Lebanese farmers are seeking alternative routes for their goods as violence in Syria led to the temporary closure of land-based shipping routes.
In July, border crossings were abruptly closed for four days, causing disruption in goods transport and loss of contact with trucks that crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border toward Jordan and the Gulf. Lebanese officials estimated the losses at $1.5 million a day and 1,500 tons of unsold agricultural products.
Lebanon exports more than half of its produce to the Gulf by land, and Lebanese farmers and producers are concerned that the border could be closed permanently.
They are appealing to the government to secure a shipping route from Beirut to Egypt or the Port of Aqaba in Jordan, where goods can be transported to Gulf countries.
Tohmeh Madi, a Lebanese farmer, said it is important to find an alternative for local producers.
"As a seasonal farmer, I rely on exporting the fruit I grow so I can live off it and continue farming," he said.
Madi owns a large plot of land in Khreizat in West Bekaa cultivated in various types of fruit trees, such as pears, plums and peaches. Working with a middleman he has 10 tons ready for export, but is unsure what will happen because of the uncertainty with shipping routes.
He began selling some of his produce in boxes on roadsides as other Bekaa Valley farmers do, but he said he cannot earn enough by selling locally.
"I rely heavily on exporting my produce to live, which is why the state should find a solution for thousands of farmers like me," Madi said.
Lebanon's minister of agriculture Hussein al-Hajj Hassan said in a press statement on July 23rd that the ministry is working diligently to address the problems and obstacles facing the country's agricultural exports.
He said it is important to explore a permanent maritime trade route for Lebanon, and not only because of the current events in Syria.
In a meeting with officials from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Hassan discussed maritime transport methods for Lebanese products, including transporting goods via refrigerated containers and transporting refrigerated trucks by ship.
The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport are considering joining the Turkish maritime route known as Ro-Ro to transport Lebanese exports to Port Said and Alexandria in Egypt. The Turkish vessels transport wheeled cargo, such as automobiles, trucks and trailers.
Ibrahim Tarchichi, chairman of the Bekaa Valley Farmer's Association, said 2,500 tons of fruits and vegetables are produced daily in Lebanon. Approximately 1,000 tons are sold locally while the remainder is transported to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries through Syria, the only land route, he said.
"Today we face a problem exporting by land because of events that cause this route to close every now and then. In the past, 60 trucks left every day, but the figure is now at 20 to 30 trucks," Tarchichi said.
"There are also additional costs on each truck, paid by the importer who bought the produce from the farmer," he added.
Maritime transport is becoming more important, even though it is also more expensive, Tarchichi said.
"We would like to avoid additional losses after our sector incurred such heavy losses," he said. "Lebanon lost $1.5 million a day because of the border closure."
The Lebanese Farmer's Association showed in its semi-annual report that the volume of agricultural exports fell 19% in the first half of 2012 compared to the same period in 2010.
According to the report, agricultural exports in Lebanon reached 224,000 tons during the first half of 2010, dropped to 196,000 tons in 2011 and fell to 182,000 tons in 2012.
Antoine al-Howayek, chairman of the Lebanon Farmer's Association, said, "The only solution for us to export our agricultural produce is to adopt the use of a maritime route to transport trucks and securing a bi-weekly route from Beirut to Egypt or to the Port of Aqaba in Jordan."
"From there, the trucks will make their way by land to Iraq and the Gulf market," he said.
Al-Howayek said agricultural produce is still shipped by land but with a smaller number of trucks because the cost per shipment increased from $2,500 to $7,000.
There is a need for the government "to facilitate the export of agricultural products by sea through the purchase of two cargo vessels to transport refrigerated trucks and by opening a new maritime route that can stabilise agricultural exports", he said.