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Last Updated: Monday, 13 March 2006, 23:57 GMT
Bird flu fears rattle Lebanese farmers
By Neil Heathcote
BBC World, Middle East Business Report, in Lebanon

Egg far in Lebanon
Lebanon's poultry farmers are feeling the squeeze from bird flu
Over the past few months, many of Lebanon's small poultry farmers have been forced to close down.

Demand for chicken and eggs has slumped and prices have more than halved - even though no cases of bird flu have been reported in the country.

Exports to the Gulf ground to a halt and local shoppers stayed away.

All without a single case of bird flu being confirmed in the country - the problems began when Turkey reported its first case of the virus.

"We've had to pay the price of bird flu without having it," says Samir Freiji, of Freiji Agri Business.

He blames the media: "Every day you watch it on TV. Every cat that dies in China is reported. Every falcon that dies in Saudi Arabia is reported. A chicken dies in Germany, it's reported.

"So really, they are continuously reminding people of the problem."

Empty farms

Bekaa valley is home to many of the country's egg producers and poultry farmers.

Lock on Lebanese chicken farm
Many farms have simply shut down
But scattered around the valley these days you'll find farms that were once full of poultry, and now lie empty.

Small farmers have been particularly hard hit, often stopping production with no guarantee they'll find the money to start up again.

"I started with my own money. But now I'm in debt," says Fadi Jamal Eldine.

He's farmed poultry for 23 years. At one point you'd find 60,000 chickens in his sheds - now they lie empty.

"People aren't asking for me to pay them back, because they're hoping the government will step in. But if people think there'll be no compensation, I'll go to jail."

Financial problems

But the government has little money to spare.

It has major political problems to deal with, an economy to sort out and a potential health scare on its hands if bird flu ever does appear in the country.

I think the government is willing to help more ... but it's a modest contribution towards adjusting the market
Mohammed Farran, government adviser

As a result, aid to small farmers is not high on its list.

Besides, many farmers have already killed thousands of their hens, rather than paying to feed them when prices are so low.

The government is now offering around $1 to egg farmers for every laying hen they kill.

Those who have already reduced their flocks may not qualify for compensation, as the numbers weren't verified.

Mohammed Farran advises the minister over how to respond to bird flu.

Limited help

But, there are limits to what the government can afford, he says.

"I think the government is willing to help more, but unfortunately, what with the current circumstances in the country and the current economical problems in the country and all these things... it's a modest contribution towards adjusting the market."

Chicken factory in Lebanon
Survival of the fittest is a rule that is going to take its normal course
Musa Freiji, Tanmia

The total compensation bill would be less than a million dollars and only egg producers would qualify.

Farmers who raise chickens for their meat will get nothing, even thought the industry calculates its overall losses so far at $25m.

"$25m compared to the $40bn they owe the banks and other nations is really minute, if it's going to save an industry that is worth $350m and that employs 10,000 people," says the head of Tanmia Agricultural Development, Musa Freiji.

'Survival of fittest'

Tanmia is one of the country's largest producers. It invested $40m after the civil war to help get the country's poultry industry back on its feet.

Now it finds itself selling chickens below cost.

"Survival of the fittest is a rule that is going to take its normal course," says Tanmia's Mr Freiji.

"If they really want to keep this industry alive in this country, definitely there should be a degree of compensation. Not full compensation, but just enough to allow them to start all over again, especially those that have stopped."

All this in a country that doesn't even have bird flu.

In time, the industry hopes consumer fears will ease and they will start buying again. Major producers can afford to hang on until that happens.

But if bird flu does appear in the country, that recovery will take far longer. And the risk for many small farmers is that it'll come far too late for them to save their livelihoods.

BBC World's Middle East Business Report can be seen each Saturday at 0430 GMT, 1030 GMT,1730 GMT and 2230 GMT.

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