Locusts, drought, exploitation and bombs: A Syrian harvest

AMMAN: It is harvest time for Syria’s northern wheat and barley fields, but for farmers battling drought, pestilence, war and economic hardship, the season is yielding meager returns.

“This year is considered a drought year because of the lack of rainfall, and irrigation costs are exorbitant,” Mudeen al-Musa, a northeast Hama farmer told Syria Direct. “Farming is our only livelihood, and our losses are huge.”

The past three months have brought unusually low rainfall to most of Syria, as shown in a map published last month by the Regional Food Security Analysis Network, an initiative by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and iMMAP, an international data collection and analysis non-profit organization. By contrast, 2015 brought the best rainfall in years to Syria, producing higher yields of wheat than previous years but still significantly below the pre-war average.

“This year is one of the driest,” Maher Abu Faisal, a northeast Hama farmer told Syria Direct. 

Wheat is Syria’s main and most important crop, “accounting for about 60 percent of cultivated agriculture land” and providing “about 40 percent of Syrian households’ caloric consumption,” according to a March 2016 policy brief published by Duke University.

Winter wheat and barley planted between October and November of last year has grown golden and tall. Like the farmers who care for it and the people in surrounding communities who rely upon it, the life-giving grain has been shaped and threatened by a war currently in its sixth year.

 The Free Hama Provincial Council sprays for locusts in May. Image courtesy of Hama Provincial Council.

Over the past two weeks, Syria Direct spoke with several Syrian farmers from rebel-held east Hama province as well as a farmer from Syria’s breadbasket in Kurdish-held northeast Al-Hasakah province. They described what it means to farm their respective corners of wartime Syria: rising production costs, supply shortages, drought and farmland destroyed by pests and bombs.

In rebel-held northeastern Hama, bordering southern Idlib and Aleppo provinces, a dry winter accompanied by increased costs of labor, seeds, water and the diesel to run grain harvesters means “crop yields have fallen to less than nothing,” Maher Abu Faisal, a Hama farmer told Syria Direct.

Farming is a key industry for Hama province. In 2006, approximately 36 percent of the province’s territory was used for agriculture, according to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

Regime forces control the vast majority of Hama, with areas of rebel control in the province’s north, northeast and south. The Islamic State holds the province’s far east.

“Wheat and barley are our main crops in this area,” said farmer Abu Faisal, but “because wheat needs plentiful water, and we can’t bear the costs of running pumps for irrigation, most farmers are turning to cultivating barley.”

One way to do that in northeast Hama is dry farming, or relying on the rain to water their crops. However, even turning to hardier barley has not saved local farmers from losses, due to “exorbitant price increases in everything agriculture-related,” said Abu Faisal.

“A farm worker who used to accept SP500 (approx. $2.30) per day to harvest will now barely take SP2,000 (approx. $9.17),” said farmer al-Musa. Even if a farmer can afford to buy expensive diesel to run harvester machines, they “break down, since they haven’t been repaired in six years.”

“Because of the weakness of this year’s season, the land couldn’t be harvested,” Muhammad Hallaq, the agriculture representative in the rebel Hama Provincial Council told Syria Direct.

“Desert locusts have spread across and eaten what was left of the wheat,” he said. “Due to increased prices and cost, farmers haven’t been able to spray their crops.”

 Locusts in Hama. Photo courtesy of Radio Al-Kul.

“Farmers are renting out their land for sheep grazing, rather than lose everything,” said provincial councilman Hallaq. Farmer al-Musa estimates that sheep are grazing in 80 percent of northeast Hama’s barley fields.

“Due to limited abilities and lack of support,” the Hama Provincial Council doesn’t have the funds needed to subsidize irrigation or support farmers with fungicides and pesticides, said councilman Hallaq.

While the council was able to spray for locusts in some Hama fields last month, much of the damage has already been done.

Making matters worse are “area battles and the regime militias’ targeting” and burning of farmland, added Hallaq. Farmer Abu Faisal cited “daily fears of bombardment, since we’re in an area adjacent to regime-held territory.”

Taken together, the many forces at work in northeast Hama have led to a single result, says Hallaq: “A single dunam of land is at a quarter of its usual productivity.”

‘A throwaway price’

In May, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) reported a 31 percent reduction in Syrian wheat production as a whole compared with last year, drawing on Syrian government statistics, economic data and satellite imagery. Barley production has fallen by 35 percent compared to last year.

Almost half of Syria’s wheat is grown in northeastern Al-Hasakah province, which witnessed normal levels of rainfall this past winter. However, one farmer from Amouda, in northern Al-Hasakah, told Syria Direct that while farmers can grow grain, they can’t sell it for a good price.

Jawan, who asked not to use his full name, claims the Syrian regime—currently the sole buyer of wheat from the province—is buying wheat and barley for “less than a quarter of the true value.”

Kurdish-led forces hold the majority of Al-Hasakah province, while Syrian government forces retain a presence in and around two major cities. The Islamic State holds the province’s far south.

Before the war, the Syrian government completely controlled grain cultivation, selling seeds and pesticides to farmers and buying all of their crops through its General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob). Hoboob still buys all the grain in Al-Hasakah.

Hoboob buys a kilo of wheat for SP100 (approx. $0.46), while barley goes for SP75 (approx. $0.34), a “throwaway price,” said Jawan.

“Farmers are selling anyway,” he said, “because they have no other option.”

Low prices and the absence of fertilizer from local markets have hurt the quality of locally grown wheat and turned farmers towards growing crops that are less costly to produce, such as lentils and cumin, he added.

The Kurdish-led Self-Administration currently governing much of Al-Hasakah province allows farmers to sell their crops to any willing buyer, but is not currently participating in the grain industry, Jamal Jamou, Vice President of the Trade and Economics Body in Jazirah canton told Syria Direct.

“We in the Self-Administration of Jazirah canton [northern Al-Hasakah] don’t buy,” currently, said Jamou, but “will buy some next season.”

With no local alternative to regime buyers, farmers have few options. Northern Al-Hasakah is cut off from all directions, with Turkey to the north, a closed border with Iraqi Kurdistan to the east and IS to the south and west.

Farmer Jamou claims that wheat production in Hasakah is only 18 percent of what it was in 2012.

Nearly 400 kilometers southwest of Amouda, farmers in Hama living in different circumstances share similar fears, depending not only on the earth and the rain, but on price fluctuations, battles and politics to decide their fates.

“Each year, we impatiently wait for the harvest, to sell our crops and live off that,” said Hama farmer Maher Abu Faisal. “If things stay the way they are, it will be disastrous for us.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.