Lebanon’s agricultural exports decreased by 19% in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period in 2010. This is according to the semi-annual report released by the Lebanese Farmers Association (LFA), which stresses the “need for the government’s intervention in finding an alternative to the road-transport line, and establish and finance a ferry-service line between Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan [and Saudi Arabia].”
Anthony al-Howayik, president of the LFA, attributes the decrease in exports to the security situation in Syria, which occasionally results in the closure of border crossings. This is in addition to the increase in the cost of shipping between Lebanon and the Arab Gulf countries from $2,500 to $5,000 per container. He believes that the maritime line between Beirut and the Turkish port of Mersin is not suitable for the transfer of many agricultural products, with the exception of potatoes.
Howayik confirms that vegetables and fruit will be damaged if transported by sea due to the long travel time from Lebanon to the destination. He is also skeptical of the plan that is being drafted by the committee, which was appointed by the economic minister to assess the obstacles facing the operation of maritime transportation. Howayik said that if this had been a feasible plan, the maritime-transport companies would have adopted it a long time ago.
For his part, Nabil Itani, chairman of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) told As-Safir that maritime transport, which is basically between Beirut and Turkey, ensures exportation to Europe and not the Arab Gulf states. Lebanon needs a maritime shipping route for the giant steamships that transport refrigerated containers to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Doha, Qatar within three to four days. This is why the concerned Lebanese authorities conducted consultations with the Turkish maritime authorities to secure the export of Lebanese products.
Abdel Hafeez al-Qaissi, director-general of Land and Maritime Transport, told As-Safir that negotiations with the Turkish maritime authorities led to positive outcomes that benefit Lebanon. Due to the success of the negotiations, Lebanese exporters are now exempted from paying between $700 to $800 for each ship or container whether by sea or land.
Qaissi added, “We are preparing to export apples soon. They will be shipped from the Lebanese ports to Egypt through Port Said. We seek to formulate a comprehensive plan to export different Lebanese products, not only agricultural products.”
Decline in agricultural exports
The LFA’s report stated that agricultural exports during the first six months of 2010 reached 224,000 tons. The number declined in 2011 and reached 196,000 tons, or a decline of 12.5%, and further declined to 182,000 tons in 2012.
Comparing this year to 2010, Lebanon exported 27% less this January than it did in January 2010. In February it was a 30% drop, followed by a 18.5% decrease in March. The percentage stabilized in April and then declined again in May by 21% and by 19% in June.
The percentage of export activities according to product showed that potato exports fell by 52% in the first half of 2012 as compared to 2010. While the export of citrus products tumbled by 27%, and apples by 19%, bananas tumbled by 14% after banana exports dropped by 36% in 2011, compared to 2010.
Moreover, an increase was recorded in the export of apricots, cherries and almonds by 15% compared to 2010, after it had decreased by 42% in 2011 compared to 2010. 2012 witnessed a 5% increase in the export of lettuce, and Lebanon recorded two and a half times the volume of onion and garlic exports from 2,300 tons in 2010 to 6,100 tons in 2012.
Launching maritime transport
The committee, which was formed following the meeting held early last week in the Ministry of Agriculture, held a meeting yesterday [August 7] at the headquarters of the Directorate-General of Land and Maritime Transport. The meeting discussed maritime shipping routes that could be used by transport companies and identified the costs of each transport option. They also highlighted the available maritime routes so as to determine the best one available. This will guarantee the transport of Lebanese agricultural products at the lowest possible cost, by the best route and in the least amount of time.
After assessing the different options, the participants of the meeting affirmed that shipment in refrigerated containers is the best way to transport agricultural products by sea since that does not require the securing of a specific number of containers. Furthermore, the ships that belong to the maritime-shipping companies present at the Port of Beirut can carry large amounts of agricultural products in these refrigerated containers. Each ship will operate every 36 hours to different ports in Arab and regional countries.
During the meeting, representatives of maritime-shipping companies and maritime-navigation companies said that they were ready to provide facilities in order to guarantee that the agricultural products are successfully shipped abroad. They noted that the facilities they provide do not include the cost of transporting the containers filled with the products from the storehouses to the Port of Beirut, and also do not include the cost of the trip from the second port to the final destination. The cost varies between $500, $1,000 and $3,600 for one container to the Arab Gulf countries, Egypt and Libya, including ports in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Jeddah, Port Said, Benghazi and Aqaba.
The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation made efforts to ensure the best way to export the agricultural products after the process of exporting by land was disrupted by the situation in Syria. Minister of Agriculture Hussein Hajj Hassan told As-Safir that according to Qaissi, Lebanon was able to ship 200 refrigerated containers of potatoes from the Port of Beirut, and that the government is ready to deal with any obstacle that faces the export industry.