Farmers seek government help to escape downward spiral of debt

Lebanon’s vital agriculture sector remains devastated after summer conflict (IRIN)


Desperate Lebanese farmers are urging their government to do more to help them recover from a war that the United Nations estimates has cost the vital agriculture industry some US $280 million and left them facing “a downward spiral of debt and poverty”.

“I personally lost over 50 million Lebanese pounds [$35,000],” said Mohammed Mokahhal, a farmer from the eastern Bekaa Valley, describing his losses in the month-long summer war between Israel and militants from the Lebanese Hezbollah political party.

“I couldn’t harvest my potatoes or tend to vegetables like lettuces and peas which I had planted a week before the Israeli attacks began,” said the father of two. “And even when I managed to pick some I couldn’t transport them to the market because of the threatening situation.”

A recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that while Lebanon’s overall agriculture sector was expected to “bounce back quickly” an injection of working capital was needed to help war-affected rural households overcome debt accumulated because farmers were unable to harvest crops.

“With the loss of income from harvests and lost animal produce, many farmers have become heavily indebted as they usually repay their debts during the harvest period [May-October] to secure credit for the following planting/production season,” said the November report, prepared in conjunction with the Agriculture Ministry.

“This year, their ability to repay these debts has been reduced to the minimum, making it impossible to start the new cropping cycle due to the lack of working capital. There is much concern that this will lead to a downward spiral of debt and poverty for the Lebanese farmers.”

The FAO report proposes an aid package of US $17 million spread across six projects aimed at the more vulnerable farming and fishing communities affected by the hostilities, which cost Lebanon’s two southern governorates, where agriculture accounts for 70 percent of household income, nearly US $100 million in crops, killed nearly 20,000 livestock and ruined 18,000 beehives.

Mohammed Obeid, an official at the Southern Farmers Union, criticised what he said was the government’s slow response in helping farmers.

We only hear promises

“We only hear promises,” he said. “We met with the prime minister a month and a half ago and he promised he would help farmers once he received financial aid.”

A government official told IRIN that the government “was trying to help as much as it can” but that financial aid that arrived in Lebanon so far “isn’t enough to help all sectors”.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the escalating political crisis in Lebanon, in which Hezbollah is leading street protests aimed at toppling Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, is further hampering recovery efforts.

“The government says it doesn’t have money to pay compensation to farmers, but it paid money to other sectors,” said farmer Mokahhal, who is now trying to find an alternative crop to plant in the hope of providing for his family. “We have lost everything because our lives and our families’ lives depend 100 percent on agriculture. The government said it needs a mechanism to aid us. What it needs is the will.”

With a quarter of southern Lebanon’s cultivated areas rendered inaccessible by an estimated one million unexploded Israeli cluster bombs dropped in the last hours of the war, the FAO report says the clearing of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) “will be essential to enable the reconstruction of agriculture-based livelihoods in large areas of southern Lebanon”.

In its first evaluation of the four-month-old ceasefire in Lebanon, the UN reported that demining workers have cleared more than 60,000 cluster bombs since the 14 August ceasefire, but 822 new cluster bomb sites had been discovered since 20 November. The report said a total of 152 civilians have been harmed by the bombs and 17 of them have died.

The UN Mine Action Co-ordination Centre South Lebanon (UNMACC SL) said on 28 November that Israel had also laid anti-personnel landmines, banned by most countries, during the conflict. UNMACC said in October that it would take at least until the end of December 2007 to clear most of south Lebanon of UXOs.

This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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