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This 81-year-old Lebanese woman and her friends solved their village's trash crisis Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

This 81-year-old Lebanese woman and her friends solved their village's trash crisis

In 2015, thousands of people in Lebanon protested near daily against a garbage crisis. [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 June, 2017

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Amid corruption and nepotism, one villager in south Lebanon took it upon herself to deal with her village's trash crisis, spreading a grassroots movement across the country.

In 2015, thousands of people in Lebanon protested near daily against a garbage crisis in the country which saw trash pile up on the streets of Beirut.

The grassroots movement, dubbed "You Stink", targeted corruption in the country, having morphed from popular discontent with the lack of basic services into an all-out rejection of a nepotistic, inefficient political elite.

In south Lebanon, some 40 kilometres south of the capital, one 81-year-old woman is more than familiar with this frustration, standing as a testament to the power of civil society when government fails.

"If everyone does what we did in Arabsalim, there'd be no rubbish problem anywhere in Lebanon," she told BBC World Service.

In the 1980s and 90s waste collection ground to a halt in here village as Israel occupied the south of the country for 15 years.

As trash piled up, she would ask the regional governor for help but rarely received more than apathy and indifference.

"Why do you care? We are not Paris," he told Zeinab. It was at that moment she decided to take things into her own hands.

Zeinab enlisted the help of the women in her village, partly, she says, to empower them but mostly because she thought they would do a better job than the men.

Her friend Khadija Farhat bought a lorry with her own money and Zeinab turned her back garden into a storage area for recyclable waste, with the women taking it upon themselves to organise recycling for the entire village.

Whether we do it or not, our politicians won't care. It's down to us.

The team of volunteers paid themselves for the collection of trash from the 10,000-strong community and nineteen years later each of the 46 membes continues to put in $40 a year to keep the service running.

"Household recycling was the best way forward," Zeinab, who named the organisation Call of the Earth, told BBC World Service.

The group of volunteers initially recycled glass, paper, and plastic but recently started collecting electronic waste, having employed a researcher to investigate the best way to make compost in hot and dry southern Lebanon.

The only help the volunteers got from local authorities was a one time delivery of 300 plastic bins, and a piece of land which allowed Zeinab to use her garden again.

After 10 years of grassroots volunteer action, the organisation received a grant from the Italian embassy to build a warehouse which now receives visitors, schoolchildren and activists, who come to study how the Call of the Earth group functions.

Since Beirut's main landfill site closed in 2015 the number of visitors to the centre has dramatically increased. As waste built up in the city and the issue was paralysed by political and  sectarian divides, Zeinab's community initative began attracting attention.

In nearby Kaffaremen, local women have set up a similar initiative which is funded by the villagers themselves. The town of Jaarjoua adopted a similar scheme soon after.

"When I look at them, it is like looking back at ourselves 20 years ago," Zeinab told the BBC World Service of the new initiatives inspired by her work.

"Planting the idea in people's minds that caring for the earth is our responsibility in this part of the world. Whether we do it or not, our politicians won't care. It's down to us."

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