The Lebanese government is trying to buy off a peasants' revolt sweeping the country over the import of cheap farm produce, notably smuggled in from dominant neighbor Syria.
Last week the authorities quadrupled to $40 million the sum allocated to agriculture in the draft budget this year, with the aim of not only appeasing the farmers but also avoiding a dispute with Damascus, which has the last word on Lebanese affairs.
The move followed days of protests by growers demanding a crackdown on the wholesale contraband from Syria, which surrounds Lebanon on three sides, and a revision of trade accords with Egypt and Jordan. Under the accords there is no import duty on goods from those two countries for the first six months of every year.
The protests, of an unprecedented size, sprang up in the northern Akkar plain, and spread to a lesser extent to the eastern Bekaa valley, both bordering Syria. Farmers blocked the roads to stop truckloads of Syrian produce entering the country, before being dispersed by the police.
In Beirut and surrounding areas, as well as in southern Lebanon, several thousand demonstrated, dumping vegetable, citrus fruits and bananas on the roads or giving them away to the public.
Agriculture Minister Ali Abdallah promised help for farmers to export their crops and technical assistance to improve their output, but warned against "political exploitation" of the dispute. He said that only the customs services were empowered to check smuggling.
Elias Atallah, a member of a farmers' union, was not impressed, accusing Syrian and Lebanese mafias, Jordanians and even Turks of organizing the contraband. "Our crops remain unsold because they cost more than Syrian produce, which is subsidized both at the growing stage and their export," he added.
The head of an association of southern Lebanese farmers, Waddah Fakhri, called for changes in agreements concluded with neighboring countries, and a ban on the import of fruit and vegetables grown in Lebanon. But Attallah laid the blame firmly at the door of Syria, which maintains 30,000 troops in Lebanon, accusing it of bringing about the ruin of Lebanese farmers.
"Syrians now control more than 70 percent of the wholesale market and nearly half the retail market," he charged. "They give priority to produce from Syria and impose their own prices on what we grow."
Attallah also condemned the "greed" of Lebanese firms controlling the market in seeds, plants, pesticides and fertilizer, and accused the authorities of chronic neglect of the agricultural sector. “The state favors merchants to the detriment of farmers, and dares do nothing to halt the smuggling," he said.
At the agriculture ministry, director general Adel Shweiri said he hoped that the increase in his budget would enable him to do more to help farmers.
In the current budget agriculture accounts for less than 0.2 percent of expenditure, even though it employs 30 percent of the population. Its share of gross national product has fallen from 13 percent to eight percent in 25 years.
"We want to make our goods competitive and help exports by reducing the cost and improving the quality, because globalization and free markets will defeat artificial protectionism," Shweiri said.
For Atallah, however, this is no answer, pointing to the absurdities of the system. "Lebanon produces twice as many bananas as it consumes, but Syria doesn't buy a single one," he said. "Worse, it imports them from Guatemala or Somalia then floods the Lebanese market with them." — (AFP, Beirut)
by Najib Khazzaka
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )