By Atom Markarian and Hrach Melkumian
Hundreds of Armenian farmers and agribusiness owners joined experts from 27 countries for an international conference on ways of boosting Armenia’s struggling agriculture which began its work in Yerevan on Thursday.
The opening session of the three-day forum was attended by senior Armenian officials and representatives of Western donor agencies and other international institutions. The latter pledged continued assistance to the sector which generates at least 20 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
“The sector is extremely labor intensive, employing approximately 40 percent of the labor force,” said Liz Grande, the head of the United Nations mission in Yerevan. She described that fact as cause for concern, saying that the low-income Armenian farmers can hardly boost their productivity without obtaining machines and other equipment.
According to Zareh Izmirlian of the U.S.-Armenian Technology Group, Armenian agriculture can not be competitive without such equipment. “Our overall impression is that Armenian agriculture is not competitive at the moment,” he told RFE/RL.
Donna Dowsett-Coirolo, the World Bank director for the South Caucasus, also stressed the sector’s importance for Armenia’s economic development and said the bank will continue to finance the Armenian government’s irrigation and rural infrastructure projects. “Looking ahead to the next few years, we certainly expect to continue the strong emphasis on the development of rural areas in our overall support to Armenia,” she told about 500 participants of the conference.
The conference was timed to coincide with an exhibition of various agricultural products by some 60 Armenian firms. Their owners cited a wide range of problems hampering a further growth of the sector that has expanded considerably since the late 1990s.
Vanik Soghomonian, president of a farmers association, alleged unfair competition on the part of large-scale food importers. “Few of the food products imported to Armenia are of high quality,” he said. “A few businessmen get rich, put people’s lives at risk and stop economic development.”
But other commercial farmers had different concerns. Georgi Baghdasarian, a cheese-maker from the northwestern region of Ashotsk, complained about a lack of access to cheap credit. “My biggest problem today is a lack of cash to buy more milk from villagers,” he said.
The main preoccupation of Silva Aghajanian, deputy director of the Atenk meat processing firm, is to find export markets. She said the Yerevan-based company has received little assistance from the government in finding foreign partners and marketing its products abroad.
The cannery in the southern town of Artashat run by Vachagan Karapetian has managed to do that without government assistance, shipping 90 percent of its output abroad, mostly to Russia and other ex-Soviet states. He complained about high transportation costs that have been stymieing Armenian exports.
“The cost of our products sold abroad goes up a lot because of the transportation problems,” Karapetian said. “What makes us somehow competitive is only their quality.”
That is less of a problem for the Arzni poultry factory north of Yerevan. Its main export market is neighboring Georgia where it sells 10 million eggs a year or about 10 percent of its annual output. The company’s commercial director, Armen Alaverdian, is also largely satisfied with Armenia’s tax legislation.
But another agribusiness executive, Lyudmila Hovannisian, disagreed. “The tax legislation must be revised a bit because agriculture is a risky business in Armenia,” she said.