Syria’s strategic crops in decline; threat for the drained economy, food security
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
Poor economic and living conditions in regime-controlled areas have reduced farmers’ options, with a lack of fertilizers, fuel, water, and agricultural equipment, prompting them to turn to crops that do not require these ingredients in abundance, such as cotton, sugar beet, potatoes, and grapes.
Difficult economic conditions stood in the way of farmers, accompanied by the neglect of the regime’s government and its auxiliary forces’ exploitation of the conditions of displacement that affected more than 400 towns and villages from the northern Hama countryside to the city of Saraqib, east of Idlib, to seize most of the lands since 2019.
Strategic crops, which were a source of income for the residents and a support for the local economy, have declined in Syria and left their effects on farmers and the local economy, especially in areas controlled by the regime, and on the lifestyle of the people.
At the level of northern Syria, some crops have declined slightly, given that the geographical area is not wide, and unusual crops have entered that generate profits for farmers, such as saffron, safflower, and roses.
The subsidy allocated to farmers fades from year to year, and the role of the regime’s government is limited to limited support for crops that it monopolizes in marketing, such as wheat, while neglecting to provide any support and facilities to farmers of other crops, which have begun to decline in the Syrian territories.
Cotton cultivation in Syria witnessed a significant decline during the previous seasons as a result of the prevailing security conditions, the instability of farmers, the difficulty of marketing the crop, the high prices of seeds and pesticides, and the lack of water needed for irrigation.
Ahmed al-Ali, Director of the Cotton Office in the Ministry of Agriculture, stated to the state-run news agency (SANA) that the area cultivated with the cotton crop for the current season in Syria amounted to about 16,000 hectares, of which 11 hectares are outside the regime-held areas.
The cultivated area was distributed among 4,000 hectares in the eastern Deir Ezzor governorate, 239 hectares in Damascus countryside, 200 hectares in Aleppo, 129 hectares in al-Ghab Plain, and 100 hectares in Raqqa, while the cultivated areas outside the regime’s control are distributed between the northeastern governorates of Raqqa and al-Hasakah, according to al-Ali.
On the other hand, Adel al-Khatib, the director of the General Foundation for Cotton, said that the quantities planted with cotton last year amounted to 23,600 hectares throughout the entire area of Syria, producing about 72,000 tons of cotton in the event that it was delivered in full, and in the event that it was not delivered, there are about 20,000 to 22,000 tons within the regime-held areas.
The regime government has set the price of buying a kilo of cotton from farmers at 4,000 Syrian pounds, a price that is not commensurate with the crop that needs large amounts of watering, fertilizers, and other services.
Potato cultivation abandoned
Ahmed al-Hilal, head of the marketing office of the General Federation of Farmers, warned last March of the reluctance of farmers in the coming year to plant potatoes as a result of its low prices and the high cost of its production.
He pointed out that the issue is bothering the farmers since the economic committee in the government of the regime has prevented the export of the material abroad, which negatively affected the farmers.
Al-Hilal stated that the aim of not exporting them is to provide them in the markets and reduce their prices, considering that the government’s view is “correct,” but the only one affected is the farmer, especially since the cost of producing one kilo ranges from 1,300 to 1,400 Syrian pounds.
The farmer sells a kilo from the field for an amount ranging between 600 and 800 pounds, which exposes him to a loss and is reflected in the cultivation of the crop next year.
Al-Hilal emphasized that the matter requires the support of the farmer to maintain the availability of the material and find a kind of balance in prices.
Beetroot for fodder
On March 28, the Economic Committee also approved and recommended that the General Establishment for Feed receive the beetroot crop this year and pay for it to farmers, against the background of the decline in the cultivation of the crop in sufficient areas to produce abundant production that contributes to moving the wheel of the Tal Salhab sugar factory.
The decision also came due to the scarcity and meager production of beetroot. The Economic Committee considered that it is not feasible to operate the plant, General Director Madian Ali told the government Tishreen newspaper.
Tishreen quoted a source in the General Authority for the Development of the Forest that the quantities produced were not sufficient to operate the plant and that the process was not economical.
The source explained that the farmers did not have the desire from the beginning to grow the crop due to the low purchase price and the failure to provide farmers with allotments of fertilizers or fuel, which makes the value of the cost clearly and greatly exceed the purchase price, which is 400 pounds per kilo.
Grapes are receding
Grape cultivation is declining in Daraa governorate, which negatively affects the crop for reasons related to the expansion of new crops such as pomegranate and olives, the lack of irrigation water after the springs dried up, and the decline in the level of wells in the southern governorate, which prompted farmers to choose alternative crops with lower requirements and better yields.
The gradual decline began in 2011, when the Daraa Agriculture Directorate estimated production at that time at 62,000 tons, when the number of trees was one million and 660,000 trees, planted on an area of 2,720 hectares, of which 2,405 hectares are irrigated, and the rest are rain-fed.
The Daraa Agriculture Directorate estimated the vineyard’s production in the 2022 season at 11,384 tons, while the production in 2021 reached 12,800 tons.
Wael al-Ahmad, head of the plant production department in the Daraa Agriculture Directorate, said that the number of vineyard trees in the governorate has reached 356,000 trees on an agricultural area estimated at 539 hectares, SANA reported.
Displacement affected agricultural diversity
Large areas from the northern countryside of Hama city to the south of Idlib have lost their agricultural diversity after the people were displaced after the Syrian regime forces took control of the area in 2019 following a major Russian-backed military campaign.
Many of the owners of these lands live in areas outside the control of the regime, which allows the latter to exploit their absence and seize them, whether by cultivating crops without taking care of the soil or diversifying agriculture, or by controlling the widespread pistachio trees, according to what some landowners told Enab Baladi.
