Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

The farmers’ fight

Representing more than half the country’s population, writes Mona El-Fiqi, Egypt’s farmers say that the government has been ignoring them for years

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s farmers, backed by agricultural experts, are complaining that both the current government and previous ones have done nothing to alleviate their hardship, despite promises that steps would be taken to improve farmers’ living standards and find solutions to their problems.

These promises have been just words, the farmers say. “Officials are good at making announcements about good news for farmers, but in fact the country’s farmers are now living through the worst days they can remember,” said Ahmed Ismail, a farmer from Daqahliya governorate.

Ismail blamed the government for not implementing the decisions it has taken and that have been announced to the public by officials. On 11 September, in an address to farmers on Farmer’s Day, President Mohamed Morsi announced that all farming debts less than LE10,000 would be cancelled and urged the Bank of Development and Agricultural Credit (BDAC) to swiftly implement the decision.

Morsi also said that the government was looking into cases of farmers whose debts were greater than LE10,000. However, according to Ismail, the farmers “have not seen a penny of the money since”.

The farmers were optimistic when it was announced that the government was considering providing them with soft loans in amounts depending on the amount of land they possessed.

However, Ismail told Al-Ahram Weekly that no such loans had materialised, and due to a lack of liquidity they had been obliged to take out loans from the BDAC at high rates of interest ranging from 15 to 20 per cent.

These rates also depended on the farmers providing collateral in the shape of their land or other property. “Although we hate taking out loans because they are heavy burdens on our budgets, we have no choice in the matter,” Ismail added.

Ismail said that farmers typically had to complete long and complicated procedures before receiving loans, in addition to paying two per cent administrative fees.

Another problem faced by farmers is the spread of diseases among livestock, particularly over recent years. According to Ismail, the government was to blame. “Last year, I lost two of my cows after they were infected with fever. They died because the government was not keen to take the responsibility to vaccinate cattle,” he said.

Farmers also suffer from other problems, such as difficulties in receiving their quotas of subsidised fertilisers from the agricultural cooperatives. There is always a shortage of such fertilisers, farmers say, with the quotas supposedly distributed according to the amount a farmer owns and made available through agricultural cooperatives in the different governorates.

Subsidised fertilisers are not available all the time, which is a concern because they must be used at specific dates. Mohamed Abdel-Kader, a farmer in Daqahliya governorate, said that “we do not usually find subsidised fertilisers at LE75 for 50 kilos, so we are obliged to buy them at market prices. Yesterday, I bought a bag of unsubsidised fertiliser at LE150 — double the price of the subsidised version.”

Experts attributed the shortage of fertilisers to private companies producing fertilisers that they prefer to export at higher prices than sell on local markets at lower ones, thus creating a shortage in supply.

Abdel-Kader also said that the official quota of subsidised fertiliser of two bags per feddan was not sufficient. The amount of fertiliser used depended on the crop being grown, he said, adding that for growing wheat five bags of fertiliser are needed, not two.

A further problem facing farmers is the transition to solar power for irrigation machines. This has not been implemented everywhere, and meanwhile there has been a shortage of oil over the past two years.

The farmers’ problems do not end when they succeed in getting hold of the necessary materials, including seeds and fertilisers. Problems also appear after harvesting the crops, because the farmers are often not able to sell their crops at a suitable profit.

Marketing agricultural products, particularly strategic crops such as cotton, wheat and rice, can be a problem. The farmers have to sell these crops at less than international prices, even though they often have to pay high prices for seeds and fertilisers.

In an attempt to support the farmers, the president has announced that the minimum rice delivery price this year will be not less than LE2,000 a tonne. The minister of agriculture has also said that the indicative price for cotton — the price paid by local mills to farmers — will be set at LE1,000 per qantar in the Upper Egypt governorates (Giza 80 and Giza 90) and LE1,100 per qantar for cotton produced in the Delta (Giza 86).

The minister has advised farmers not to sell their cotton crops at low prices at the beginning of the season, since prices are expected to rise to LE1,500 per qantar later.

According to Abdel-Kader, “we are currently selling rice at LE1,600 per tonne.” When he complained to buyers that the president had announced a higher price of LE2,000 per tonne, he was told “so let the president buy your rice.”

Nasr Al-Qazzaz, a professor of agricultural economics at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said that cotton was being kept in storage unsold since mills had refused to buy it due to financial problems. “The government should intervene to guarantee help from the banks in marketing the cotton crop,” he said.

One reason for the farmers’ growing problems was a lack of communication between the government and the farmers, Al-Qazzaz said, adding that officials often gave instructions to employees at offices without checking the implementation on the ground themselves.

Experts say that although Egypt’s farmers represent a vital sector of the economy and a significant proportion of the labour force, they have been ignored by successive governments for years.

The government should pay more attention to the country’s farmers, Al-Qazzaz said, rather than simply restricting their freedom by preventing them from marketing crops such as rice on international markets by banning rice exports for years.

According to Al-Qazzaz, the reason why farmers are having to pay more for seeds is because the government has started to give up producing seeds itself, leaving this to the private sector. Corn seed is now in the hands of the private sector, which is motivated by profit and sells seed at LE300, a non-affordable price for farmers.

“As a result, the farmers prefer to use old seed instead, leading to lower productivity.”

To lighten the burdens on farmers, Al-Qazzaz said the government should provide financial facilities for farmers to buy fertiliser and seeds at suitable times since sometimes they do not have sufficient liquidity to do so.

This long list of farmers’ problems has been reflected in the performance of Egypt’s agricultural sector, making its contribution to total GDP less than it should have been over the past few years.

In 2006/2007, agriculture represented 6.5 per cent of GDP and in 2009/2010 it was 9.2 per cent, compared to the industrial sector which contributed 13 and 20 per cent during the same period.

In 2010/2011, the agricultural sector’s share in GDP was up to 18 per cent, but experts say that the reason behind this increase was not greater productivity in agriculture but deterioration in other sectors of the economy, including industry, following the 25 January Revolution.

The government has announced that it wants to increase investment in the agricultural sector from LE5.1 billion in 2011/2012 to 12.4 billion in 2012/2013. According to the plans, it intends to develop productivity by increasing cultivated land from 15.3 million feddans to 23 million feddans.

Commenting on the government plans, Al-Qazzaz said that though they were sensible in theory, in practice they would be difficult to apply given the financial and other problems the country is suffering.

The plans aim to add 1.2 million feddans of cultivated land by 2017, reaching an additional 3.4 million feddans by 2022.

Ali Abdel-Rahman, a professor of agricultural economics at the Agricultural Research Institute, told the Weekly that the plans could not be achieved given the water shortages facing the country.

Egypt’s annual quota of River Nile water is 55 billion cubic metres, of which 48 to 50 billion is used in cultivating the current area of some eight million feddans.

“The annual quota of each citizen in Egypt stands at 600 cubic metres, which is not in accordance with international specifications that give 1,000 cubic metres to each citizen. In Congo, the quota is 14,600 cubic metres, for example,” Abdel-Rahman said.

According to international guidelines, if people receive less than 1,000 cubic metres, they are considered to be living under the water poverty line. “Since Egypt’s total population is now almost 90 million, we need 90 billion cubic metres of water, but we currently get 55 billion. As a result, any plan to increase cultivated land is a mistake, and it has been one made by all the country’s governments over the past 60 years,” Abdel-Rahman commented.

“The government should not make fun of people by coming up with such plans. It would be better if it planned to increase agricultural production by cultivating land in African countries. The other choice would be to start to negotiate with the River Nile Basin countries in order to increase Egypt’s quota of water, which would help to increase the amount of cultivated land.”

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