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French Version

Lebanon sees rise in agricultural exports despite difficulties

Export Plus program fails to open new markets

Lebanon's agricultural exports recorded a growth in the first half of 2005 despite problems facing this poorly financed sector.
"For the first six month of 2005, agricultural exports grew by 7 percent compared to the same period in 2004," the president of the Federation of Farmers' Syndicate in Lebanon Antoine Howayek told The Daily Star.

With a freeze for the months of April and May in IDAL's (Investment Development Authority of Lebanon) Export Plus program, which is aimed at marketing Lebanese exports by subsidizing agricultural exports, the significant rise in agricultural exports is still not easily explained for Howayek, who points out as a preliminary assessment that Lebanese product could have gained the trust of their buyers.

Agricultural exports grew by 18 percent from 2001 to 2004 according to a survey undertaken by bank Audi's research department and published in their Lebanon Weekly Monitor.

The survey explains this surge in exports as attributable to the Export Plus program that was initiated in 2002. "Add to that a general decline in prices due to a myriad of factors from the free-trade agreement signed to the chronic economic crisis," said Howayek.

In effect, the survey argues that the relatively low ratio (11 percent) of agricultural exports to imports in 2004 reflects the tough competition facing the sector "from dumping practices by countries in the region and the lack of protective measures by local authorities."

For Howayek, the Export Plus program has not reached its aim of "developing" Lebanese exports. "No new markets were opened even though we aimed at reaching Eastern Europe," says Howayek, adding that 60 to 70 percent of subsidized products not economically profitable like citrus fruits, potato, and apple.

"Numerous studies and statistics can point out the products that are economically strategic for exportation," says Howayek.

Bank Audi's survey also finds that the Lebanese agricultural sector has a share of 6 percent of national output, a ratio that leaves Howayek and the director of the Agricultural Ministry's statistics department Hussein Nasrallah quite skeptical. Nasrallah rounds it up to 7 percent.

Meanwhile, the government budget for the agricultural is not more than 0.4 percent of the total budget in recent years, according to the survey. Fortunately enough, "the sector receives aid from the Economy Ministry (as subsidies for wheat and sugarbeet), the Finance Ministry (as subsidies for tobacco) and from the Higher Relief Council that remunerates farmers when hurt by external catastrophes like inundations," explained Howayek.

Most of Lebanon's agricultural exports go through Syria to the Gulf countries. "We export first to Saudi Arabia, then to Syria, Jordan and Egypt," said Howayek.

However, agricultural exports only accounted for 6.1 percent of total exports in 2004 and 6.5 percent in the past four years according to the Bank Audi's survey. Meaning that, there were relatively less agricultural exports as a share of total exports throughout the years.

Beirut 22-08-2005
Bechir Saade
The Daily Star

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