Farmers in southern Armenia hit hard by a severe hailstorm will be exempted from land tax and irrigation fees and have their debts to commercial banks rescheduled, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said on Thursday, unveiling an aid package approved by his cabinet.
The government announced a set of measures to support thousands of farmers in the Armavir province after estimating the overall damage caused by the May 12 hailstorm at 25 billion drams ($60 million). The calamity affected 46 villages situated in the fruit-growing Ararat Valley. In 22 of them, crops such as grapes, apricots and various vegetables were completely destroyed, it was announced during a cabinet meeting chaired by Sarkisian.
Sarkisian said that all 22 communities will not have to pay agricultural land tax and make irrigation payments this year. Farmers in the 24 other villages will be partly exempt from those payments. The scale of the exemptions will depend on the losses incurred by them, he said.
The premier went on to announce that commercial banks have agreed to reschedule repayment of their loans extended to the affected farmers. This will be done on a case-by-case basis, he said.
“The amounts of loans are different and so are the repayment periods and collaterals,” explained Sarkisian. “Everyone will certainly get assistance from commercial banks as a result of individual negotiations.”
The outstanding loans are a key source of the farmers’ concerns. Many of them say that they will have no income to repay them.
Sarkisian also said that the farmers who suffered particularly large losses will be eligible for poverty benefits paid to tens of thousands of socially vulnerable Armenian families.
The government approved the aid package the day after Sarkisian visited Armavir to inspect some of the affected communities and hold a meeting in the provincial administration. The premier claimed that farmers present at the meeting reacted positively to the measures announced by him.
Hundreds of farmers have held a series of demonstrations since May 12 to demand that the government fully and financially compensate them for the hail damage. Regional and central government officials have ruled out direct financial compensation, however.
Sarkisian implied that farmers can receive cash only from a special relief fund set up by the government. “We promised that government members will also make donations to that fund,” he said. “We will also call on all of our colleagues, our fellow citizens who can afford to help the affected farmers to also donate to the fund.”
Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetian called on Armenia’s leading entrepreneurs to contribute to the fund in letters sent earlier this week.
In at least one regional village, Arevik, farmers were not enthusiastic about the promised government assistance. “Land tax is not a big deal,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The prime minister must not think that he is giving us huge aid. As for irrigation water, I’m a bit suspicious about that.”
“Suppose they freeze loan repayments. But we need money for getting by and doing agricultural work next year,” another Arevik resident argued as he watered his tomato field battered by hail.
“What we need is financial assistance,” insisted another farmer, summing up the dominant mood in the village.