Cotton worms devastate Raqqa crops in latest blow to struggling agricultural sector

Farmers survey damage to the Raqqa cotton crop in July. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council.

AMMAN: The white, fluffy buds that usually signal the beginning of the annual cotton harvest in Syria’s agricultural heartlands were nowhere to be found on Abu Muhammad a-Nayef’s Raqqa farm this month.

A-Nayef’s cotton fields, which stretch over about 150 dunams of land (approximately 37 acres) just outside Raqqa city, had been already been devoured this season—twice.

First, crops were hit by an infestation of cotton worms in July that ravaged developing plants and ruined any prospects of a decent harvest later in the year.  

A-Nayef was then left with no choice but to bring in a flock of sheep to graze on the remains—for a minimal fee charged to their herder—as a last-ditch attempt to offset at least some of the year’s losses, which he values at six million Syrian lira (around $12,000).

It would not be the only shock of the season for the Raqqa-born father of four, who has been farming the province’s fertile land for the past 20 years.

Weeks later, in mid-August, a-Nayef arrived to his farm to find that 50 dunams (approximately 12 acres) of yellow maize—originally sowed at a total cost of more than $2,000—had been ruined overnight by a second infestation of worms.

“In just 24 hours, the whole [corn] crop was destroyed,” he says, wondering what to do next with a harvest underway but nothing to pick. “How will I pay off my debts?”

Farmers across Raqqa province this season have been weathering similar struggles to a-Nayef, local agriculture officials tell Syria Direct, following a series of crop failures that have decimated the vast majority of the province’s cotton andto a lesser extentmaize yields.

Abu Muhammad a-Nayef in his cotton field this week. Photo courtesy of Abu Muhammad a-Nayef.

The damages to crops, which officials say were catalyzed by an unusual climate, ineffective pesticides and limited awareness among farmers, have dealt a crippling blow to the region’s primary economic sector as it slowly recovers from years of war that left the agricultural system in tatters.

Raqqa’s story is in many ways a product of the province’s unique circumstances after a hard-fought transition from Islamic State (IS) to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control. But it is also reflective of challenges shared by battered agricultural sectors in neighboring Hasakah province—already reeling from a devastating drought—as well as regions under opposition and government control, where similar bouts of infestation have reportedly led to extensive damages this year.

Local authorities: ‘We’re doing what we can with what we have’

Pests are an inevitable bane for farmers in Raqqa, who normally use a combination of community-wide coordination and specialized pesticides to mitigate the risks when eggs hatch each year and larvae emerge to feed on leaves, flowers and cotton bolls. “The worm is no stranger [to us],” says farmer a-Nayef.

But according to local officials, an unfortunate combination of conditions this year saw worms and moths spread through the cotton and maize crops with unprecedented ferocity.

The primary culprit behind the crop failures was the climate, according to Abdullah al-Khalouf, spokesperson for the Agriculture Committee of the Raqqa Civil Council, the province’s local authority that is affiliated with the US-backed SDF. A warm winter meant there was no frost to eliminate insect eggs buried in the Raqqan soil, and then a milder-than-average summer didn’t bring the excessive heat that can also be deadly for the bugs.

A second issue arose when pesticides meant to quell invasive bugs proved ineffectivethe result of what another local official, agricultural engineer Hamoud al-Hassan, called “chaos” in the province’s agricultural markets and pharmacies. Out-of-date or fraudulent chemicals and banned hormones are being sold to unsuspecting farmers who then find them next to useless in eradicating infestations.

Local officials inspect a cotton worm in July. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council.

"Weak-minded people are [selling] pesticides that amount to nothing more than a strong smell,” says al-Hassan, who is also a member of the Agriculture Committee’s Prevention Office that has been tasked with regulating pesticides for sale in local markets.

Al-Hassan says local authorities are trying to impose more oversight and market regulations, while partnering with civil society organizations to raise awareness among farmers about agricultural techniques such as how to combat pests and manage outbreaks when they occur.

And while local officials suggest a lack of awareness among farmers has contributed to the bad season, farmers themselves point their fingers at those same officials for failing to prevent the poor harvest through sufficient monitoring and guidance before the worms took hold.

“There is no coordination or oversight in our area,” claims local farmer Abdul Hadi al-Omar, who also faced near-complete losses on his cotton crops this season.  

“In fact, it’s the opposite entirely,” the Raqqa city resident adds, noting that the local council asked farmers to pay irrigation taxes “at a time when we were suffering.”

Al-Omar asked that his real name be withheld in this report, fearing repercussions for criticizing local leadership.  

“[It’s as if] the council was with the cotton worm and against the farmer.”

Al-Hassan meanwhile argues that his nascent organization lacks the capabilities to fully tackle threats to local crops and agricultural infrastructure.

A-Nayef’s corn fields this week. Photo courtesy of Abu Muhammad a-Nayef.

“I’m not going to tell you we actually went and fought [the pests] ourselves,” he says, suggesting that local authorities are in need of tractors, agricultural machinery and pesticides if they’re expected to take on a truly preventative role.

“We’re doing what we can with what we have.”

‘The market is in bad shape’

This season’s crop failures are only the latest challenge as Raqqa’s farmers and agricultural officials try to restore a sector that has long been the lifeblood of the provincebut which has suffered over $1 billion in damages since the war began, according to a 2017 United Nations study.

Through years of conflict that saw control of Raqqa shift from one actor to the next—the Syrian government, rebel groups, the Islamic State (IS) and then the Kurdish-majority, SDF—farmlands were vacated or put out of use, and networks of irrigation channels were destroyed by fleeing IS fighters.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Raqqa residents have been displaced since the beginning of the uprising and ensuing conflict, and only a portion have recently made the decision to return home since US-backed forces expelled IS last October.

“We’re building from scratch, in order to achieve something stable and prosperous,” says civil council official al-Hassan, who is optimistic that improvements to local governance bodies can help usher in a “brighter future” for farmers.   

But until then, Raqqans are facing the immediate economic consequences of a disastrous season in a province where an estimated 85 percent of residents depend on agriculture to make a living.  

“The market is in bad shape,” al-Hassan acknowledges. “Agriculture affects trade, production and other sectors. Everything in Raqqa has been impacted.”

Meanwhile, Raqqa farmers like a-Nayef, whose crops were completely destroyed, say there’s little cause for hope right now.

“Instead of harvesting my land and living off the yield, I’ve taken on a massive [financial] burden,” he says, wondering whether local organizations may offer support to farmers so that he can start anew.

“If I want to plant a new crop, I need funds.”

With additional reporting by Ola Mas and Ayman ash-Shami.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

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.