Some Armenian sheep breeders say they have sold off the bulk of their animals to wholesale buyers doing business with Iran at prices considerably higher than in the domestic market. The retail price of lamb has more than tripled to between 3,000 and 4,000 drams ($10.6) per kilogram since May.
According to the National Statistical Service, Armenian exports of livestock and meat soared by 65 percent to $13.7 million in January-November 2009. The surge is particularly noteworthy when set against a 37.4 percent fall in the country’s overall export revenue recorded during the same period.
Agriculture Minister Gerasim Alaverdian clarified on Tuesday that Armenia exported some 117,000 sheep to Iran and some Arab countries in 2009. He said the figure accounts for roughly one-fifth of the country’s sheep population, dismissing fears that the export boom could wreak havoc on Armenian agriculture unless it is reined in by the government.
Sheep stocks appear to have fallen below a minimum level necessary for their reproduction in at least one Armenian village, Zvartnots. Located about 20 kilometers south of Yerevan, Zvartnots is mainly populated by Yezidi Kurds who have traditionally specialized in sheep breeding. Local residents said as much as 80 percent of their sheep was sold off last year.
“We have stopped breeding animals and can therefore be deemed Armenians,” joked one man. “We don’t have livestock anymore.” “The Iranians have taken what we had and left us sitting at home and doing nothing,” he said.
“Why do you blame the Iranians? We ourselves gave away our sheep,” said another one of his neighbors.
Armenia -- Sheep on a farm in Zvartnots village, January 27, 2010.
Zahar Ravoyan, the deputy chairman of the Union of Yezidis of Armenias who also lives in the village, had a simple explanation for that. “Everyone was in debt and they seized upon the chance to quickly repay the debts,” he told RFE/RL.
“Hay is expensive, there is no water and it’s hard to keep sheep. So if someone offers a good price why shouldn’t people sell?” reasoned one farmer. “They have now started shipping cattle to Iran,” he said, referring to livestock buyers.
Hrachya Berbedian, chairman of the Armenian Agrarian Union, sounded alarm over these developments, alleging that the government’s failure to step in testifies to its “ineptness.” “There is a large-scale export of sheep to Iran and Arab countries, which is a ‘welcome’ development,” he told RFE/RL. “We’re like a factory selling its machines and equipment after emptying its production inventories.”
Alaverdian, the agriculture minister, insisted, however, that the exported sheep were mainly “unfit for reproduction” and that Armenia’s sheep stocks will grow by 200,000 already by this summer. He said the Ministry of Agriculture has devised a plan of actions aimed at raising the total number of sheep to 1.5 million by 2020. Speaking at a news conference, Alaverdian also announced that Armenia will soon start also exporting live cattle and beef to Iran.
Such a prospect is causing serious concern among local meat traders who fear that a resulting surge in the prices of beef, which is consumed in Armenia in far greater amounts than lamb, will dramatically cut their sales. About a dozen traders in a Yerevan food market temporarily shut down their meat shops on Wednesday to demand a government ban or restrictions on beef exports.
“They must not take cattle abroad,” one of them told RFE/RL. “We risk running out of meat. It’s beneficial for farmers to sell cattle at a higher price. But they don’t think about what they are going to eat tomorrow.”
“If things continue like this, there will no meat one month later,” claimed another protester.
The retail price of beef has slightly risen over the past month and currently averages 1,700-1,800 drams per kilogram in Yerevan food stores and markets.