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Tunisia: “government’s approach is a real disaster for agriculture,” says president of UTAP

In an exclusive interview with African Manager, President of the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP), Abdelmajid Zar was pessimistic about the future of the sector, which was not considered strategic and to the extent that government decisions have not been materialized in terms of grants and procedures.

He said a national dialogue will soon be organized to develop a new strategy to promote the sector, thus calling on the media to play their role to save the already threatened sector.

Interview:

Can you assess the agricultural season for the year 2014/2015?

 This season remains the most difficult and this in comparison with previous seasons, since the agricultural sector has faced several shocks beginning with floods, drought, abundant supply, until collapse of the market.

These conditions have caused quite huge post-harvest losses, which rate is estimated at 30%. These losses are estimated at 450 million dinars, of which 350 million dinars of losses caused by drought.

The situation remains worrying, despite our calls and the alarm bells drawn repeatedly by EU and stakeholders, not to mention the impact of last June’s terrorist attack in Sousse.

That is why we decided to hold a press conference next Wednesday, to take stock of the season and highlight all problems faced.

Problems have already driven the farmer in a spiral while the measures taken by the government only exacerbate the situation… In fact, the decision to reschedule the debt only increases the interest rate which varies in the agriculture sector between 9 and 12%, even up to 18 and 20%.

In my view, the resort to this approach is a proof of exclusion of a number of farmers from the circle of financing, given that only 6 to 7% of farmers have the ability to benefit from funding.

Therefore, this approach aims to affect agricultural investment and more specifically the promotion of the sector in terms of acquisition of new technologies while also targeting productivity and profitability in this vital field.

Successive governments since the fall of Ben Ali have tried to solve the problem by deciding to reschedule the debts of a certain category of farmers. What do you think?

It is true that the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) had, in 2013, exempted farmers from debts under 5,000 TD, but nothing has been done to this day with the exception of the measure taken during the development of the draft finance law of 2016 stipulating the cancellation of farmers’ debt (less than 3,000 dinars).

I think the efforts of the government at the level of farmers’ indebtedness are just media propaganda in relation to the volume of difficulties faced by this group.

A question arises at this level: debt cancellation (less than 3000 dinars) for farmers, it is a new measure or the implementation of the one taken in 2013?

For the debt rescheduling, it is not an adequate solution to all the problems of farmers, but it is simply soothing…

But the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries announced the automatic erasure 160 million Tunisian dinars (MTD) of debt, benefiting 54,000 farmers and fishermen?

It is a simple measure, and it will not solve all the problems all the more it does not concern all farmers. However, it is important to remember that the number of indebted farmers has reached 110,000, whose debt volume amounted to about 2,000 million dinars.

What is your position compared to the government’s performance in managing the agricultural issue?

The government, in my opinion, did not materialize its position by considering agriculture as a strategic sector. Moreover, the finance bill and the investment code have not translated this will.

The finance bill, for example, has not strengthened the sector, and it has not reflected the will of the authorities in place to raise the industry to a higher level. It has not met the expectations of farmers who continue to suffer due to natural and climatic changes.

How would you approach this?

The approach adopted by the government is a real disaster for the agricultural sector.

What are your solutions in order to remedy this situation, considered very critical?

We have introduced a whole project in this direction. But the government did not even provide an effort to consider it.

Several proposals were made in that project such as the extension of seasonal credits so that farmers start the new season by adopting new technologies.

What is the role of the UTAP in this process?

In the absence of a clear strategy and with the 2015-2020 five-year plan which, in my opinion, does not meet the expectations of farmers, it was decided to soon organize a national dialogue to develop a new agricultural strategy .

Moreover, the steering committee of the dialogue held its first meeting on November 19.

This dialogue aims at identifying the sector’s orientations while positioning it in the national economy without determining the outcome in advance.

This dialogue will be objective and scientific.

The event will be attended by the supervising ministry, UTAP, the National Institute for Strategic Studies, the Center for Research and Economic and Social Studies, the National Institute of Statistics and various other stakeholders involved.

What are the main lines of the new strategy?

We think everything needs review, because, there are no specific criteria. The main thing for us is to adopt a participatory approach by inviting all the components of civil society to address agricultural issues and making farmers actors rather than mere performers.

What about the next agricultural season?

We are pessimistic given the existence of many problems. These include the lack of rain, the issue of seasonal loans without forgetting the problems faced in many sectors such as dates where the government has not kept its promises in terms of buffer stock. Add to this the collapse of prices in the olive oil sector and worries regarding the citrus sector.

Besides these problems, UTAP is concerned about tomatoes because of the abundance of supply. In this context, we do not yet know if we will plant tomatoes, including those intended for processing. For the current tomato stock is estimated at 145,000 tonnes, while the average consumption is between 60 and 70 thousand tons.

What to do?

It’s time to find adequate solutions by encouraging for example exports and by opening up new permanent markets.

Other measures are still more important than ever. It’s time, for instance, to oblige manufacturers to use the drying tool to solve the problem of abundant supply.

Similarly, a collective consciousness remains essential to change the mind and face it… For, if we are not able to respond appropriately, the production system will certainly be compromised.

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