Securing Land to Contribute to Food Systems

Securing Land to Contribute to Food Systems

Preliminary Findings on Humanitarian Mine Action's Cumulative Effects on Food Security in Lebanon

CISR Journal

This article is brought to you by the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery (CISR) from issue 28.2 of The Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction available on the JMU Scholarly Commons and Issuu.com.

By Riccardo Labianco, PhD, and Myriam Rabbath [ Mines Advisory Group ]

In a country or region affected by explosive ordnance (EO), the related contamination and, when present, humanitarian mine action (HMA), should be considered as part of the country’s food systems. Accordingly, understanding the cumulative effects of HMA on food security can be better appreciated by considering the whole food system and how local citizens view the impact of contamination. Through a preliminary series of community-level interviews in southern and northeast Lebanon from August to September 2023, Mines Advisory Group (MAG) started a research project on the impact of EO contamination on people’s ability to produce and procure adequate food and the beneficial effects of HMA on people’s food security.


When agricultural land is released as a result of HMA activities, it is very intuitive to think that HMA contributes to landowners’ food security. However, HMA’s beneficial impact can extend beyond that, producing positive effects on the whole food system of an area or country. Through an initial series of twenty-six community-level interviews and adopting a qualitative research approach, the first phase of a research project led by MAG and supported by the United States’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA)1 and the Lebanon Mine Action Center (LMAC)2 aimed to explore the link between HMA and food security more closely through the words of the people and communities in southern and northeast Lebanon whose food security was affected by the presence of EO.3

The ongoing broader research project evaluating the link between HMA and food security aims to contribute to the debate regarding HMA’s relationship with human rights and the sustainable development goals in a qualitative way by learning more about people’s views on the impact of contamination and HMA, while challenging conceptions and approaches that could prevent an organic integration of HMA with the broader set of humanitarian and development activities.

The first part of this research confirmed that both EO contamination and HMA not only affect the lives and livelihoods of the communities living within or near contaminated areas, but they also have differing impacts on food security, including agricultural activities and techniques as well as impacts on cultures and people’s psyche. Such effects appear intrinsically linked, making EO contamination and HMA part of the food systems themselves.

Looking through the lens of the two interrelated concepts of food security and food systems broadens the understanding of the impacts of EO contamination and HMA on the ways in which people produce and procure food. Indeed, food security—considered as existing “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,”4 can be considered as the outcome of an efficient food system, which has been defined as the set of all elements, including “environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, and institutions” and “activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.”5

In this sense, EO contamination factually disrupts the food system and alters the level of food security. Similarly, HMA not only indirectly impacts the food system, it also may develop it further while (re)creating new levels of food security. Without a perspective that jointly considers people’s views and the effects of both EO contamination and HMA on food security, HMA’s documented outcomes, as well as food security interventions, miss important elements. In fact, the broad and qualitative focus adopted in this research allowed us to appreciate how far within a food system contamination harm and HMA benefits can effectively extend, including market dynamics, divisions between urban and rural areas, community resilience, effects of economic crises, and phenomena caused by climate change.

The Perceived Connection

The impact of EO contamination on various aspects of human security and human rights, including food security and the right to food,6 is generally acknowledged,7 unlike HMA’s contribution to food security. In fact, HMA is generally assumed to be aimed at simply re-creating pre-contamination levels of food security. Such a return could be the most desirable option but the socioeconomic dynamics that occurred during post-contamination and HMA should not be overlooked, as they might have changed the way in which people can and want to create their food security (see Figure 1). For this reason, this preliminary set of interviews aimed to collect the views of the people residing in currently or formerly contaminated areas on both the impact of EO and HMA on food security.

Figure with red arrows and boxes depicting socio-economic dynamics changing the pre-contamination situation.
Figure 1. The contamination-HMA timeline and two assumptions on HMA outcomes: returning to the pre-contamination situation and using the land release considering relevant post-contamination socio-economic dynamics. All figures courtesy of the authors.

Whether considering the recreation of the pre-contamination situation or in looking forward, HMA needs to break silos and create new synergies and cross-cutting collaborations with humanitarian and development programs based on comprehensive concepts such as food security. In fact, HMA protects and contributes to the realization of a series of human rights. For example, by preventing death and serious injuries, HMA protects the right to life: by guaranteeing freedom of safe movement and access to healthcare and educational facilities, and the realization of the right to adequate standards of living. Similarly, by contributing to food security, HMA contributes to the realization of the right to food.

