BEIRUT: Farmers in south Lebanon lost between 30 and 40 percent of their open field produce when in last week’s storm, which also destroyed 15 percent of greenhouse production, an industry representative told The Daily Star Tuesday.
“The strong winds caused major harm to open field produce, and the plastic was torn off some greenhouses as well, which caused problems for protected crops,” Ramiz Osseiran, head of the Farmers Association in the south, told The Daily Star.
The year’s first winter storm, “Alexa,” subsided over the weekend after a drastic drop in temperatures and heavy snowfall, particularly in the northern and eastern regions.
Osseiran said the agricultural sector had been hit heavily by natural incidents over the past several years but the government never took any meaningful action to compensate the farmers for the losses they suffered.
“We do hope the government takes serious measures this year to compensate for the losses caused by this storm. However, we do not expect any practical moves to be taken anytime soon,” he added.
Osseiran said the lack of government support prompted farmers to borrow money to make up for their losses, putting extra pressure on them.
“Farmers borrow money in such cases from banks via Kafalat, or they tend to compensate by buying 50 percent of the raw materials they need from agricultural companies by incurring debt,” he added.
Osseiran said farmers had already been suffering due to the decline in exports to Arab countries following the outbreak of the conflict in Syria and the closure of the Lebanese-Syrian borders.
The deterioration of bilateral trade between Syria and Lebanon and the reduced trade through Syria to lucrative markets in Turkey and the Gulf has made it extremely difficult for Lebanese farmers to make profits.
According to Osseiran, the products that have been the most affected by the Syrian crisis are bananas and citrus.
“More than 50 percent of our banana production used to be exported to Syria and Iraq, but the low Syrian consumption in this difficult time and the inability to reach the Iraqi market in the midst of the deteriorating security situation led to a decrease in the export of this fruit,” Osseiran said.
The last biannual report issued by the Farmers Association said agricultural exports in the past three years had declined by 14.3 percent between 2010 and 2013, registering 192,000 tons in the first half of 2013 compared to 224,000 tons in the first half of 2010.
While the export of citrus products and bananas declined by 37.5 percent and 33.5 respectively, the report highlighted that potato exports increased by 27.7 percent in the first half of 2013 compared to the same period in 2010, while the export of apples went up by 31 percent.
It added that exports by land via Syria declined remarkably in 2011 by 7.86 percent while exports by air and sea went up by 1.55 percent and 11.75 percent respectively.
Osseiran argued that competition from Syrian agricultural produce was hurting Lebanese farmers.
“Syrians used to export their produce to many Arab countries, but following the war, they focused on directing their exports to the Lebanese market, which creates a great competition with Lebanese products and led to a drop in their prices,” he said.
“Farmers may be able to bear the loss for a year or two but not for more.”
Osseiran warned that if the crisis continued, Lebanese farmers might have to start looking for alternative crops, a move that would complicate the situation further.
“For instance, it takes seven years for a citrus farmer to generate revenues out of his production; so if a farmer waits that long to generate revenues and then decides to look for an alternative crops, he would then incur money and time loss,” he said.
Osseiran urged the government to support farmers through cash payments relative to the size of cultivated land and to help wholesalers reach new export markets.
“This could be done by adding new items to the Export Plus program, which rewards wholesalers for exporting agricultural produce outside Lebanon,” he said.
Salah Hajj Hasan, adviser to the agriculture minister, said the ministry was conducting a survey to compensate for the losses of farmers whose produce was hit by the storm.
He said the ministry would compensate farmers who suffered losses exceeding 20 percent of their produce.
“If the damage is minimal, no government in the world would compensate for it,” he added.
Hajj Hasan agreed that bananas and citrus products had been the most affected by the Syrian crisis.
“This is normal, because Syria is the biggest consumer of these two products,” he said.
However, he added that the ministry had sought alternative markets and reached an agreement with Jordan to buy Lebanese banana exports.
Hajj Hasan added that his ministry had issued a memo over a year ago requiring importers to seek approval before bringing in potatoes, onions, melons and grapes.
Though such measures go against the rules of the Arab Free Trade Agreement, the Agriculture Ministry imposed them “to protect our local production,” Hajj Hasan explained.