Struggling Lebanese farmers call for more governmental support

Published February 14th, 2017 - 06:00 GMT
The closure of the Nassib border crossing translated into a heavy drop in Lebanese agricultural exports from 533.18 tons in 2014 to 360.76 tons in 2016. (File photo)
The closure of the Nassib border crossing translated into a heavy drop in Lebanese agricultural exports from 533.18 tons in 2014 to 360.76 tons in 2016. (File photo)

Harvesting the crops and picking olives and apples from trees in the blazing sun is undoubtedly one of the most honorable jobs in the world. And in theory, farmers are supposed to earn a reasonably decent living from selling their produce to wholesale merchants or shipping their carefully packed goods to other countries. But unlike most countries of the world, Lebanese farmers feel bitter about the poor state of agriculture, which they say hardly receives any attention from the government despite endless pledges to improve this sector.

Most of the farmers can’t even make ends meet due to fierce competition from Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

“Officials have never really offered real solutions to our problems, but only temporary ones,” said Anwar Fakhry, head of the farmers’ association in Bsharri. “They never adopted a comprehensive strategy to solve our problems once and for all,” he added.

In fact, the government allocates less than 1 percent of its entire budget to agriculture, although farmers claim that thousands of families earn their living from the sector.

Fakhry said farmers are suffering from a series of problems, leading them to incur huge losses every year.

One of the biggest problems faced by farmers, according to Fakhry, is the stiff competition from neighboring countries due to the government’s inability to control the smuggling of agroproducts from Syria. “We are incapable of selling all of our products due to the high competition we are facing from Syrian agroproducts entering the country in an illegal way,” he said.

Former Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb announced last September a decision that would block companies from importing certain produce without prior approval, in response to demands by local farmers struggling to sell their products. The minister released a directive to regulate this process, requiring an import permit on products coming from Syria while clarifying that prior licenses apply only to products that are needed here in Lebanon. Chehayeb added that licenses would not be given for products that are sufficiently produced in Lebanon to meet the local demand.

However, Chehayeb has, on an earlier occasion, clarified that he had sent a letter to the Defense Ministry, the Army, General Security and Lebanese Customs over the issue, and received a letter from an officer saying that there are 50 illegal crossings in the Baalbeck-Hermel governorate in northeast Lebanon that cannot be controlled.

“The government must protect our products by controlling the borders and not allowing foreign competition to harm our local sector,” said Fakhry while adding that the farmers’ misery was exacerbated by their inability to export their products following the closure of the Nassib border crossing.

Jordan closed its border with Syria on April 1, 2015, following heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian government forces near the Nassib crossing, after rebel fighters encircled the area.

The closure of the crossing translated into a heavy drop in Lebanese agricultural exports from 533.18 tons in 2014 to 364.73 tons in 2015 and 360.76 tons in 2016, according to Lebanese Customs.

The closure of the crossing prompted Lebanon’s state-run development agency, IDAL, to launch a program in September 2015 to help producers export their goods to the Gulf by sea. The program, which extends to March 2017, allows agroproduct exporters to benefit from a $14 million loan to subsidize the maritime export of agricultural produce and industrial goods.

However, some farmers criticized the program, saying that the mechanism of implementation was not proper because the government paid the money directly to one ship owner who monopolized maritime export, which led to an increase in the cost of shipping by sea. “The money should have been given to exporters and give them the chance to choose the shipowners with whom they want to deal,” said Ibrahim Tarshishi, head of the farmers’ association in the Bekaa Valley.

IDAL Chair Nabil Itani dismissed Tarshishi’s comments, saying that the money was paid to two shipping companies and competition was very high between them. “Tarshishi’s comments are not true and over 80 exporters benefited from this program, with around 35 percent to 40 percent of perishable products being exported using this mechanism,” he said.

Itani noted that IDAL will propose that the new Cabinet, in cooperation with the agriculture minister, extend this program due to its great success.

For Nasser Lama, technical director of the USAID-funded Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development project, solutions to challenges faced by the sector begin with improving the quality of agricultural produce in Lebanon, adding more varieties to the items produced by farmers.

“When Lebanese farmers improve the quality of their produce, local consumers will surely be willing to pay more for their products,” he said. “We can compete for sure when we improve our quality, and one way to do this is by using pesticides in a proper and healthy way,” he added.

Lama said that farmers tend to rely on pesticides suppliers for information on how to use these products. “The main objective of pesticides suppliers is to sell as much products as they can since they are paid commissions on their sales. This prompts them to favor selling more rather than giving the right guidelines to farmers,” Lama explained.

He said that one way of solving this issue is for the government to play a bigger role by employing more agricultural advisers to work under its authority. “The ministry also should be able to trace the advisors who prescribe pesticides. But if farmers use pesticides that are not prescribed by the ministry’s advisor, they would bear the responsibility.”

Lama said that the ministry has previously tried to adopt a mechanism whereby advisers sign on the prescriptions given to farmers to be able to trace the whole process, but it has been incapable of properly supervising the implementation of this move.

Lama argued that some farmers also use cheap but internationally banned pesticides without knowing that such products harm their crops.

Another way of limiting these practices is by removing the commissions that pesticides suppliers receive on their sales, Lama said.

A senior source close to the Agriculture Ministry told The Daily Star that it is not possible to remove commissions on the sale of pesticides because it is an international practice.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the ministry has agricultural advisers but doesn’t have enough staff to monitor the 240,000-odd cultivated hectares in Lebanon.

“The ministry has advisers who guide farmers on the proper way of using pesticides but they cannot follow up on each farmer,” he said. “Also, farmers are responsible for following the guidelines given to them by the ministry’s advisors,” he added.

The source cited an example of farmers’ failure to stick to the ministry’s guidelines by saying that five years ago, the government introduced a new technique aimed at eliminating insects through sexual infusion to stop their life cycle. “We did this technique for grapes and apples and the government helped farmers using it,” he said.

But, he said, farmers kept on spraying their produce with pesticides while using the technique, which should not be the case.

The source reiterated Lama’s comments on the need for the ministry to adopt the traceability method to track advisers or pesticides companies that give prescriptions to farmers. “We should put labels on the crops produced by farmers to be able to track the produce of each farmer,” he said. “This is not taking place today, but it is included in the strategy of the ministry. The problem is that the agriculture sector is allocated less than 1 percent of the government’s budget, which is delaying the implementation of this strategy.”

Another problem facing the agriculture sector in Lebanon is the inability to produce new varieties of crops that are in demand outside Lebanon, according to Lama.

“Some farmers are not aware of the new kinds of crops that are in demand in markets outside Lebanon,” he said. “Also, some exporters are aware of the markets’ needs but they do not have access to the varieties that are in demand outside Lebanon because they have to pay a high royalty price to obtain the right to harvest specific plants.”

Lama explained that even if farmers can afford to pay big amounts for royalty rights, they cannot buy these plants because Lebanon has yet not signed the agreement for intellectual property rights.

Lama’s comments were reiterated by the source, who said that Lebanese farmers must pay for the right to harvest specific plants bought from other countries while guaranteeing not to exceed their production above a certain limit. “The Economy Ministry should sign this agreement to protect Lebanon’s products as well.”

By Dana Halawi





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