Although efforts in the HMA sector to better understand and document clearance impact assessments have grown exponentially over the past few years, these have generally focused on linear and immediate connections between HMA and the respective impact. This has been the case, for example, of land use for returning displaced persons, safe movement, safe access to basic services, and enablement of localized development plans. However, it is important to highlight HMA’s deeper and broader impact. In this way, exploring the link between HMA and food security allows us to appreciate how, and to what extent, HMA tasks and other humanitarian and development activities can be coordinated in producing benefits for people and communities in a more effective way. 

The Case of Lebanon

Since 1975, Lebanon has faced a series of overlapping and successive conflicts: a long civil war (1975–1990); foreign occupation of the south (1982–2000); and the 2006 war, which resulted in four million cluster munitions dropped over the south;8 battling ISIL in the northeast, and the spillover of the Syria war, to name but a few. These crises have brought about mass civilian casualties and decades-long displacements, critical infrastructure incapacitation, hindered development and basic services, and impeded access to land and natural resources, all exacerbated by widespread EO contamination.9

MAG has worked in Lebanon since 2001, surveying and clearing contamination and delivering explosive ordnance risk education (EORE). Great progress had been collectively achieved by the LMAC and HMA actors to remove EO threats and alleviate the ensuing blockages, including the return of agricultural activities and resuming safe access to fertile lands for food production.

The Centrality of People

Since 2019,10 a series of compounded events, including the Beirut Port explosion, Covid-19 pandemic, complex financial crisis, and global economic deterioration, significantly impacted Lebanon’s food system, aggravating earlier vulnerabilities and deteriorating existing systems.11 Lebanese civilians had to reimagine ways to produce or procure food in such challenging times, with many living in EO-contaminated areas. In fact, it is exactly people’s and communities’ resilience to these socio-economic dynamics, along with other unpredictable events such as climate-change-induced phenomena, the HMA sector should consider when examining its impact on food security and sustainable development more broadly.

People and communities are central to this research as they lived through these various conflicts and crises, experiencing first-hand the socio-economic consequences, and it is their experiences that contextualize the impact of EO contamination, HMA benefits, and its relationship to food security.

Explosive Ordnance Impact Through People’s Own Words

Orange and blue pie chart depicting interviewees by gender, 27% are men, 73% are female.
Figure 2. Interviewees by gender.

The community-level, semi-structured interviews were held with thirty-three interviewees of different gender and ages, representing a variety of roles within the Lebanese food system including farmers, agricultural workers, shepherds, landowners, entrepreneurs, traders, mayors, mukhtars, and consumers. The interviewees were from the governorates of Nabatiyeh, South Lebanon, Mount Lebanon, the Beqaa, and Baalbek Hermel, all with different types and levels of EO contamination. Some of the governorates were known to be highly productive agriculturally.

Each interview commenced with questions on how EO affected the interviewees’ lives and livelihoods, then probed into a range of issues and observations, from fear, insecurity, and limited access to land, to discussion of productivity, employment, and tree care, planting techniques, and environmental considerations.

Fear and Insecurity. Fear of death and serious injury was one of the first topics mentioned by interviewees who often described how they knew of relatives or acquaintances who died or were seriously injured from EO while grazing livestock or carrying out ordinary agricultural activities. Often this fear was reported to have limited the interviewees’ access to land and ability to cultivate crops or graze livestock.12 This appeared to have immediate effects, such as preventing them from producing food as well as longer-term consequences. For example, a number of interviewees explained how the impossibility of taking care of crops, trees, soil, and livestock due to the presence of EO could have a serious impact on their productivity once the land was released.13 In fact, it was not uncommon for interviewees to report the lengthy time and significant investment required to address the effects of the abandonment of trees, such as olive and fruit trees, or the soil.14

Fear and insecurity were also reported to have a certain psychological impact on the interviewees. Aside from being concerned for their lives and their loved ones,15 some interviewees mentioned not being able to fully enjoy their relationship with the land and the impossibility of living off the successes produced by their work, such as that experienced by their parents and ancestors, which was reportedly perceived as part of their identity.16

Bar chart indicated number of people in certain professions
Figure 3. Interviewees by profession.

Generally, fear and insecurity related to the actual or possible presence of EO also affected food production and procurement, with some interviewees reporting their reluctance to access land to collect herbs for the preparation of food preserves, such as in the case of the production of preserved aubergines.17 Other interviewees mentioned their inability to access tools and equipment that remained in dangerous and contaminated areas or to graze livestock in an extended area in a safe way, resulting in decreased milk production and other products.18

Effects on Crops, Soil, and Farmers’ Work. EO contamination was reported to affect how farmers and other interviewees contribute to the food system. EO also reportedly affected the production of certain food products. In some cases, the impossibility of accessing large quantities of water prevented the cultivation of food products considered highly profitable, such as certain fruits and vegetables. In other cases, EO limited the production and quality of olives and olive oil, chickpeas, walnuts, and milk, which were considered central to the diet of those interviewed and, more generally, staple food for the region and the country. In fact, EO not only prevented access to land, it also limited irrigation or the access to electricity, which affected farmers’ work.

In several interviews, the lack or decrease in soil productivity was connected to the actual or suspected presence of chemicals in the soil. Although at a very anecdotal level, the interviews suggest that further research on this type of pollution could be useful. In other cases, interviewees mentioned the undesired effects of clearance, notably tree cutting, which reinforced the idea that it is necessary to understand HMA’s environmental footprint. This is especially timely considering climate-change-induced events, including those reported in the interviews, such as extreme heat, drought, and disturbed seasonal patterns. In both direct and indirect ways, participants described how EO contamination affects communities’ resilience to climate change; for instance, limiting the possibility of constructing efficient irrigation systems, which can also impact how people choose to use the land once released.

In some instances, EO contamination was linked to drastic decisions to leave rural areas and relocate to cities in search of better opportunities.19 Indeed, EO contamination not only affects the capacity of landowners to produce food, thereby decreasing the local capacity without relying on imports from other regions or abroad, but it also leads to a gradual weakening and loss of the expertise necessary to produce food.

Decreases in productivity reportedly equated to a loss in employment opportunities, especially for seasonal and daily workers who were often from marginalized communities. In the case of Lebanon, this includes Syrian refugees, whose food security relies on these forms of employment.20 In fact, more generally, it was observed that EO contamination has an important impact on the informal economy sector, which is larger than expected in Lebanon and includes marginalized groups.21

Effects on Personal Habits, Traditions, and Socio-Economic Dynamics. The preliminary round of interviews confirmed another assumption regarding the human, social, and economic impact of EO contamination, which affected civilians at personal and socio-economic levels, especially downstream of the supply chain or in areas of the food system that are normally not directly linked to EO-contaminated land.

At a personal level, it appeared that EO contamination conditioned people’s food habits and preferences. For example, lack of sufficient water and the related limitation on the types of crops that could be cultivated reportedly obstructed the fulfillment of people’s need or desire to procure locally-sourced food products, which was often a necessity due to the disruptions in the food system.22

The cultural importance of cultivating certain crops also surfaced in interviews, especially in those cases where farmers, shepherds, and mukhtars referred to long-established traditions passed down through generations.23 One interviewee, for example, stressed his family’s attachment to olive trees and his desire to access the trees and care for them.24

Several interviews conducted in Saida at the region’s vegetable and fruit wholesale market, as well as at other medium-sized markets, preliminarily confirmed that EO contamination has an impact on market dynamics and the food system. It became clear that local farmers were unable to meet the demand for certain products sold at local markets, leading to heavy reliance on goods imported from other regions of the country or abroad.25 Similarly, EO contamination appeared to cause cases of excessive surplus: either because the products’ low-quality did not meet market demand or because EO contamination forced farmers to overfocus on certain crops, such as olives, pears, and apples, to name just a few. In all cases, EO contamination had the final effect of producing economic losses and food waste.

Interestingly, EO contamination appeared to affect the market in some unexpected ways. During interviews, for example, a certain stigma attached to products coming from current or formerly contaminated areas surfaced.26 Such stigma appeared to influence traders’ attitudes toward buying products from previously contaminated areas, instead preferring to purchase products from non-contaminated areas. Although not conclusive, this was certainly a preliminary finding that will be further explored in the next phase of our research.

