Coast citrus farmers need solutions from regime’s government
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
The Syrian regime government attaches a “formal” value to citrus products through statements and attempts to revitalize this cultivation in light of a deteriorating economic reality that reflects negatively on farmers on the one hand and on the purchasing power on the other hand, which affects the citrus product in the domestic market in the export process.
Despite the repeated statements by officials of various levels and visits to the coastal region, where citrus is concentrated, the data does not bode well for a better future for citrus growers and their seasons.
Rania Abed Rabbo, director of the National Program for Quality, told the local Melody FM radio on 27 November that the citrus occupies the first five agricultural ranks in Syria in terms of production, pointing to the difficulty in accessing international markets, which she considered a weakness.
On 2 December, the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) published a video, which it said was of the purchase of citrus crops from farmers in Tartus directly by the state-run Syrian Trade Corporation.
This was preceded by a set of measures taken by the regime’s government. On 20 November, the Syrian Trade Corporation set the prices for importing citrus fruits directly from farmers, providing a back-and-forth transportation service to the farmer’s land, the sorting and packing center, providing free boxes, and paying for the sorting, packing, and weighing fees, in addition to the “commissions.”
On the 17th of the same month, Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous, agreed to impose a tax of 200 SYP on each kilogram of imported bananas to back the purchase of citrus crops by the Syrian Trade Corporation.
This came on the recommendation of the Economic Committee based on the proposal of the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection.
The crowding of decisions was preceded by an economic catastrophe for citrus farmers in Latakia and Tartus at the beginning of this year when their piled crops had been damaged.
On 11 January, the government approved a number of measures to clear the citrus season after circulating photos and videos on social media.
At the time, the government also called on the Ministry of Commerce to purchase large quantities of citrus fruits directly from farmers, according to popular prices of various types and varieties. It also requested work to store the largest possible quantities of citrus fruits and to increase the quantities offered in the “Syrian Trade” halls and outlets.
At that time, the government assigned the Ministry of Public Works and Housing to place about 100 working trucks for public sector companies at the disposal of the Syrian Trade Corporation to transport the quantities of citrus marketed from the governorates and to feed the main fruit “al-Hal” markets with sufficient quantities of the crop.
The government has also assigned the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade, in coordination with the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and whoever is necessary, to discuss all ways to export the largest possible amount of the citrus season to foreign markets, taking into account quality conditions, sorting and packaging requirements.
On 16 November, PM Arnous approved the recommendation of the Economic Committee, which includes support for the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform’s proposal to provide support to peasants and farmers through a program to provide new seedlings of citrus free of charge in order to replace aging trees.
The government of the regime attributed this step at the time to the importance of the citrus crop in the national economy and achieving an optimal future for its cultivation in the coastal region.
Agricultural engineer Anas Abu Tarboush explained to Enab Baladi that the lifespan of citrus fruits depends on the service the trees receive, but in normal conditions, it ranges between 50 and 75 years.
The productive life of a seedling begins after planting by about three or five years and is linked to the service that the tree receives, such as irrigation, fertilization, and others.
As for the reasons that require uprooting, Abu Tarboush says that cases of frost and excessive and lack of irrigation end the life of the tree and cause it to age.
After uprooting, the farmer can benefit from intercropping from the first year of planting the seedlings until the start of production, including the cultivation of legumes as they provide the land with nitrogen, but nevertheless, it is not recommended because of some fungal diseases that can be caused by these crops and which are transmitted from root path.
Juice factory, thorny road
Since 2015, there has been talk of establishing a government factory for juices in the Latakia region on an area of 4 hectares, with an annual capacity of 50,000 tons of citrus juices and 200 tons of tropical condensate.
However, the project did not go beyond the scope of statements at the time until Samer Foz, a Syrian businessman close to the regime, revived it in February 2019.
At the time, Foz mentioned via Twitter that he had obtained a license to establish the factory, with the aim of investing the workers in the region, coordinating local wealth, and merging it with the energy of individuals.
Despite these statements, the factory did not see the light until the Minister of Industry, Ziyad Sabbagh, explained in August 2021 that there was no point in establishing a government juice factory, given that the majority of coastal citrus is not suitable for pressing, “but only for the table.”
Only two months after that, the General Organization for Food Industries confirmed, last March, its intention to revive the project again “because of its economic and social importance and to reach a birth with guaranteed results that would allow the project to be translated into reality,” according to the government Tishreen newspaper.
According to the newspaper, the project is proposed for participation with the Iranian side, represented by the Mostazafan Foundation, the second-largest commercial enterprise in Iran, according to the minutes of the meeting signed between the Ministry of Industry and the institution.
The economist Dr. Firas Shaabo told Enab Baladi that the citrus dilemma in Syria is manifested in its marketing, production costs, and internal transportation, in addition to the payment of money by the owners of citrus fruits to the army personnel at the military checkpoints to facilitate transportation between the governorates.
“There are no real resources in Syria, with the exception of some agricultural and tax resources due to the loss of the national income to a large extent, such as tourism, customs, oil, and phosphates, so taxes and fees were mainly relied upon,” according to Shaabo.
In addition, the depreciation of the local purchasing currency, the decline in demand for the product, and the difficulty in exporting have caused damage to crops, repeating the scenario that took place at the beginning of this year.
The expert referred to the absence of plants for converting the crop into juice and jam on the one hand and the difficulty of storage due to the absence of electricity and fuel on the other hand.
At the same time, the high prices of fertilizers and the scarcity of fuel put the farmer in front of a losing trade balance.
Regarding the possibility of establishing a juice factory in order to absorb the production, Shaabo believes that the investment aspects are absent from the regime, as the focus and priority is on paying salaries and securing the minimum standards of living, and everything that is investment or development is currently out of the question.
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