Ali Armoush, a farmer displaced from the city of Saraqib and residing in northern Idlib, explained to Enab Baladi that the lands of the people of the city, which spread over vast areas, were cultivated with wheat, barley, lentils, cumin, and potatoes, and they are fertile soils.
Armoush said that only 10% of the people in the region cultivate lands since the regime displaced its residents to northern Idlib in 2019, with the lack of cultivation of cotton and sugar beet crops, which were cultivated in large areas.
For his part, the farmer Abdulmueen al-Masri, displaced from al-Ghab Plain in the countryside of Hama, told Enab Baladi that the people of his area used to grow crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, cotton, and vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes, if water was available.
The farmer, who owns 25 dunams, explained that the situation of the lands after the displacement of the people has become difficult, as the “thugs” of the regime (Locally known as Shabiha) are investing them in various areas, whether red lands or planted with trees, without the slightest elements of care.
Al-Masri, who is from the village of Qabr Fidda, pointed out that most of the lands of al-Ghab Plain have lost crops that were widespread previously, such as cotton and beetroot, and the lands are now cultivated without any diversification, as the “Shabiha” depend on growing crops that do not need care or support and for one season, such as wheat, which are left fallow and become like pastures.
In turn, Hassan al-Hassan, who owns 125 dunams, left his land in the village of al-Halba in the countryside of Maarat al-Numan, south of Idlib, in August 2019 after the regime forces took control of it.
He used to grow it with various crops, including wheat, barley, lentils, cumin, coriander, and black cumin, pointing out that all of them needed care and attention.
The farmer told Enab Baladi that the conditions of the lands are currently bad and almost deserted, and if there are those who cultivate them, whether from the small number of residents or from those close to the regime, then they are cultivated with crops that do not need fatigue, such as wheat and barley.
Al-Hassan added that many crops are no longer cultivated, such as cumin, coriander, and black seed, pointing out that the percentage of returnees does not exceed 2% of the population. Even if they sow, they do not plant high-cost crops because they do not feel safe from the treachery of the regime forces and those close to it, whether by stealing or seizing the crop.
Last April, a report by the Insecurity Insight Foundation showed the extent to which food security in Syria was affected by a wide range of military actions carried out by the conflict parties between 2017 and 2022.
The Geneva-based Insecurity Initiative stated that the military actions led to the deterioration and destruction of large parts of Syrian agricultural lands and crops and counted the occurrence of no less than 699 incidents in which violence affected Syrian lands and crops between 2017 and 2022.
In the summer of 2019, as a result of these incidents, the insecurity caused by the conflict prompted many farmers in northwest Syria to harvest their crops before they reached maturity.
This, in turn, led to a decrease in productivity by 50% and caused a decrease in the income associated with farmers, which affected them and their families and contributed to the general food shortage and an increase in food prices.
Agricultural lands were subjected to air, artillery, or missile strikes no less than 240 times between 2017 and 2022, and about 75% of these incidents were recorded in the governorates of Idlib, Hama, and the northwestern countryside of Aleppo, and a third of them caused agricultural crops to set fire, according to the Insecurity Insight report.
Agricultural deterioration, food insecurity
Dr. Yahya al-Sayyid Omar, a researcher in political economy, told Enab Baladi that the agricultural sector in Syria has witnessed a sharp deterioration, which has increased in pace over the past few years for several reasons, the most important of which is the lack of agricultural requirements.
The researcher added that one of the reasons is the high production costs of agricultural medicines and seeds, whose price has doubled dozens of times, in contrast to the small increase in the price of agricultural products.
This negatively affected the economic profitability of the farms, so many farmers refrained from agricultural work and turned to other professions, and the absence of government support negatively affected the horizontal and vertical spread of agriculture, according to al-Sayyid Omar.
Regarding the effects of the decline of strategic agriculture in Syria, al-Sayyid Omar said that it has a sharp negative impact, as agriculture is one of the most important economic activities in the country, and it used to contribute more than 25% of the country’s GDP, and it absorbed 35% of the workers.
He added that the decline in agriculture affects macro and micro economic indicators, and this contributed to the high rate of poverty, unemployment, low-income level, and, most importantly, the high threat of famine and food insecurity.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the number of food-insecure Syrians will reach 12.1 million in 2022, an increase of 51% compared to 2019, which is a very dangerous indicator for Syrian society.
The political economy researcher considered that the situation, due to the decline in agriculture in the areas controlled by the regime, is more severe as a result of the frequent fuel crises, the absence of electricity, and the decline and even the absence of government support.
This left economic, social, and humanitarian effects and affected the economic reality of the government of the regime.
Al-Sayyid Omar pointed out that the decline in agricultural production led to covering the deficit in production through imports, such as importing wheat, which constituted additional pressure on the regime’s government treasury, and pressure on the value of the pound due to the fact that import is one of the channels of consumption and spending of foreign currencies and the dollar in particular, which reinforced the economic pressures facing the government of the regime.
In March, WFP said that the average monthly wage in Syria currently covers only about a quarter of a family’s food needs and that about 12.1 million people in Syria, or more than half of the population, suffer from food insecurity.
A statement by the WFP stated that Syria is among the six countries with the highest rates of food insecurity in the world, and there are another 2.9 million people under threat of food insecurity.
The WFP attributed this deterioration in food security to several reasons, including the country’s heavy dependence on food imports, the effects of the long conflict, in addition to the devastation caused by the earthquake in Syria and Turkey recently, which exacerbated humanitarian needs.
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