But Who’s Going to Help Lebanon’s Farmers?
A lot of bright news for the Lebanese economy recently, starting with a banner tourist season, and culminating in the recent word that the IMF projects a GDP growth rate of 7 percent by the end of the year.
But, as always with rosy macroeconomic data, there’s a dark and more treacherous underside. A little while ago, I met with an opposition-minded economist here in Beirut, who gave me a taste of some more pessimistic demographics:
-Lebanon’s line of poverty at the moment is $4 per day, an impressively low number.
-By that measure, 28% of the population is living in poverty. If, as predicted by the Paris III study, the Lebanese government elects to raise the VAT from 10% to 15%, in order to help pay down the country’s massive debt, the economist said, that figure may rise to 47%.
-Meanwhile, inflation in Lebanon over the past year has hit basic living costs the hardest. Food products went up 16%; dairy went up even more: 25%.
Antoine Hoyek, who runs Lebanon’s farmer’s union, told me recently that he thinks it’s the farmers who suffer the most. The agriculture industry produces only five to seven percent of the country’s GDP, he said, but it is an instrumental part of the workforce. What’s telling is the raw data. “There are about 195,000 agriculture properties in Lebanon,” Hoyek said, “and about 40,000 families that rent land to work, as well as about 25,000 Lebanese laborers in agriculture.”
Protecting the livelihoods of these people, Hoyek said, is a matter of preserving the village way of life. “We have around 1,000 villages in Lebanon,” he said, “and in eight hundred or more they live only from agriculture. They only way to make money is agriculture. There is some tourism, some shops, but no industry. If you want to keep people in the villages, you have to have agriculture.” As the agriculture industry has faltered, he said, the rate of emigration in some villages has reached 85%.
There have been many attempts by international aid groups to give Lebanon’s farmers a leg up. One of the strangest, and most comically quixotic, was the time in the mid-1990s when the U.S. government contrived to sell five thousand American cows to Lebanese farmers, in an effort to wean them off the more-profitable cultivation of hashish. As Neil MacFarquhar recounts in his generally excellent book “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday,” the cows cost the farmers almost two thousand dollars apiece, and ended up producing too little milk to be worth the expenses. The farmers MacFarquhar spoke to complained that they were having trouble making ends meet, and might have to revert to hashish growing any way. Enter Tehran:
An Iranian delegation showed up in Beirut offering $50 million in farm aid, including a farm credit program and food processing factories, bee-keeping, and improved mechanization. Plus cows, of course. Their cows cost $1,000 a head, $900 less than the American bovines.
Antoine Hoyek was familiar with the battle of the cows, although he believes that the problems were more mundane — low tariffs on imported milk make milk production unprofitable regardless of who supplies the cows. The bigger problem, as he sees is, is that these international projects are just that: short-term projects. “They failed because their projects were not sustainable,” he said. “After they finished, it stopped.”
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