Work on modernising the Ghazieh tobacco factory began over the weekend with technicians and engineers from the tobacco and tambac Régie beginning the process of removing 40-year-old equipment to make way for new machinery to be installed next month.
The new equipment, which is worth $700,000, was provided by British American Tobacco
as part of an initiative from the finance ministry to improve the viability of local tobacco production.
Expected to arrive through the port of Sidon on February 15, the new equipment will be operational within two months, when the factory will start sorting the region’s 1997 tobacco harvest.
The new machines can sort 25,000kg of tobacco daily, compared to the former capacity of 6,000kg a day.
The equipment is expected to speed up the sorting process, reduce labour costs and cut working hours. It will also be able to produce cleaner tobacco and cut wastage, which accounted for 18 per cent of tobacco under the old system.
Ali Zein Srour, Régie director for the south and Mount Lebanon, explained that the finance ministry had allowed the Régie, for this year only, to buy 1m kg of excess tobacco from farmers without tobacco-planting licences.
He said the gesture was aimed at supporting farmers suffering from the Israeli occupation and encouraging farmers to remain in their occupied villages.
Srour added that tobacco exports accounted for 80 per cent of the local crop because of the inability of the local factories to process more.
Plans were under way, he continued, for a comprehensive industrial project to further encourage local production.
Meanwhile, Régie director-general Nassif Seqlawi declared yesterday that the government had agreed to increase the ceiling for each farmer’s production capacity from 250kg to 300kg in the Bekaa.
As for the new equipment, Seqlawi said the grant from BAT would enable the Régie
to sort the harvest in less than 100 days. The process used to take the whole year, he said.
The director-general also announced that the Philip Morris company had agreed to offer a similar grant for the Haddath tobacco factory after the Régie offered to provide the factory and required exemptions from customs duties.
Six evaluation committees were designated by the Régie to sort the 1997 harvest in the south. Four border the occupied zone in Nabatieh, Qana, Tibnine and Sowaneh and two are inside the zone, at Ita al-Shaab-Raiche and Aitaroun-Ita al-Jabal.
In an attempt to encourage production, committees in the south are to buy tobacco at prices ranging from LL13,500 per kg for premium quality tobacco to LL12,100 for medium quality.
Tobacco farmers have complained about the Régie’s offers, pointing out that 1kg of tobacco can cost more than LL8,000 to produce.
The farmers have also asked the agriculture ministry to buy the harvests that may become spoiled as a result of Israeli attacks and called on government officials to grant farmers medical insurance.
There are 14,000 tobacco farmers in Lebanon, of whom 6,000 are in the occupied zone.
Some economists and agricultural experts have criticised the subsidy to tobacco, saying the government should concentrate on encouraging high-value crops such as tropical fruits.
The south’s 50,000 dunums planted with tobacco produce 5m kg of tobacco a year, making the crop one of the main sources of income for many in the region. The sector has also rebounded from a crisis which saw only 5,000 dunums planted in 1992.