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Arab trade agreement may be fatal for Lebanon's farmers

Government hopes to delay start date of GAfta treaty
Olive oil producers threaten to take to the streets if industry loses protection

If you're a devotee of Lebanese olive oil, enjoy it while you can because come January, you may find yourself pouring something else on your salad.

Lebanese farmers say the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement (Gafta) could wipe them out when it goes into effect Jan. 1. If that happens, they promise to take to the streets in protest.

Farmers fear an opening up of Lebanon's highly protected market to agricultural products will be the deathblow to the country's struggling farming sector.

Lebanon's government has launched an 11th hour attempt to have its agricultural sector excluded from the agreement. But only Syria has shown any signs of supporting the move. Agriculture Ministry plant resources director Samir al-Chami conceded: "No other Arab country is likely to agree."

The fact that it has taken the government six years to ask for the exclusion - on a treaty first signed in 1998 - has hardly helped them press their case with the neighbors, who will ask, Chami says: "Why now?"

Farmers are also keen to know why it has taken the government until now to ask for an exemption.

"The government is too much involved in its own problems to solve the people's problems," says olive farmer Raghed al-Hassan.

Gafta is the result of years of intense pressure to liberalize trade in the Arab region since the 1995 Barcelona process, which calls for a free-trade zone in the Mediterranean.

Intra-Arab trade is still less than 10 percent of total Arab trade, and treaty supporters say eliminating tariffs is a major step toward regional integration and challenging the economic dominance of the U.S. and the EU.

The treaty, which eliminates tariffs on trade between the 17 Arab signatories, will mean that Saudi Arabians will be snapping up Egyptian potatoes and Yemenis will be wearing Lebanese textiles without paying extra taxes.

Supporters say the treaty will bring foreign investment to Lebanon and will help the country in its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

But the farming industry in Lebanon, already weakened by civil war and government inattention, will be hit hard.

"We cannot compete," says Wadah Fakhri, President of the Southern Farmers Association. "You must rehabilitate before you open up." The agriculture sector needs cash to implement modern farming methods to enable it to compete with heavily subsidized programs in Egypt and Jordan. Labor costs in Lebanon, Fakhri says, are far higher than in other Arab countries and the government doesn't help farmers enough with irrigation, mechanization, or spraying pesticides.

Despite its mild climate, quality soil and plentiful water supply, Lebanon still depends on imports for its food supplies. In 2003, Lebanon imported about $1.5 billion in agricultural goods but only earned about $233 million through exports. Annual agricultural output today - more than 10 years after the end of the civil war - is still at less than 20 percent of prewar levels.

Farmers make up about 40 percent of Lebanon's population, but the government only devotes less than 4 percent of its annual budget to agriculture.

Farmers say they can't take full advantage of the abundant rainfall in Lebanon because the government charges them high prices to take water from the rivers.

"I don't know of any other country that sells water for irrigation to their farmers," Fakhri says.

The free-trade treaty will be the biggest blow in years, Fakhri says, and if it isn't delayed farmers may decide to take to the streets.

Farmers have long protested trade agreements that they say allow dumping of foreign products on Lebanese markets. In 2000, about 200 farmers demonstrated in Sidon against Syrian products smuggled across the border. The same year, former army general Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement organized demonstrations around the country where they sold Lebanese-grown produce.

Raghed al-Hassan and his family own about 1,500 olive trees in the village of Betouratije in the foothills of the Lebanon mountains, an area the Hassans say they've been farming since the first Crusade. For years Syrian oil was smuggled across the border. Beginning on Nov. 10, a bilateral agreement between the two countries allowed the Syrian product to enter Lebanese market tariff-free giving the family an early taste of the post-Jan. 1 Arab market. The Hassans say their business is increasingly threatened by Syrian imports, which can undercut them by about $20 per 20-liter container of oil. The Hassan family hires a team of 10 Syrian Bedouins, paying LL10,000 per day to men and LL8,000 for women, to beat the trees with long sticks and then collect the fallen olives in sacks. The Bedouins, who live in burlap tents near the olive groves, could make only a fraction of that amount working in Syria.

Now, because of foreign competition and a lack of government help, it's no longer possible for farmers to rely just on olives, and even as a secondary income the olive business is no longer reliable.

"It could be a great back-up for many families,"says Hassan.

Agricultural officials in Lebanon say they sympathize with the farmers, but there's little they can do without more resources.

Chami, the director of plant resources at the Agriculture Ministry and one of Lebanon's negotiators for the treaty, says Lebanese farmers are "drowning" because of low labor costs and greater government aid through subsidies or technical assistance in other Arab countries.

Potato farmers in the north and in the Bekaa, Chami says, are the first people who will be "touched by the fires of Gafta" because cheaper Egyptian potatoes will immediately flood the market in Lebanon over the winter, when it is still too cold to grow local potatoes.

Cucumbers and tomatoes grown in greenhouses during the relatively chilly Lebanese winter will be overtaken by Jordanian imports, which can be grown more cheaply outside because of better weather conditions.

A final meeting will be held in Egypt at the end of January to hammer out the final details in the agreement which Chami says could be a last chance to pull Lebanon out.

Despite the damages to Lebanon's farmers, Chami says regional unity through trade is necessary. The Arab countries, he says, are like "brothers" who must all sit together at a meal even though some members are bigger and will eat more than others.

"You must eat with your brothers," he says. The problem is that Lebanon's farmers don't want to be devoured by them.

Beirut,12 20 2004
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star
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