factories.

While cheaper, imported alternatives to olive oil -- such as corn oil -- have become part of Libyan cuisine, "olive oil remains (the) paramount" choice among householders, Nuri said.

Olive trees, he recalled, "saved" Libyans during lean periods before the discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s. The olive tree was a "nourishing mother," he maintained.

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.

Tarhuna only has five or six specimens, planted by the Italians.

In the absence of scalable production, the white olives -- sweet, with a low acidic content and a distinct scent -- are mixed with their bog-standard cousins to produce oil.

Only 2% of Libya's 1.7 million is arable land, in a country famed for vast swathes of desert. The Agriculture Ministry said there are more than 8 million olive trees in the country.

To the east of Tarhuna lies the Msallata region known for its centuries-old olive trees that yield distinct sweet and strong-tasting oil. It has been hit by urbanisation in recent decades.

Cutting down olive trees was forbidden before Qaddafi claimed power in 1969, said Mokhtar Ali, whose farm includes 600-year-old specimens. The chaos that has engulfed the country since Qaddafi's fall further diminished the stock of trees.

Nowadays "olive trees are torn up with impunity to make charcoal or to replace with concrete," Ali said.

He said he remains optimistic, however, seeing a silver lining in attempts by several farmers to preserve the country's heritage, by either planting native species or importing new trees from Spain.

(Agence France-Presse)