Lebanon’s farmers struggle to transport fruits of their labour

Friday 04/09/2015
Farmers picking potato crops in the Bekaa valley, eastern Lebanon.

Bekaa valley, Lebanon

Reeling from the closure of the last functioning gateway through Syria to Jordan, Lebanon’s most important farming region finds itself in the grip of an export crisis that threatens the livelihoods of local farmers.

Overseeing the harvest of pota­toes from his land in the Bekaa val­ley in eastern Lebanon, farmer and agricultural engineer Rabih Skaff said the state of the agricultural sector could be calculated with this simple formula:

“When goods could be exported, the sector is good, prices are good and demand is good. But if exports are weak, then the produce accu­mulates and is eventually thrown away, leaving farmers unable to cover the cost of production,” Skaff said.

Skaff oversees approximately 300 hectares of land near the village of Saadnayel. His main clients are po­tato chip factories. His business, which relies heavily on the export of his products, was deeply affect­ed by the closure of the land export route through Syria.

“In the beginning of the season it was an all-out crisis. Farmers were heading towards their doom because they had been suffering losses for two years,” he said. “A lot of farmers were also going to prison because they weren’t generating enough money to pay back their dues.”

Exports of agricultural products have fluctuated widely over the last four years. In 2011, following the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, exports fell more than 10%, accord­ing to a report from the Investment Development Authority of Leba­non (IDAL). One year later, farmers found alternative and more secure trade routes through Syria, allow­ing for the sector’s shy recovery.

But in April 2015, clashes be­tween rebels and Syrian govern­ment forces near the Nasib border crossing forced the closure of the last functioning passage between Jordan and Syria, cutting off a vital transportation route from Lebanon to Jordan and the Gulf.

Two months following the clo­sure, Lebanese agriculture exports dropped 35% and the total volume of exports by land went down 87%, IDAL Chairman Nabil Itani an­nounced in August.

The move complicated farmers’ access to Lebanon’s main export market, which includes Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The three countries re­ceived 38% of agricultural exports in 2012, according to IDAL. With current conditions, farmers and industrialists can access only Syria via land routes. Other countries re­quire more costly maritime or air shipping.

In an attempt to compensate for additional costs incurred in using sea routes, the Lebanese govern­ment in July, approved a $21 million loan to subsidise exports of agricul­tural produce and industrial goods over a seven-month period.

The loan granted to IDAL was used to fund the Exports Maritime Bridge programme, which pro­vides subsidies of $1,750-$2,250 per truckload of exported produce from the Port of Beirut to either Aqaba, Jordan, or Duba, Saudi Arabia.

The programme went into effect in August, making it too soon to evaluate its effectiveness but mari­time exports increased 87% in the second half of 2015, according to figures announced by Itani. That suggests farmers and industrialists may be adapting to changes in ex­port methods.

They described the move as a short-term fix for a long-term prob­lem, arguing that the subsidies would only last for seven months.

“This is not a long-term solution. It is not sustainable,” said Antoine Howayek, president of the Leba­nese Farmers Association. “A suit­able solution should allow farmers and industrialists to export prod­ucts by sea on a continuous basis.”

Howayek criticised the govern­ment for restricting which shipping companies could be used for export when cheaper alternatives could have been available. He described the operation “as a means for politi­cal mafias to make money”.

The maritime rescue plan was also criticised by Tony Tohme, president of the Economy Commit­tee at the Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture of Zahleh, who said that the solution was long overdue.

“Land routes near the Nasib crossing have been facing problems for three to four years. The govern­ment should have had a plan B from the start but it didn’t,” Tohme said. He noted that the industry was not fully ready for maritime export and criticised the government for tak­ing time to find a solution. “A lot of farmers faced heavy losses and many of them have gone to jail because they couldn’t cover their costs,” he lamented.

According to Tohme, not all products can be traded easily via sea routes. “Crops like parsley, cherries and lettuce need to be de­livered fresh, which means that they need to be shipped continu­ously,” he said.

Experts also warned that Leba­nese farmers’ struggles are not re­stricted to the higher costs incurred by maritime export. The lack of exports has generated abundant quantities of crops in domestic markets, which caused the prices of many vegetables and fruits to fall more than 50%, according to figures provided by the Lebanese Farmers Association.

“There is too much produce and they are all going to waste,” Elie Garios, a Zahle farmer who pro­vides fruit and vegetables to local markets, said from his packaging centre.

“Take parsley for example. If the Lebanese population starts con­suming just parsley for breakfast lunch and dinner, then demand may meet supply,” he said mock­ingly.