Lebanese farmers call for long-term solutions to help sector

Published July 5th, 2015 - 12:27 GMT

Farmers praised the government’s decision to subsidize agricultural exports but insisted that this step is not sufficient to solve the long-term problems of the sector.

“I consider the initiative taken by the government as a great achievement but it will only provide a solution for a short period. What we really need is a long-term solution to our export problem as we don’t really know when the security situation in the region will stabilize and when land routes will open again,” said Ramez Osseiran, head of the farmers’ association in south Lebanon.

Lebanon’s exports have suffered tremendously in the past three months following the closure of Nassib border, which is the only functioning crossing between Jordan and Syria and is vital for the transportation of goods from Lebanon and Syria to Jordan and Gulf countries.

As a result, Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb proposed subsidizing the additional cost of the maritime export of locally produced products by allocating $21 million over the coming seven months.

By adopting this measure, the state would pay for each truck exported by sea the amount of $1,500, which is the additional cost incurred when using such a mode of transportation.

Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb Friday described the Cabinet’s decision to allocate $21 million to help export agricultural and industrial products by sea as “positive.” “One-third of the Lebanese people benefit from the agricultural sector,” he noted.

“We should support farmers with the necessary economic and social factors. ... We are seeking to motivate the Lebanese people,” the minister added.

Ibrahim Tarshishi, head of the farmers’ association in the Bekaa Valley region, also voiced support for Chehayeb’s initiative by saying: “We are very thankful to the minister for his great efforts in issuing this new decree, which will allow us to export over 1,000 tons of our products daily.”

Chadi Massaad, president of the Lebanese Omani business council, said that the decision made by the agriculture minister was necessary to provide a quick solution to the country’s export problem.

However, Massaad said that subsidizing the maritime export of local products is only a temporary solution. “The government must find a long-term solution to the exports issue,” he said. “We should be able to export our products by sea on a continuous basis because we do not know whether land routes will open soon,” he added.

Likewise, Antoine Howayek, president of the farmers’ association, said the new decree would provide a quick and temporary solution but the government could have adopted a less expensive and more effective way to export local produce by sea.

“The government resorted to the more expensive solution because some involved parties want to generate commissions out of this proposal,” he said. He added that the government could have adopted a much cheaper way to export Lebanon’s produce by sea.

Howayek proposed that the government purchase four ferries for $10 million in a bid to export Lebanese agricultural produce for free to Arab countries.

“This way the government would help export Lebanese agro products while charging fees on merchants who are willing to import products from Arab countries by sea using these ferries,” he said. “This solution would help the government raise the money paid for the price of ferries, while subsidizing Lebanese exports and avoiding the deterioration of the sector.”

Howayek added that the government could recuperate part of the money it spent on the ferries if it resells the boats once all the crossing points between Syria and Jordan are reopened.

Howayek’s proposal was supported by Ramez Osseiran, head of Farmers’ Association in south Lebanon, who said the ministry should adopt a serious approach toward the matter.

“I don’t understand why the government does not consider such a plan seriously,” Osseiran said.

“Since the government has already decided to subsidize maritime exports with $21 million, why don’t they take advantage of the coming five or six months to seriously study the proposition of buying ferries?” he asked.

Apart from farmers, business leaders and industrialists stressed that the Cabinet’s decision would enable Lebanese products to maintain their competitive edge and also allow manufacturers to proceed with their industrial projects while retaining Lebanon’s export markets.

But some trade union leaders were openly skeptical of the true motives behind this subsidy.

“The decision is obviously in favor of business owners because it does not even limit their profit margin in the local market or restricted them to hiring Lebanese laborers only,” said general-secretary of the confederation of Mount Lebanon Unions Maroun Khouli.

Despite the important measure taken by the Cabinet, farmers say the problems of the agricultural sector are not only confined to the high cost of maritime shipping.

Among the pressing issues farmers in Lebanon now face is abundant quantities of crops which caused the prices of many vegetables and fruits to fall by more than 50 percent.

“We estimate our losses to stand at $50 million in the months of May and June due to the huge drop in prices,” Howayek said.

Osseiran said that the price of citrus products dropped by over 50 percent in the past four months. “The price of one box of oranges [25 kilos] dropped from LL30,000 to LL10,000,” he said.

He added that the local market in Lebanon usually consumes up to 30 percent or 40 percent of agro products and the rest is exported. “But this is not the case anymore.”

Farmers also hoped that the new decree gets implemented really fast to avoid incurring additional losses to the sector.

“This month our exports stand at around 70,000 tons,” Howayek said. “So we really hope that this new decree gets implemented within a week maximum to avoid losing more money.”

Likewise, Osseiran said that if the government is really serious about this new decree, then it should implement it as soon as possible.

By Dana Halawi

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