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Land Enclosure in the Wake of Lebanon’s Multiple Crises

Mona Khechen

Several plans that depict state-owned assets, including land, as a panacea to Lebanon’s economic and financial collapse have been put forward over the last two years.1 Under the pretext of enabling the Central Bank (BdL) to pay back its debts to commercial banks, the Association of Banks in Lebanon proposed the establishment of a government debt relief fund that includes state-owned assets, to which commercial banks would have preferential access.2 Former Minister of Environment Mohamad Machnouk called for the sale of 10 percent of state-owned lands to bank depositors and establishing a sovereign fund managed by a dedicated national council.3 The government of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab sought to establish a Public Asset Management Company to hold, restructure, and oversee public assets,4 and the Najib Mikati cabinet recently approved a similar plan.5 In a similar vein, some analysts suggested the creation of an independent National Wealth Fund to own and manage public assets in society’s interest.6  

Considering the effective bankruptcy of the Lebanese state and BdL,7 these proposals raise valid concerns about the future of public and communal lands. Critically, none has alluded to existing tenure rights for land owned by the state and how these rights would be protected against land dispossession programs. Moreover, no proposal has addressed the (potential) role of local governments in managing local public wealth, of which land constitutes a main component.

Reframing the discussion

A host of issues must be addressed to understand and contextualize land politics and confront new forms of land enclosure in Lebanon. Among these are determining where state lands are located, how they are managed, who has the right to benefit from them, their development potential and envisioned uses, and how conflicting land claims can be settled. 

The term “land enclosure” is broadly used today to describe the legal appropriation of public and communal lands by transnational corporations and/or powerful national groups.8 A product of neoliberal capitalism, contemporary acts of land enclosure are sanctioned forms of land grabbing. They privilege individualized interest in land over collective interests and commodify space, society, and the economy. Thereby, they compromise existing land uses that are incongruous with the private interests of those who assume effective ownership of the land. 

State-owned lands are not all vacant unproductive lands and their value is not merely monetary. They also cannot be lumped together under one category. Except for areas located within the boundaries of what was historically known as “the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate”, Lebanese territory is classified into five legal types derived from the Ottoman land law (mulk, miri, mawat, khaliah mubaha, and khaliah mahmiyah).9 Apart from mulk (privately owned), the other four types are considered state lands and each is subject to different conditions with respect to its use, control, and disposition.10 Excluding lands privately held by some public institutions, state land ownership is separated into two elements: bare or naked ownership (mulkiat al-raqaba) and usufruct (haq al-intifa‘).11 As a bare owner, the state (or municipalities in certain cases) possesses the land but the right to use and derive profit from this land belongs to the usufructuary – i.e., the person or group that holds the usufruct right, which could be the entire society.12

Land enclosure is not new to Lebanon. The legal seizure and fencing of lands held publicly or collectively has long been a common practice. An array of regulatory and financial mechanisms and instruments have allowed those with political and/or economic power to exercise control over landscape and natural assets and deprive less powerful groups of their right to access and benefit from them. The maritime public domain is case in point. Several laws and decrees allowed its private appropriation for tourism purposes, which harmed it public character. Recent laws to recover this “stolen wealth” from violators who failed to pay their due fees and fines to the government have been distorted in ways that granted violators legal “permission to continue their violations”. 13

The privatization of Lebanon’s state-owned lands, whether through sales or long-term leases and concessions, would help the banking sector and financial elite regain their domination of the real estate sector and restore their central role in the commodification of land, housing, and nature. The impacts on people and on future generations, the environment, and land itself will be devastating. In the absence of adequate land management policies and territorial development planning, the dissolution of public and communal lands would, without a doubt, lead to inappropriate land use and land cover transformations that jeopardize biodiversity and land productivity. Moreover, privatizing state-owned lands would further weaken local governments and deprive them of much needed land for projects of public benefit (e.g., affordable housing, sports facilities, health centers, and marketplaces).

Putting land governance first

Lebanon’s compounded challenges require environmentally and socially grounded ways of thinking about land. At the global level, climate change, land degradation, food insecurity, and mounting levels of poverty and inequality are leading to a conceptual shift in how land is assessed. The view of land as a commodity is changing toward one that recognizes its multiple social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political values; underscores its social function; and acknowledges the right to land as a human right.14 This conceptual transition seems to be even more urgent for Lebanon, where land administration and management is weak and where land tenure rights are highly insecure for various groups, including refugees, displaced people, and many women. 

Land governance should be high on Lebanon’s national development agenda. This includes the rules, regulations, processes, and institutional structures (whether statutory, customary, religious, or informal) through which decisions related to land are made, implemented, and enforced.15

While such issues are complex, three lines of inquiry would be essential starting points for promoting sustainable, responsible, and socially embedded systems of governing state-owned lands. 

The first track would entail determining the location and limits of state-owned lands, the types of rights attached to them, and under which land tenure arrangements they fall. Two facts are worth noting here: (i) 35 percent of the Lebanese territory is not surveyed,16 which leads to property transgressions and boundary disputes (including between adjacent municipalities); and (ii) longstanding customary and informal land tenure arrangements (usually undocumented) sometimes conflict with statutory land regulations.17

The second track would require an assessment of the use suitability and development potential of these lands vis-à-vis their geographic location and physiographic characteristics (e.g., geology, soil type, and topography) to direct future planning and management strategies. Despite its need for an update, the National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territory (NPMPLT) provides a general guiding direction. This national plan would need to be complemented by land use suitability studies and strategic territorial development plans, which ought to be carried out at multiple scales ranging from the sub-national to the local and site levels. 

The third track would entail an examination of existing and new forms of communal, collective, and cooperative land tenure as realistic and valid alternatives to private ownership. In tandem, this line of inquiry would require identification of crucial policy and legislative reforms to support and encourage multiple forms of partnerships and collaboration in land and natural resource management. Necessarily, these reforms would need to recognize the pivotal role of local governments and residents in land administration and align with key land governance-related international frameworks to which Lebanon has committed.18

Several initiatives have been launched over the last two years by municipalities and local and international organizations to encourage and support people going back to the land and growing their own food. Initiatives that focus on sustainable land management and the protection of Lebanon’s natural heritage and significant landscapes have also been embraced by local actors and supported by funding agencies. Examples include efforts to utilize vacant publicly owned urban lands for agriculture production and/or social and cultural activities, as well as community-based conservation programs to protect biodiversity and establish a network of natural reserves. Indeed, Lebanon’s multiple crises require concerted strategies that put land at the center of both emergency response and sustainable long-term development plans as a matter of high priority. Without that, state-owned lands could be up for grabs.


 1.Kostanian, A. (2021). Privatization of Lebanon’s Public Assets: No Miracle Solution to the Crisis. The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). 
 2. The contribution of the Association of Banks in Lebanon to Lebanon's economic recovery, presented during the Finance and Budget Parliamentary Committee meeting on 20 May 2020.  
 3.محمد المشنوق اقترح انشاء الصندوق السيادي لإدارة أملاك الدولة كحل لأزمة المخاوف على أموال المودعين في المصارف. الوكالة الوطنية للإعلام  (2 April 2020).  
 4. The Lebanese Government’s Financial Recovery Plan (20 April 2020).
 5. Zoughaib, S. & Maktabi, W. How deep is Lebanon’s bottomless pit? The Policy Initiative, 30 May 2022.
 6. Detter, D. & Saidi, S. (July 2020). Lebanon’s Hidden Gold Mine. Carnegie Middle East Center. 
 7. Lebanon’s Deputy Prime Minister, Saadeh al-Shami, declared in a TV interview broadcasted on 4 April 2022  “the bankruptcy of the state and the Central Bank of Lebanon”. 
 8. Christophers, B. (2018). The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain. London & New York: Verso.
 9. Miri lands, or al-aradi al-amiria (الأراضي الاميرية), are the private property of the state. They are cultivated lands that have mostly been given to a direct beneficiary or cultivating tenant. Mawat lands (i.e., dead lands), also known as al-aradi al-khalia al-mubaha (الأراضي الموات او الخالية المباحة), are uncultivated miri lands that have not been recognized by the state and can be claimed by adverse possession. Al-aradi al-matruka al-morfaqa (الأراضي المتروكة المرفقة) are communal lands (مشاعات) located close to villages and towns and are also considered the private property of the state or the municipalities in which they fall. They include pastures, forests, and woodlands and cannot be claimed by adverse possession. Al-aradi al-matruka al-mahmiyya (الأراضي المتروكة المحمية) are inalienable protected public domain land that cannot be sold or transferred to others. They include the seashore, riverbanks, public gardens, streets, among other spaces and are considered the public property of the state or the municipalities in which they fall.
 10. For more details, see Lebanon’s property law (Decision no. 3339 of 12/11/1930).
 11. For more information, refer to a presentation by Charbel Nahas on public land, delivered on 30 June 2000. 
 12. The separation between the bare owner and usufruct right holder does not exist in what was historically known as “the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate”. Communal lands in this area are of the mulk type (الملك) and are registered in property records as belonging to all town’s people (عموم أهالي البلدة). In the rest of Lebanon, communal lands are held by the state (or the municipalities in which they fall) but dedicated to the use and benefit of local families, communities, or groups. Some exceptions might exist due to inconsistencies in property records.  
 13. Saghieh, N. and Maddah, L. Stolen Public Maritime Property in Lebanon: No More Grace Periods. The Legal Agenda, 3 November 2021.
 14. Cotula, L. (2013). The New Enclosures? Polanyi, International Investment Law and the Global Land Rush. In Third World Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 9, pp. 1605-1629.
 15. Palmer, D., Fricska, S. & Wehrmann, B. (2009). Towards Improved Land Governance. Rome: FAO.
 16. Maarrawi, G. (June 2020).  The system of Land Registration in Lebanon. PowerPoint Presentation at a webinar entitled “Towards a Postgraduate Program in Land Governance Serving the Needs of Lebanon and Other Middle Eastern Countries” Hosted by the Lebanese University, Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences,15-17. 
 17. Land tenure refers to “the relationship, whether legally or customarily defined, among people, as individuals or groups, with respect to land”. The term “customary tenure” refers to traditional rights to land and other natural resources that are administered in accordance with local traditions and customs rather than by statutory tenure systems. FAO (2002). Land tenure and rural development. Rome.
 18. E.g., the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals (SDGs); the New Urban Agenda (NUA); and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT).

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