BEIRUT

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Agriculture plan draws fire from farmers

Workers pick green beans in the southern area of Zahrani.

BEIRUT: The Agriculture Ministry voiced confidence over the weekend that its newly approved funding programs could overhaul Lebanon’s agricultural sector, but the Farmers Association complained that the initiatives were mired in corruption. Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, who spoke at a ceremony in Baalbek, said a LL25 billion program to subsidize sugar beets in the Bekaa is crucial to clamp down on illegal crops and to improve socio-economic conditions for farmers.

The program was endorsed last month as part of plan to provide cannabis farmers with alternative crops and persuade them to let go of the illegal crop.

Another recently approved program, worth between LL28 and LL35 billion annually, would provide fodder subsidies for dairy cattle for over 200,000 farmers, Hajj Hasan added.

“The programs being implemented now were the same we purposed back in 2000, but no one had responded. Instead of reinforcing agriculture, [various Cabinets] dealt a blow to the sector,” he said.

“These came after long years of deprivation and neglect,” Hajj Hasan added, praising Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi for approving over LL150 billion annually for funding various agricultural programs.

Hajj Hasan also said an Agricultural Disaster Fund was on track, adding that the fund would receive support from the government through honorary members who pay subscription fees and donations but do not receive any benefits.

The reforms, however, were met with fierce opposition from the Farmers Association, which stepped up its criticism of the Agriculture Ministry, accusing it of money squandering and unevenly distributing funds.

Antoine Howayek, head of the Lebanese Farmers Association, told The Daily Star that his group remains strongly opposed to the Agriculture Ministry’s conduct.

“These are rightful [programs] unrightfully applied,” he said, complaining that the disaster fund would serve as “another outlet for corruption.”

Originally a law proposed in 2004 to create a publicly run agricultural insurance institute, the fund was watered down by Minister Hajj Hasan to a cooperative, Howayek said.

“Cooperatives have failed miserably in Lebanon and we do not have a single success story,” he said, adding that Hajj Hasan intends to use the fund for his party’s political ends.

“Instead of bringing together insurance companies, farmers and the government to create a professional institute, the minister wants a coop where very little transparency and accountability can happen,” he said.

Howayek’s criticism goes beyond the disaster fund – he accuses the ministry of unevenly distributing assistance to farmers based on sectarian and regional affiliations.

“A program to provide pesticides for olive plantations last year completely left out Koura, a major olive-producing area, and most assistance was given to areas where the minister’s party [Hezbollah] is influential,” he said.

The same, he claimed, happened with chemical fertilizers and seedlings distributed to farmers last year.

“Thousands of seedlings were handed out to local parties for distribution in their areas,” he said.

Commenting on the dairy cattle fodder subsidies, Howayek said control of industrial milk powder imports would have eliminated farmers’ woes without the need to squander millions of dollars.

The ministers’ failure to defend the Agricultural Calendar, which synchronizes when Arab countries could exchange produce based on local agricultural seasons, has cost farmers significant losses since the beginning of 2012, Howayek added.

“Imports from Arab countries now enter the country without the simplest tests for chemical residue and without any regulations,” he said.

Crucial steps to prop up the ailing sector were ignored by the ministry despite repeated calls, Howayek added, saying that proposals for the creation of an agricultural development bank and agriculture chambers were ignored after influential sides lobbied against them.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 10, 2012, on page 5.

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