Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said Friday that he would soon announce the establishment of a disaster fund for the agriculture sector, half of which is to be funded by the government. The minister also explained that he was looking for markets to compensate for declining exports to neighboring Syria, where an uprising is now in its 15th month.
“We will soon announce its [the fund’s] establishment, after one or two months; we are now authoring the bylaws,” Hajj Hasan told The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.
The minister said that the government would provide half of the funds while the rest would be raised from subscriptions to be paid by farmers.
The fund will provide financial compensations to farmers suffering losses from natural disasters.
Currently, these compensations are paid by the Higher Relief Committee which operates under the prime minister’s office.
However, not all farmers are receiving compensations, as no funds were allocated to farmers in the south for damages their crops incurred as a result of a storm which hit the country in 2010.
“Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri decided that only grape farmers in the Bekaa and fishermen would get compensations [after the 2010 storm],” Hajj Hasan said.
“Listen, chaos will continue until we establish this fund, and it will be formed,” he added.
Regarding Hajj Hasan’s efforts to enroll farmers in the National Social Security Fund, the minister said no good news was on the immediate horizon.
He explained that the move requires a decision by the Labor Ministry and the entire Cabinet.
The Cabinet, Hajj Hasan continued, understands the need for farmers to join the NSSF. “But I cannot give you a date as to when this will happen.”
Another concern for the minister is securing markets for agriculture produce to replace the Syrian market, as demand for Lebanese products has dropped sharply in Syria due to the ongoing uprising against Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Syria happens to be Lebanon’s sole land outlet for agricultural exports.
“We are continuously looking for new markets ... all options are open [for transportation means], we are now transporting products to Iraq and getting ready to enter the Libyan market ... but you know the [regional] situation is difficult,” he said.
“Syria was the destination of 30 percent of Lebanon’s agricultural exports,” the minister added.
He said this number had dropped due to the depreciation of the Syrian currency and the general security situation in the neighboring country.
Hajj Hasan said he was working on resolving a transportation problem which hindered an initiative by Iran to import 5,000 tons of Lebanese oranges. “I think it is resolved,” he said.
The minister said he would hold a meeting with Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi Wednesday to discuss means to reduce transport costs, which skyrocketed after a decision by the Aridi’s ministry to limit the export of goods to Lebanese trucks.
Hajj Hasan dismissed as “untrue” claims that regulations by the ministry on the use of pesticides and fertilizers were only being implemented on Lebanese produce and not on agricultural imports, making it harder for Lebanese produce to compete.
“We are implementing these regulations on imports. We just introduced them in an agreement we made with Egypt to import Egyptian apples and cherries,” he said.
“We are also closely monitoring potatoes exported from Egypt,” he said.
As for calls by some farmers to ban Syrian olive oil imports, which are creating fierce competition for Lebanese olive oil producers, Hajj Hasan believes such demands are unrealistic.
“First, Syrian olive oil enters Lebanon in line with the Greater Arab Free Trade Area,” he said. “Second, if I make a decision to ban Syrian olive oil imports, how will I still export via Syria?” he asked.
“We can work on the quality and ... marketing of our olive oil [to face competition],” he said.
Hajj Hasan added that his ministry was going ahead with plans to subsidize agricultural produce.
He said the government had already paid LL193 billion in subsidies in 2012 for cereals, fodder, agricultural exports, olive oil, fishermen and tobacco, as well as compensations for farmers whose crops had suffered damage due to natural disasters.
Hajj Hasan also said it was necessary to grant agriculture more independence by forming independent agriculture chambers in each governorate.
However, since such a move is not supported by other parties in the Cabinet, the minister is working on boosting the agriculture sector within the current Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture.
Hajj Hasan said his ministry was strongly supporting Integrated Pest Management, which involves combating pests through means that ensure favorable economic, ecological and sociological consequences.
He said the ministry was now spending LL4 billion to support IPM, and that farmers were responding in an “excellent manner.”
“We used to spend zero liras on this.