Big harvest boosts Moroccan economy

EL-JADIDA, Morocco — In a lush field 60 miles south of Casablanca, a farmer revealed one reason why this country’s economy has so far kept healthy while others have fallen ill.

Belkadaf M’barek, 46, reached under a bushy, knee-high plant and fished out a cluster of bright red, baseball-sized tomatoes.

“2009 is a great year,” M’barek said, squinting beneath a cloudless sky. “God willing may every year be this good.”

In 14 years growing tomatoes, potatoes and beets here, M’barek said he’s never had a harvest so large. Farmers across Morocco are telling the same story. A generously wet winter filled canals and watered fields across this often arid country, giving a timely boost to an economy that remains heavily tied to agriculture.

Officials in this North African nation are predicting the economy will actually grow here about 5 percent in 2009 — good fortune they attribute to low inflation and public debt, high government spending and the simple matter of rain.

One regional official with Morocco’s ministry of agriculture, Abdelaziz Ouaaka, said the explanation for this year’s economic success is straightforward. Revenues from crops and livestock account this year for nearly 20 percent of Morocco’s GDP, he said, and for many crops this was the best harvest in 30 years.

The 10 million metric tons of grain farmers reaped this year, he said, was “a record never before attained in Morocco.”

The country’s industry and commerce minister, Ahmed Chami, painted a more complex picture. He sits with several other cabinet ministers and business leaders on a “strategic watch committee” set up by the government to monitor the world recession’s effects on Morocco.

Unlike many Arab states, Morroco has no oil revenues, and Chami said the country has seen a slowdown in vital industries like textiles, automobiles and electronics. Two key sources of foreign exchange — tourism revenues and remittances sent from Moroccans living abroad — have also declined 15 percent between this year and last, he said.

“The number of tourists has actually increased,” Chami said. “But they’re spending less money and spending fewer nights here.”

The minister acknowledged that a robust harvest has played a significant role in what growth Morocco’s economy will see this year. Take away the cash from agriculture, he said, and that 5 percent gain would drop to about 3 percent.

But Chami said the economy’s strong fundamentals — a budget surplus, low inflation and low public debt — have made Morocco less vulnerable to economic shocks. Meanwhile, he said the government plans to stimulate the economy this year by cutting income taxes, increasing salaries of public employees and spending big to build new roads, railways and ports.

“All of this is giving us a boost,” Chami said.

Whether such moves — or more rain — will suffice to insulate Morocco from the world’s economic misery remains to be seen.

But in the emerald-green irrigated fields of the central Dukkala region, one of the country’s breadbaskets, the minister’s optimism seems to be catching. Issaad Mohamed, 57, has been raising vegetables, grain and cattle for more than three decades. He said he’s never seen such abundance growing here at the height of summer.

“This summer you find everything,” he said. “If we have another year like this, we’re going to find fish here.”

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