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Lebanon considers way to fight an invasive species ruining the pine nut harvest

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pesto, hummus or eggplant stuffed with lamb - the pine nut is a beloved ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. I love pine nuts, and it's been a source of big money in Lebanon. Its export is so valuable, they call it white gold. But an invasive species of bug is killing off the harvest. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS TWEETING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Amid the tranquility of a forest of stone pines in Lebanon, I watch as a group of men climb up into the trees.

Wow. They start off on ladders, but the ladders only go less than halfway up the tree, and then they just climb up. There's no harnesses. It's amazing to watch. With no hesitation, they speed up this vertical trunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: One guy, strong and skinny, climbs nearly a hundred feet, bits of bark falling away from under his trainers. In the canopy, he uses a long, metal pole to knock pine cones to the ground. The cones are collected into sacks and then poured into buckets to be taken away.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINE CONES FALLING)

ELIAS NAIHMEH: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Elias Naihmeh (ph), the head of the Union of Stone Pine Growers, tells me some 70,000 families rely on the pine nut industry. Stone pines cover many of Lebanon's mountain ranges and provide essential income for rural communities. Naihmeh says pine nuts were also an important export, bringing in some $150 million a year. But these days, Naihmeh tells me through an interpreter, farmers can't harvest enough pines, even for domestic demand.

NAIHMEH: (Through interpreter) Now in Lebanon, we are importing pine seeds.

SHERLOCK: The cause is an invasive species of insect called the western conifer seed bug, or leptoglossus occidentalis. Measuring around two centimeters, it sucks out the milky white nuts inside the cones. Scientists believe it arrived in Lebanon over a decade ago and then spread and spread until it seemed to affect every forest. Naihmeh picks up a pine cone from the forest floor.

NAIHMEH: (Through interpreter) This cone, when it was still a bud, the leptoglossus came at it and sucked at the bud. So now this cone you see in front of you, it has no pine seeds inside it. It's just wood. There is no economic value whatsoever.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: Most of the cones around us are desiccated and shrunken.

It's quite hard to find one that's actually OK.

NAIHMEH: (Through interpreter) This is half-half, but maybe it's also good.

SHERLOCK: Naihmeh believes the only solution is insecticides. He says in past years, the government used military helicopters to spray insecticides on some parts of the forest. But then in 2019, the country was plunged into a crippling economic crisis and the practice stopped.

NAIHMEH: (Through interpreter) No more spraying occurred, and the industry has been deteriorating ever since.

SHERLOCK: A spokesperson in Lebanon's Ministry of Agriculture told us they don't have the money for the insecticides, and beekeeping communities say they harm their bees. Nabil Nemer, an entomologist at Lebanon's Kaslik University, explains the insecticides also kill other insects.

NABIL NEMER: To use the helicopter spraying, it is more dangerous to the ecosystem than, for example, leaving the insect in the ecosystem.

SHERLOCK: One proposal would be to use drones that just spray individual pine trees, specifically. But Lebanon doesn't have enough drones or operators. Maybe the best solution, Nemer says, is to try to keep the trees healthy by still pruning them in thinning forests and wait for a natural predator to take hold. A parasite is now starting to have some effect on the bug, but to control the population could take years, maybe even decades. And Elias Naihmeh from the Pine Growers Union says time is exactly what those that rely on the pine industry don't have.

NAIHMEH: (Through interpreter) There is total hopelessness. So many families are resorting to having to sell their land, which has no more economic value to them.

SHERLOCK: He understands the concerns for the ecosystem, but he says without a fast solution, the trees are at risk of being cut down as landowners clear them for other ways to make a living, like to make space for new crops. He talks to me on the flat roof of his home, where piles of pine cones are drying in the sun, making a crackling sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINE CONES CRACKLING)

SHERLOCK: The pine nuts are separated from the cones, and then in a small processing plant, they're fed through a series of machines that crack the hard shells and separate them from the white pine nuts that come pouring out into baskets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINE NUTS FALLING)

SHERLOCK: They're worth between $50 and $80 for a couple of pounds.

Here it is. The pine nuts have been threshed, left their shells behind, and all that's coming out now is white gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINE NUTS FALLING)

SHERLOCK: They're gathered up and packed - a traditional harvest with an uncertain future. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Qsaibe, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.