Good harvest of prickly pears brings hope to Lebanese farmers

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 Rafic Mutawa, a 60-year-old farmer, rejoiced to see that his sprawling field in Lebanon’s southern town of Maimes could expect a successful prickly pear season after being rid of the cochineal insects.

“The insect invaded about 90 percent of farmers’ fields and almost destroyed them, which would have deprived thousands of rural families in southern Lebanon of a lucrative revenue amid the current financial crisis,” Mutawa told Xinhua while inspecting his extensive field.

The cochineal insect damages the prickly pear by forming a cotton-like layer around the cactus and fruits, causing not only losses for farmers but also negative environmental repercussions.

Luckily, the Ministry of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Agricultural Scientific Research Foundation and farmers’ cooperatives, successfully helped farmers get rid of this deadly insect by providing expertise, instructing the use of medicines and pesticides to control the insect, as well as periodic spraying.

“This year’s successful season will secure an acceptable return for hundreds of workers, who make up around 23 percent of the population in southern Lebanon and are in dire need of additional revenue amid the current crisis,” Youssef Fayyad, mayor of the southern town of Al-Mari, told Xinhua.

The prickly pear harvest season starts in mid-July and lasts around two months.

Ismail Amin, director of the Ministry of Agriculture in the southern town of Hasbaya, told Xinhua that many farmers plant prickly pears as an alternative to vines and olives because of their low cost and speedy growth. The plant usually bears fruits in three years, without the need for plowing, fertilizing or pruning.

The Agricultural Cooperatives Association in southern Lebanon indicated that this year’s production could reach 12,000 tonnes, the most successful in seven years. About 70 percent would be sold in the local markets, while the rest will be used to extract oil.

Lebanon’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the prickly pear cultivation occupies an area of 2,800 dunums (2.8 square km) of barren lands, especially in areas where lands rise from 400 to 700 meters above sea level.

Prickly pears, which are usually sold in pieces or in a box of 50 pieces for 250,000 Lebanese pounds (9 U.S. dollars), are very popular during the summer season with their sweet taste and nutritional benefits.

Nutritionist Elina Hamdan told Xinhua that the fruit is moderate in calories and contains a high percentage of dietary fiber and minerals, magnesium, calcium and potassium, and also amino acids which is useful for balancing cholesterol, regular heartbeat, and improving the efficiency of insulin work in the body.

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