An uphill struggle for Omani herdswomen

Meat and livestock markets are dominated by cheap imports, making life difficult for farmers trying to sell local produce.

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MUSCAT // Herdswomen in rural areas are struggling to keep their traditional livelihoods as the market for meat and livestock in Oman is increasingly dominated by imports. With the help of her three younger sisters, Zeena Salah, 36, a herdswoman from Mahut in the al Wusta Region, takes her flock of 250 sheep and goats from their pen to graze in the wadi every day, just 2km from her family home.

Ms Salah said she had been a herdswoman since she was 14, a livelihood she inherited from her mother, who died nine years ago. In Oman's rural areas, men often work on their farms growing vegetables and fruits while the livestock rearing is left to women because it is seen as less strenuous work. The farm, said Ms Salah, does not fetch enough money to provide for her extended family. "So the livestock business makes up for the rest, which is much needed. But in the past five years, the business is being squeezed by traders importing cheap animals from abroad they literally flood the market. Our sales now depends only on rich folk who prefer locally bred livestock because we feed our animals with chemical-free feedstock," Ms Salah said.

Statistics from the animal wealth department show that about 1.45 million livestock are bred in Oman, a country with a population of about three million people. About 25 per cent of the livestock are sheep, 30 per cent goats and the rest cows and camels. Traders who import livestock argue that the statistics show there are not enough animals bred in the country to satisfy local demand, especially in the festive seasons.

"In the two Eids, the demand soars to more than a million goats and sheep slaughtered for private people and hotels celebrating the religious occasions," said Khalfan Marhoobi, distribution manager of the Muscat-based Livestock and Meat Supply Company. "Then there is the daily consumption of meat sold at butchers and supermarkets. Locally bred livestock cannot cater for this demand." The key difference between the imported and locally bred meat, however, is the price. "A local live sheep or goat costs 60 Omani rials [Dh595]. You can get the same animals imported abroad from Somalia or Iran each for 40 rials. The difference is about a third of the price," Hussain al Lawati, a 42-year-old customer, said.

This economic reality has created a thriving market for imported meat and livestock, which is dominated by imports from Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and India, butchers said. "Butchers in Oman sell only meat imported from abroad because it is cheaper to buy from distributors bringing it from overseas than directly from Omani breeders. I don't know any distributor supplying meat from local livestock," Saifullah Khan, a Pakistani butcher in Muscat said.

There are no statistics available to the amount of meat consumed in Oman or total livestock slaughtered, but Mr Khan estimated that only a quarter of locally produced meat finds the market in the country. "To me, local meat ensures freshness and is free of chemicals usually injected to foreign livestock to make animals fat. Besides, if we buy locally produced meat, we keep alive the tradition started by our ancestors," Salim al Brashdi, a 36-year-old Omani consumer said.

As for the high price of local livestock, Mr Brashdi suggested the government grant subsidies to herdswomen, the same way farmers and fishermen get free farming and fishing equipment. "I think something like that to suit herdswomen can be worked out," Mr al Brashdi said. Some herdswomen have urged the government to put a cap on the import of livestock or fresh meat from abroad to help them revive their trade but they are yet to approach a government department to file a complaint.

"The government must regulate the meat market and put a levy on imported meat and livestock to protect us. We cannot compete with importers who are dumping the livestock at a cheaper price from abroad," said Sharifa Farah, 46, a herdswoman in Fanja, a town about 70km from Muscat. Government officials were not available to comment, but livestock experts blamed local meat distributors for not doing enough to promote locally bred animals.

"Herdswomen rely heavily on selling livestock directly to consumers or they auction the animals in the local souqs in a town's square. These women are not educated and they only know to sell the way it has always been done for centuries. Distributors need to help by cutting down on imports and promote local meat," Khamfar Jaalan, 74, a retired ministry of agriculture official, said. Mr Marhoobi agreed with this assessment but said all meat distributors must be required to sell local meat and livestock.

"What is needed is the compliance of all distributors. After all, the attraction of locally bred animals is that their food is not tampered by chemicals to fatten them up," Mr Marhoobi said. "Besides, as nationals, we have the obligation to make sure this ancient trade survives."