Bekaa farmers and Lebanon’s Sugar Beet Cooperation argue that Lebanese agriculture cannot survive without government support. Like most farmers around the world, they oppose today’s belief in free trade and insist that the wealth of agriculture cannot be measured in terms of price of profit alone.
“If there is no support for sugar beet while the growing of hashish remains banned, agriculture in the Bekaa valley will collapse completely,” said farmer Ayoub Kazoun, from Qab Elias, a small town south of Chtaura. “It’s already happening. There are families living here in Qab Elias, who cannot pay for heating or electricity and banks are confiscating homes left and right. The situation is disastrous.”
Kazoun used to grow sugar beet, but now plants mainly potatoes and animal feed. Unlike most Bekaa farmers, who lost tens of thousands dollars last summer due to the Syrian border closure, Kazoun escaped financial disaster, as he grows his potatoes exclusively for a French firm. Still, he hopes for a return of sugar beet subsidies.
Kazoun admits the main reason for reintroducing state subsidies on sugar beet was not, as many people claim, to offer an alternative to illicit crops, even though the production of hashish, to a limited extent, had entered the mid-Bekaa by the end of the war.
“In the early 1990s,” he said, “the state of Lebanese agriculture was in very bad shape for a number of reasons. We had just come out of the war and our farming methods were outdated. The world market was way ahead. What’s more, due to the fixed exchange rate between dollar and Lebanese pound, our crops were, and still are, too expensive to export. So, Lebanese farmers were in need of support.”
So, sugar beet was reintroduced because it is a labor intensive crop, which does not face direct competition from neighboring countries. However in reality sugar beet must deal with intense competition from the world market (see Box II).
The crop’s seasonal cycle involves preparing the land and planting in March. In early summer, the fields need weeding and by the end of August it’s time to harvest. For weeding and harvesting, seasonal Syrian workers, mainly women, are hired for some LL10,000 a day. Other costs include water – beet is a thirsty crop – and pesticides. “By 2000, it cost me some $300 to $350 per dunum to grow sugar beet, almost $200 of which was to rent the land,” said Kazoun. As one hectare produces some 5,000 to 7,000 tons of sugar beet, this was still a profitable venture. “As the subsidy depended on the total weight of sugar beet and the amount of sugar per beet, the government paid after the harvest,. So, we got paid LL120,000 ($80) per ton with a 15% sugar content. For every percentage more or less, the price would increase or decrease with LL 8,000 to LL 13,000, depending on the year.”
Although the government only paid at the end of the year, every spring the Sugar Beet Cooperation would give the farmer a certificate stating how much sugar beet he or she had planted. As the certificate guaranteed a more or less fixed income, a farmer could walk into any bank or shop to get a loan or buy a car on credit.
For many years, it was these certificates and the end-of-year-cash-handouts that made the Bekaa tick. “In the first few years we would not reach a sugar content of more than 13%,” said Kazoun. “In the beginning everyone tried to produce the biggest possible beet. Of course, they only got bigger because they were full of water. What we didn’t realize was that smaller beet, with less water, actually contained more sugar. It was only by 1996 and 1997 that we reached 15%. Last year, 10% of my beet had a sugar content of 19%.”
Corruption and bad practice
With practice, farmers got better, yet it was not long before the sector faced allegations of malpractice. It was alleged that laboratory workers were persuaded to fix sugar content results and that the weight of a truck load of sugar beet could be upped with a little cash incentive.
“It’s a myth,” said Kazoun. “Look, a farmer, and especially an Arab one, does not like to admit it was his fault when his beets have a sugar content of only 13%, so he’ll blame the lab and factory. Now, of course at times there were favors given here and there, like anywhere else in the country, but nothing out of order. Don’t forget there were employees of the Ministry of Economy present every day to check data regarding weight, quantity and sugar content.”
One of the most important problems farmers faced was the fact that the factory had a limited capacity of some 1,600 tons of beets a day in 1992 (although it was increased to 2500 tons by 2000). Farmers could only bring a limited quantity of sugar beet every day, a situation that takes on critical importance when fresh beets begin to lose both weight and sugar as soon as they are harvested (sugar ferments when exposed to the sun). Time was money for the farmers and in the rush to get to the factory many heated scenes ensued.
Kazoun believes that the whole system should be better organized with modern storage and cooling facilities. He also feels that proper irrigation should be introduced. Today, water is still mainly pumped from wells. This is costly as it uses fuel oil and badly affects ground water levels. In 2000, when over 7,000 hectares were planted with sugar beet, the pumping even led to water shortages.
“If subsidy system is better organized, I’m convinced that the government can pay 30% less in subsidies, while the farmers make the same,” says Kazoun. “The problem is, that the government only looks at price and profit. Last year, it claimed that selling sugar beet for animal fodder was better than selling it to the factory to produce sugar. What they didn’t say, is that as a consequence the price for hay decreased.”
According to Kazoun, another misconception surrounds wheat, which the government also wants to stop subsidizing. This may sense from an economic point of view, as it is cheaper to import, but the farmer will point to the fact that wheat is a winter crop and so, unlike a summer crop such as sugar beet, cannot easily be replaced by another. “If the land is not used in winter,” said Kazoun, “it will affect soil fertility, which will lead to an increase in the use of pesticides the next summer.”
Mohamed Mais, Director of the Sugar Beet Cooperation, could not agree more. “Price cannot be the only factor in determining what to grow,” he said. “There are socio-political factors involved as well. American farmers cannot grow cotton without state support. Europe cannot grow anything without aid. The same is true for the Bekaa. If price is the only factor to take into consideration, what are you going to do with all the farmers? How can they live?”
Last summer was particularly bad after the Syrian border blockade. “Summer is traditionally top season for farmers,” said Mais. “In July and August, they produce among other things some 2000 tons of potatoes a day, some 100 to 200 tons of onions, and some 500 tons of other vegetables. As Syria closed its borders, most of that just rotted away.”
Both Kazoun and Mais believe that if the subsidies were to disappear, there would be no alternative for farmers than to return to growing hashish. And, if price and profit are the only factors to take into consideration, why not? Hashish is easier to grow, does not need water, and is much more lucrative.