More generally, almost all the interviewees mentioned that the compounded economic crisis, including the post-2019 hyperinflation, caused significant food system disruptions and affected their purchasing power.27 Interviewees appeared to react in different ways to the difficult situation. On the one hand, they explained how a decrease in income from agricultural activities pushed them to farm more land, re-purpose their own gardens for cultivations that would fulfil their families’ food sufficiency, or forced them to make hard decisions, including renouncing certain food products, such as meat.28 In other cases, some landowners reported how the compounded economic crisis significantly undermined their ability to act on new developments and initiatives involving cleared land, including new cultivations, use of certain technologies, and the expansion of cultivated zones. With tools, feed, fuel, other inputs (i.e., seeds, fertilizers, and equipment) and other items soaring in price, farming became more expensive, resulting in higher prices of products—unaffordable for final consumers—and in some instances, staff had to be let go.

Whilst the compounded economic crisis was not linked to EO contamination, interviews preliminarily confirmed that the direct and indirect effects of EO threats and HMA benefits on lives and livelihoods included coping mechanisms and strategies to face the compounded economic crisis.

Cumulative Benefits and Lessons Learned

Although this was only the first part of a broader research project—the second phase of which is currently ongoing—a series of preliminary lessons learned about the contribution of HMA to food security could be drawn. By looking at the broader impact of EO contamination on the food system, it was possible to appreciate the broader set of cumulative benefits of HMA activities—especially land release and EORE—on people’s food security. Furthermore, potential opportunities for synergy between HMA and food security action—such as ensuring that cleared land is effectively and efficiently used as soon as released—also emerged from the interviews.

Adapting to Contamination and Safe Access to Land

Having had to withstand long periods of land contamination, many interviewees displayed an understanding of EO threats and prioritized their safety over risking the utilization of contaminated land, thereby modifying how they produced and procured food. The marking and fencing carried out by LMAC and MAG reportedly increased the sense of safety among the population,29 even in the case of cluster munition contamination and the possibility of finding unexploded submunitions above ground, including in trees.30 In fact, some interviewees said that the work by LMAC and MAG spurred them or their acquaintances to move back to rural areas from the cities and urban areas where they had migrated.31 Additionally, increased opportunities in rural areas appeared to allow families to support their family members living in urban areas.32

More generally, almost all interviewees indicated safe access to land as one of the most important benefits of HMA. In particular, some persons appreciated the strategy of releasing land gradually, instead of at completion of the entire hazardous area, allowing farmers to cultivate portions of their land earlier or at least proceed with necessary preparatory work,33 including monitoring and taking care of crops and trees.34 Psychologically, safe access to land also had an important impact on several people, with the fear of death and serious injury decreasing as the possibility of assuming traditional family activities such as farming increased.35

Productivity, Employment, and Economic Opportunities

Land released and safe passage provided by HMA activities clearly increased productivity and enabled economic opportunities. The interviewees confirmed that more available land led to an increase in food production and procurement. This was particularly relevant for those families who relied on the products of their land or livestock and for those who relied on employment in the sector, such as seasonal or daily workers.36 Strengthening this reliance was especially important for those who used the land as a mechanism to cope with the compounded economic crisis that began in 2019.37 

As mentioned previously, creating conditions to increase employment in agriculture means creating opportunities for seasonal and daily workers, who can in turn strengthen their food security, as well as for other people who rely on the informal economy sector, including small entrepreneurs in the food processing phase.38 Direct and indirect HMA outcomes also appeared to help farmers’ and other interviewees’ ability to meet market demands, as more cleared land equated to an increase in product quality as well as investment in technology which allowed for cultivation of new crops. For example—an irrigation system built in a previously contaminated valley allowed for the cultivation of vegetables, which had been imported from other areas of the country,39 or from abroad.

A group of three people standing together talking
Interview at Saida Wholesale Market. Courtesy of MAG Lebanon.

