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Drought and insect pests… Raqqa’s cotton harvest sparks concerns among farmers

Farmers packing cotton bags in rural Raqqa - October 2020 (North Press Agency)

Farmers packing cotton bags in rural Raqqa - October 2020 (North Press Agency)

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Raqqa – Abdulaziz al-Saleh

“I spent most of the previous wheat crop’s revenue on cultivating cotton; irrigating my land that was thirsty due to the shortage of irrigation water,” said the farmer Muhammad Sutief, whose story reflects the condition of all Raqqa’s farmers. 

Muhammad Sutief’s money ran out a month after he received it in 2019. With the wheat crop’s income, he bought essential items for his family and spent the remaining amount on cotton cultivation’s primary input and operating expenses, including fertilizers and seed. 

Besides, the water was not available for free either, as he had to pay for running the water pump motor to extract water from the well and irrigate his summer crop on a daily basis. 

In turn, Abu al-Moataz, a farmer from the “al-Jalaa” farm northwest of Raqqa, told Enab Baladi that farmers suffer from a severe shortage of irrigation water.

This year, both cotton and corn crops grew thirsty because of the Irrigation Committee’s water rationing system in Raqqa. 

The farmer questioned the water rationing system’s motives if the river’s water was running and the farmers paid their dues.

Raqqa faces a general lack of agricultural services, including the failure to clean agricultural drainage channels and the absence of electricity to operate the pumps that deliver water to the lands.

The cotton plant was infected at the beginning of the current season by an agricultural pest called “the cotton bollworm/ Earias insulana” because the cotton crop had not been sprayed enough with pesticides amid a lack of specialized instructors’ supervision.

These worms caused great losses to farmers in the 2018 season, causing the areas planted with cotton to halve in the 2019 season.

Fears of setting low cotton prices 

The costs of cotton production in the current year, which were linked to the outright collapse of the Syrian Pound (SYP) against the US dollar during the summer months and raised the prices of seeds and fertilizers, reached 168,000 SYP (66.9 USD) per dunum of land, which is double its value just a year before, Hawar News Agency, abbreviated ANHA, an online Kurdish news service based in al-Hasakeh, quoted the co-president of the Peasants’ Union in Raqqa, Ahmed al-Salem. 

Farmers were concerned that the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, operating in northeast Syria, might set low prices for selling cotton, which would not cover its expenses. Therefore, they submitted requests to the administration to sell the cotton crops to other merchants at free-market prices. The farmers also asked the administration to cross the Kurdish-held area and sell their cotton crops in areas beyond its control.

At the end of September, the heads of the peasant associations then met to raise a proposal to “the administration” to buy a ton of cotton at a price that would guarantee a considerable income to peasants without being subjected to loss at the hands of the merchants. They set the price of one ton of cotton at 900,000 SYP (358.5 USD).

If the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration did not provide a helping hand to farmers, Abu al-Moataz said he is ready to quit farming.

Most people in the governorate of Raqqa consider agriculture a substantial income source to provide for themselves and their families, and their most important crops are wheat, cotton, corn, and others.

The governorates of the eastern region (Raqqa, al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor) contribute about 70 percent of Syria’s total crops, especially wheat and cotton.

Syria used to be a cotton exporter before the outbreak of war in 2011. However, the nine years of war and the high costs of irrigation and Landcare have reduced cotton-cultivated land across the country.

The largest period of cotton production was the beginning of the 1960s; more than 250,000 hectares of agricultural land were planted cotton, which shrank to 125,000 in 2011, and in 2016 only 16,000 hectares were harvested, 12 thousand of which were in Raqqa.

When farmers returned to their land, following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State group and its departure from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, 33,000 hectares were planted with cotton, 30,000 hectares of which were in Raqqa. However,  the bollworm hit the crop and caused the farmers to stop cultivating their lands. As a result, only 17.5 thousand hectares of land were planted with cotton, according to an estimate of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations in September last year.

 

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