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Agriculture minister takes grounded approach to reform

GHOBEIRI, Lebanon: Hussein Hajj Hassan doesn’t like to give long answers about the state of agriculture in Lebanon, or about his performance as agriculture minister.

It’s the end of working hours at the ministry, and Hajj Hassan is engaged in a prodigious bout of multi-tasking, as he sits for an interview, arranges paperwork, makes telephone calls and conducts last-minute consultations with his staff, who are clearing their plates of errands and questions that have accumulated during the day.

Hajj Hassan is an MP for Baalbek-Hermel, from the village of Hawsh al-Nabi, and received his master’s and doctorate in chemistry and physics from French universities.

He became a first-time minister in November, in Premier  Saad Hariri’s Cabinet, and represents a party, Hizbullah, with a significant base of support in rural areas like south Lebanon and the Bekaa, where farming is a significant part of the economy.

Hajj Hassan has produced a four-year plan for agriculture, and his approach can be described as “ground-up,” and multi-faceted, like his multi-tasking office manner.

The 41-page “Revival Strategy for the Agriculture Sector: 2010-2014” lists the perennial problems faced by a sector that employs 20 to 30 percent of the work force, but produces only 6 percent of GDP.

The familiar culprits are there, such as: a lack of agricultural extension offices to guide farmers’ cultivation choices; the lack of labeling, quality control and state oversight; weak access by farmers to credit from banks; the excessive and chaotic use of pesticides; and the sector’s high-production costs.

More than eight months into the job, Hajj Hassan can now claim some achievements, based on his plan. He began his tenure with a campaign against lax state oversight, and outright corruption; this spread from employees at the ministry to the Customs Authority at the Port of Beirut, where he has disclosed rampant illegalities involving imports of both pesticides and foodstuffs.

To address the financing and credit problem, the minister announced last month that he had concluded a written agreement with Fransabank to provide soft loans to farmers: amounts of up to LL25 million at 5 percent interest.

Currently, an estimated 3-4 percent of farmers have access to private loans and the minister’s goal is to see this rise figure to 30-40 percent.

“We’re in talks with other banks,” Hajj Hassan says. “We can expect similar announcements in the near future.”

Other achievements include the beginning of a labeling, or “traceability,” program for produce, which is now in a voluntary test period. It’s scheduled to begin in earnest next year, when farmers will be obliged to register and label their produce, whether they’re destined for local or foreign markets.

In addition, Hajj Hassan won the Cabinet’s approval to hire  73 agricultural engineers to staff agricultural extension offices, a long-neglected part of the bureaucracy.

The budget for the Agriculture Ministry is on the rise, as it doubled between 2009 and 2010, and Hajj Hassan claims that while the food-safety issue isn’t perfect, it is improving.

Hajj Hassan sends out an upbeat message: for the first time in the country’s history, senior leaders have endorsed taking steps to revive agriculture, traditionally neglected in favor of banking, services and tourism. The employment of agricultural engineers and the rising ministry budget are evidence of the change in attitude, he says.

But Hajj Hassan is downbeat about the prospects for seeing some key planks of his program implemented, such as the passing of more than a dozen draft laws he believes are needed for a revival, because of an unidentified, recent political obstacle.

“I’ve been working on it, and I’ll get results in the end,” the minister says, declining to say who is at fault.

But for the most part, Hajj Hassan isn’t interested in providing a wealth of detail about his objectives and achievements. He indicates his preferences with several pithy comments.

He rejects the notion that drug farmers in the northern Bekaa Valley need “alternative crops programs.” These are shorthand for Western and internationally funded programs that distribute a high-value replacement crop. However, the effort fades due to the lack of follow-up or supporting infrastructure to allow the crops to take off commercially.

“There is no such thing as an ‘alternative crops policy’ – there’s an agricultural policy,” he says. “That’s what we need.”

Asked whether his policies are forward-looking enough, since he doesn’t appear particularly disturbed by the cultivation of low-value crops like potatoes and tomatoes, Hajj Hassan is dismissive.

“We’ve seen a lot of studies. The UNDP came over here and we discussed things, over there,” he points to his couch.

The minister believes that no “magic” high-value crop solution exists at present, saying he wants to see the evidence first, in the form of detailed and convincing feasibility studies.

“They told us about hemp, they told us about sunflowers … all of these crops require infrastructure, and agriculture policies,” he says, signaling his focus on building the agriculture sector from the ground up, before trying to guide production choices.

While the minister’s plan appears to make sense, a smooth interview about the political as well as economic and technical aspects of Lebanese agriculture is not to be.

The discussion is consistently interrupted by incoming and outgoing phone calls, as well as last-minute instructions to the staff, who hover around his desk.

A number of Hajj Hassan’s answers are short and to the point, just before he begins a phone call, or after he ends one.

“What’s happened with the ministry employees you’ve accused of corruption?”

“I’ve sent along the paperwork.”

“And has the judiciary done anything?”

“I don’t think so, but that’s not my job, I did my part.”

“Do you think crop insurance for farmers is a good idea?”

“There is no crop insurance. It doesn’t exist.”

In a recent magazine interview, a farmers’ union president said Hajj Hassan “doesn’t want to anger anyone,” meaning that he won’t be able to achieve reform, or take on the sector’s vested interests.

“I don’t respond to such things … He said I don’t want to make anyone angry? No … I won’t respond to such things.”

Asked about the identity of the vested interests, Hajj Hassan said “no one is against reform, but certain people have their interests.”

The problem with the last few decades of Lebanese agriculture?

“Chaos.”

Earlier policies?

“No one was doing anything. Nothing was being done.”

One question that piques a momentary bit of interest is about how much he now knows about the sector, after having served for years as the chairman of Parliament’s Agriculture Committee.

“Three – no, four times more, now that I’m minister,” he says, seemingly agitated at the gap in knowledge.

Asked about the biggest negative point during his tenure, he complains about the lack of time. He repeats the word a few times, as if the situation should be obvious.

It is, since at one point in the discussion, Hajj Hassan effortlessly moves from being an interviewee into being the chairman of a meeting, as two employees appear in front of his desk to conduct a quick coordinating session.

Hajj Hassan jots down the outlines on a piece of paper. He lists four villages in Baalbek-Hermel, then details the total numbers of fruit trees and farmers responsible for them.

Then, a discussion of the contracts and arrangements that he wants to see implemented to ensure that the farmers receive the resources they need.

When the employees misunderstand the exact measure to be taken, Hajj Hassan tells them to realize that he wants something different, and apparently more comprehensive.

“No, no, listen to what I’m saying,” Hajj Hassan says. “I’m going to completely change these people’s lives … ”

The minister’s policies might seem commonsensical and uninspiring, but he appears to believe that they’re going to have an impact.

 

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