In a situation of compounded crisis, HMA can clearly contribute to people’s ability to develop and implement coping mechanisms, such as the possibility of using their own land to produce food instead of purchasing it. However, the interviews highlighted other issues (such as the price of fuel and the lack of or high price of agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilizers, and equipment) prevented people from fully utilizing the opportunities created by HMA. Such missed opportunities could be addressed through coordination with food security and development actors to minimize those issues, maximizing the potential of HMA outputs and better supporting landowners, food producers, and traders following land release. For instance, an interviewee whose land was previously contaminated was able to enjoy support in the form of agricultural inputs and water pumping mechanisms, developing his agricultural activities and benefitting his community as a whole with improved water access.40

The coordination between HMA and food security appears to bridge a series of challenges that emerged during the interviews. On the one hand, food security action, especially regarding agricultural activities, minimizes the use of trial-and-error approaches adopted by farmers who aim to re-enter the food system and use the released land in the absence of governmental support mechanisms. On the other hand, by enabling the use of resources and increasing productivity, HMA helps to provide the conditions for the development of farmers’, shepherds’, and other people’s resilience to economic crises caused by domestic or international events, such as conflicts or phenomena caused by climate change.


This preliminary series of interviews and the related analysis illustrates critical observations regarding HMA’s contributions to food security. Firstly, in countries previously or currently experiencing EO contamination, EO threats and HMA affect the dynamics of a food system and the way in which food security is generated. In this sense, EO contamination and HMA interact with the food system and its components, including market dynamics, supply chain mechanisms, the environment, and in livelihoods.

Secondly, people’s views on what constitutes food security and how they achieve it should be central. While HMA focuses on the needs and views of people and communities, it is important that the sector be mindful of what they should ask communities,41 especially within community liaison activities and non-technical surveys, and not overlook the members and stakeholders of the food system and those entities that support the development of food security, such as international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society. This approach should also include often overlooked aspects, including the psychological benefits produced by HMA, such as the decrease of fear and insecurity, and reconnection with ancestral land and traditions, social cohesion, and inclusion of marginalized communities, including refugees and internally displaced persons.

Thirdly, HMA’s impact should be assessed in relation to the whole food system of a region or country, moving beyond the traditional and intuitive assumptions that can be easily observed when EORE is provided or land is released. As a sector, HMA needs to zoom out and assess both direct and indirect effects of contamination and the benefits of HMA itself. This preliminary phase identified impacts in settings that are not necessarily familiar to the HMA sector, such as wholesale markets, or among food processing actors. This is not only relevant to donors, NGOs, and HMA supporting states, but it should also be pertinent for other stakeholders, including different ministries or state agencies working in HMA and food security.

A person in protective clothing bends over holding a piece of wood.
MAG deminers working among olive trees in Lebanon. Courtesy of Sean Sutton/MAG.

Finally, the set of preliminary findings confirmed that socio-economic dynamics and contextual changes occurring between the start of EO contamination and the release of land need to be taken into account when EO contamination and HMA impacts are assessed, as they in fact are a part of the very food system. In this sense, socio-economic dynamics, as well as other factors, such as climate and environmental changes occurring between contamination and land release need to be considered to improve the effectiveness of HMA contribution to food security. A more in-depth assessment of people’s and communities’ perceptions and experiences, and the consideration for the whole food system, should allow for a better reflection of changes that occurred while HMA was implemented and a better understanding of land use enablers and barriers, ensuring that HMA outcomes effectively contribute to people’s food security and, more generally, benefit their lives and livelihoods. The second phase of the research project is currently ongoing and is aimed at validating the first round of qualitative data through an interdisciplinary team with an interdisciplinary approach.

See endnotes below.

Riccardo Labianco, PhD, is Mines Advisory Group's (MAG) International Policy Manager and is based in the United Kingdom. He coordinates MAG’s engagement with international fora. He is a lawyer specializing in international law relevant to armed conflicts and post-conflict situations, and has worked on the link between disarmament and human rights. Labianco has a PhD in international law from SOAS, University of London, where he is also a post-doc research associate.

Myriam Rabbath is MAG's Acting Senior Community Liaison Advisor, providing strategic and technical support on explosive ordnance risk education, non-technical survey, and other community liaison aspects to MAG programs globally. She has extensive field experience in mine action, as well as a multi-sectoral humanitarian and development background including shelter, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), livelihoods, social cohesion, education, and women empowerment projects.

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by Riccardo Labianco, PhD, and Myriam Rabbath [ Mines Advisory Group ]

Published: Monday, July 1, 2024

Last Updated: Thursday, July 18, 2024

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