Zeinab Moukalled, 86, a tireless
pioneer of waste sorting in Lebanon

Against all odds, Zeinab Moukalled has organized waste sorting in her Lebanese town for more than three decades.

Zeinab Moukalled (in the foreground of the photo) has been able to pass on her passion for the environment to her companions, many of whom have followed her in her sorting and recycling adventure since 1994. Photo Mohammad Yassine

Read the article of Suzanne BAAKLINI for L’Orient-Le Jour

Published the 7th march 2023

The Nida’ el-Ard (“The Earth’s Call”) waste sorting center in Arab Salim is sparkling clean, a sharp contrast with the smelly mountains of trash often associated with Lebanon’s waste management. 

In the center’s main room, the “Ladies of Arab Salim”-as these environmental pioneers were called in the early days- have set up a large table and are serving coffee. They happily mill around the figurehead of this unique initiative: 86-year-old Zeinab Moukalled. 

“Oum Nasser,” as her colleagues affectionately call her, still supervises the organization’s activities with her customary calm and sense of humor. “This adventure began in 1994, so we have a jubilee to celebrate next year!” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Everything about this initiative is unique, its origins, its longevity, its participants. No one would have predicted that Moukalled, a public high school teacher in the village of Caza de Nabatîyé, along the border formerly occupied by Israel, would become a paragon of environmentalism. “I didn’t know anything about the environment, I was just obsessed with cleanliness and organization,” she says.

It was during the first half of the 1990s, when her village was often shaken by fighting, that she became interested in what others didn’t see. “I noticed large items such as cardboard boxes or broken chairs taking up most of the space in city dumpsters; meanwhile, polluting organic waste littered the sidewalks.”

This simple realization was the impetus for Nida’ el-Ard. To start, Moukalled turned to women, who she said were easier to convince and mobilize than men. She found her recruits in the people closest to her heart: her former students. 

Khadijé Farhat, in her 60s, has been involved since the beginning. “Moukalled was able to motivate us,” says Farhat with enthusiasm. “With her sense of organization, she divided the village into several zones and assigned one to each of us. We went from house to house tirelessly convincing community members to sort their household waste and give it to us.”

Moukalled and Farhat reflect on those early years when everything was so difficult with something akin to fondness. “Reactions like ‘She should be home cooking for her husband instead of cleaning the streets’ were constant,” laughs Moukalled. At the time, there were no cars to transport the sorted waste and no place to store it. So Moukalled and another woman from the group volunteered their yards.

With nothing other than the power of persuasion, the women managed to convince a large majority of village families to rally behind their cause. “I would say about 70 percent of Arab Salim households were cooperating with us,” Farhat says, offering her best estimation. 

In 1998, the group formed the NGO Nida’ el-Ard and established their center on land made available to them by the then governor of South Lebanon, Mohammad al-Maoula. He was one of the few officials to understand the importance of their efforts. The women would go on to construct a hangar and purchase equipment, thanks to funding from international organizations.

Nida’ el-Ard has nonetheless faced enormous obstacles. Arab Salim’s municipal councils, with rare exceptions, proved to be a disappointment. “Municipalities are very politicized here. Elected officials are more concerned about their parties than the interests of their community and, for them, we represent competition rather than an asset,” Moukalled says. Environmental NGOs that recognized the rigor and integrity of Moukalled and her organization weren’t able to provide her with the framework for activism she had hoped for – again, because of unrelated concerns and competitiveness. As for the state ministries, “It’s better to forget they exist; their lack of policies harms us every day,” Moukalled says. “Even the recycling plants are a problem: They pay us ridiculously low rates and undervalue the tons of waste we send them, taking advantage of the fact that we don’t have scales to weigh it ourselves.” 

Against all odds, Nida’ el-Ard has persevered. “We’ve experienced three major wars, often forcing us to replace destroyed equipment,” Moukalled says. Multiple crises have also followed, each affecting the initiative and sidelining sorting and recycling efforts. “The current economic and financial crisis in Lebanon is weighing on everyone [Editor’s note: the Lebanese pound has lost more than 98 percent of its value since 2019]. Sometimes we didn’t have money to pay for fuel for our cars. And yet, all it took was a post on social media for volunteers to come and help us transport everything,” Moukalled continues. “We thought the crisis had ruined everything. But when people started showing up at our door with their recyclable bags, we understood the importance of this 30-year-long awareness campaign.”

In Arab Salim, Moukalled’s initiative is unlikely to disappear anytime soon— it seems too well entrenched. Other towns, however, have not been able to duplicate it. Leila al-Chami, an early activist from the nearby village of Jarjouh, says: “At the end of the ’90s, I had started making progress in my community. Then the municipal council wanted to take over everything, and prevented me from continuing my work. So, we abandoned the project.”

Is Moukalled’s charismatic personality the key reason her project endured? Her colleagues who gathered at the Nida’ el-Ard office for coffee want to believe the seeds she sowed will continue to bear fruit far into the future. “I will support this project until my last breath,” says Farhat, who notes with satisfaction that children of the original “Ladies of Arab Salim” are now volunteers as well. 

Another woman in the group agrees that carrying on the tradition is important, and lavishes praise on Moukalled, a mother of five and grandmother to many. “She got her PhD in Arabic literature at the age of 70. Can you imagine? It’s a life lesson for all of us.”

After spending so many years in the trenches, what is Moukalled’s prognosis for Lebanon’s severe environmental and ecological problems? Her pragmatic response is more political than environmental: “As long as this country remains divided into warring factions, nothing will be solved.”