Flower growers begin hunger strike to protest funding cuts

Eighteen members of Moshav Shahar in the Negev intend to begin a hunger strike today to protest a Ministry of Agriculture decision not to adequately fund their hothouses. The members allege that the government is not upholding a decade-old financial commitment, which is placing the growers under crippling financial stress. In 1997 the ministry, under the Labor government, agreed to finance a portion of the costs associated with the construction of hothouses at Moshav Shahar, which would be used to grow roses for export to Europe. The plan was part of a larger project called "Flowering of the Negev," which aimed to build hothouse parks that could serve as models of development for the rest of the country. In an arrangement between moshav members and the ministry, 17 farmers agreed to participate in the program, which gave them each control of their own single-hectare, state-of-the-art greenhouse. The government pledged to cover 40% of the building costs, which amounted to around $1 million. The remaining 60% of the initial costs would come from a combination of savings and loans taken out by the farmers. But in 1997, the national elections and a change of administration caused funding for the project to be cut back to 27%, leaving each farmer with a deficit of $130,000. Moshav Shahar is home to 75 families, most of whom emigrated from India, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. According to Bezalel Eliyahu, a farmer at the moshav, financial difficulties began in 2000, as competition from African growers drove down profits. By 2003, he said, most of the farmers had defaulted on their loans, and banks had begun to liquidate. "We are all facing the same tragedy," Eliyahu said. "At the time we immigrated we didn't have any money, but no loans either. Now we have no money and plenty of loans."