Read Edward Ferguson’s blog on the potentials of BiH produce and the challenges faced by BiH farmers.
Since I took up my post in Bosnia and Herzegovina this summer I have taken every opportunity to travel around the country. The beauty and diversity of the rural landscape is the first thing that strikes the newcomer, and from every highway one can see the distinctive, beehive-shaped haystacks and crops and livestock tended by hard-working farmers.
It’s often pointed out that agriculture accounts for only a little over 8 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy – but that doesn’t give a true picture of how important farming is, because half the BiH population still live in the countryside and the vast majority of those people depend, directly or indirectly, on the agricultural sector for their livelihood.
If things are not going well for BiH’s farmers, things are not going well for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Currently, things are not going well.
In recent days, we have seen milk farmers blockading customs terminals, calling for the government to put in place new, protectionist economic policies. Rumour has it that Bosnia and Herzegovina is being flooded with cheap products from EU countries which cannot now be exported to Russia due to sanctions.
The evidence does not back this up. According to the BiH’s own statistics, there has not been an increase in milk imports from the EU. In fact, import of some products has decreased. But the farmers are certainly suffering. So what is the problem, and where does responsibility really lie?
The root of the issue is that, despite more than a decade of assistance and encouragement from EU partners, the BiH authorities have been unable to put in place the basic health and hygiene procedures that are required to export food products to the EU.
This has been a lost opportunity. From potatoes to beef and from mushrooms to milk, BiH agricultural and agro-industrial products can compete with the best. But until the necessary standards and checks are in place, the EU market of half a billion consumers will remain closed.
Things went from bad to worse when Croatia joined the EU last year. It’s estimated that BiH farmers will lose up to 50 million KM in export earnings every year, until their products can be certified for sale in Croatia. This year’s floods have just added to the pressure.
The steps that must be taken to meet health and hygiene requirements are fairly straightforward, and the EU has always been willing to help with expertise and funding.
The real stumbling block has been the failure of the BiH political parties to reach agreement. The problem is that what should be a simple, technical issue has got caught up in the wider political arguments about the balance of competences between the State and Entity levels. Politicians here have put other priorities over those of the rural communities and, as so often, have been unwilling to compromise.
There is no scope for negotiation on the side of the EU. These are the same safety standards that all countries must meet if they want to export to the EU. So the solution lies in the hands of BiH’s politicians.
The impasse over safety standards is all that stands between BiH’s farmers and exceptional, unlimited duty-free access for nearly all agricultural products to the huge EU market. With these measures in place, I can see no reason why farmers from Prijedor or Bihac shouldn’t be able to sell cevapi to the Czech Republic and burek to Berlin.
BiH’s farmers are right to be angry. But they shouldn’t allow their attention to be diverted from the real source of their problems. Establishing a system to certify BiH agricultural exports according to a single, verifiable set of standards is one of the quickest and easiest ways the incoming government can give a boost to the struggling economy. It’s time for politicians to show that people’s livelihoods are more important to them than uncompromising political principles.