Fires, reduced prices disappoint northern Syria’s hopes for record harvest

Columns of smoke rise from farmlands in Raqqa governorate. Photo: Raqqa Civil Council, May 22.

By Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim
May 26, 2019

AMMAN — This winter, heavy rains pounded Qais’s fields on the outskirts of the city of Raqqa, promising him a good season, one that could compensate his losses, repay his debts and rebuild his home.

Qais Khamis, a 40-year old father of five, joined his uncle in cultivating a 25-acre field of barley this year. It had been a year of “rains and good fortune in the area,” Qais told Syria Direct.

He was not alone in his hopes. Syrian Agriculture Minister Ahmed al-Qadari said that the government was optimistic about the current season, describing it as a “harbinger of good things to come.” This year’s wheat yield is up 35 percent over last year, according to the ministry.

On every visit to his fields this season, Qais has watched the barley grow — and along with it, hope — after years of disappointment caused by damage from war and bad weather.

Then fire consumed his yield.

Qais’s acres are among of thousands destroyed by fires in Raqqa, Deir e-Zor and Hasakah in northeast Syria in recent days.

Images of the fires circulated among the inhabitants of Raqqa via WhatsApp earlier this month. When Qais first saw the pictures, he told himself, “God gives and God takes away.”

The next day, Qais’s father told him to go look at the fields. “Twenty-five acres, all gone,” Qais said.

Farmers and activists are now blaming “hidden hands” for the fires, several sources told Syria Direct.

“It’s very effective, very thorough,” Qais said. In recent years, he said, “even if a fire broke out, it would only spread a meter or two before we could contain it.”

“Now even the fire trucks can’t get this under control,” he said.

The Islamic State claimed credit for starting the fires and declared farmers in Iraq and Syria “apostates” in the latest issue of Al-Naba, the group’s weekly newsletter. The group also threatened continued action.

The Raqqa Civilian Council pointed the finger at ISIS sleeper cells even before the group claimed responsibility.

“Some of the fires break out at night, when the temperature is not so hot,” Bassem al-Hassan al-Mustafa, a member of the media office of the Raqqa Civil Council, told Syria Direct.

The fires are the latest crisis endured by those who have survived the Islamic State and years of war.

Last year, the region’s agriculture sector took a major hit after tonnes of cotton and maize were damaged by a cotton worm, the spread of which was aided by ineffective pesticides, unawareness among farmers and climate change.

According to statistics obtained by Syria Direct, some 17,000 acres of wheat and barley have been burned in Raqqa province this year, leading to an “estimated $6 million in losses.”

Mustafa told Syria Direct that “the area of farmland burned in the countryside of Tabqa has reached about 7,500 acres, about 6,200 acres in Ain Issa and about 3,700 in the countryside of Raqqa and Suluk.

Mustafa added that the burning will continue if no measures to protect the crops are taken.

The Role of Civil Society

The Islamic State retreated from Raqqa in October 2017 after a months-long air and ground campaign by the U.S.-led international coalition and the majority Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

With the Islamic State’s retreat from its former capital, civil society in Raqqa began to re-emerge, contributing to reconstruction in the devastated city. Local organizations and authorities were established, and international and non-governmental organizations arrived in the city.

Given the demands, civil society organizations were obliged to provide services for which they were not necessarily designed.

So far, local organizations including the Raqqa Civil Council have proven unable to control the fires.

 Crops in the Raqqa countryside are reduced to ash. Source: the Khabur Network

The Raqqa Civil Council has set up five fire stations in the city’s countryside, but the number of fire trucks are not enough to manage the swaths of burning fields.

"The council has not offered any precautionary measures to protect this season’s crops," said Abdulrahman al-Raqqawi, a member of a local civil society organization, who declined to give his full name for security reasons.

“The organizations have done nothing, other than to bring attention to the matter and express solidarity with the farmers.”

"It’s difficult for local organizations to play any effective role in this disaster, because the losses are huge," Mona Freej, an activist in civil society organizations in Raqqa, told Syria Direct.

The Price War

Northern Syria witnessed very little rainfall last year, resulting in significantly reduced wheat production. The drought led to a failed harvest, impacting the lives of thousands of farmers in the region.

This year was different. Heavy winter rains promised a great yield for farmers in northeastern Syria, compensating for previous years’ losses.

For Marwan Issa, 57, from Qahtaniya in Hasakah province, his acres of wheat and barley were supposed to make up for his previous losses and help him secure a future for his two university-age children.

But this year, the Autonomous Administration decreased the price for wheat and barley to adjust for the increased supply. That was before the fires came.

The Autonomous Administration set the price of wheat from local farmers at 150 Syrian pounds (approximately $0.28) per kilogram and 100 Syrian pounds (approximately $0.19) per kilogram of barley.

The agriculture ministry of the Syrian government in Damascus, however, set the price a kilogram of wheat at 185 Syrian pounds (about $0.35), a price higher than the global average, in an attempt to subsidize farms.

Fortunately, the fires did not reach Marwan’s land. But the price set by the Autonomous Administration “disappointed” his hopes.

On Saturday, the Autonomous Administration announced that it would raise the price of a kilogram of wheat from 150 Syrian Pounds (approximately $0.28) to 160 Syrian Pounds (about $0.30) in response to the fires in the region.

"Last year, the prices set by the Autonomous Administration were closer to those set by the Syrian government. The difference was only 5 Syrian pounds," or less than $0.01, Marwan told Syria Direct.

“But today, the difference is 35 Syrian pounds,” or about $0.07, he said. This is a big difference for owners of large plots such as Marwan, who cultivates about 120 acres of wheat and about 75 acres of barley.

"I expect the wheat yield from my land to be 225 tonnes," he told Syria Direct. “The difference is 8 million Syrian pounds,” or about $16,000.

Despite measures taken by the Syrian government to purchase farmers’ crops at approved centers in Hasakah governorate, accepting a loan from the Autonomous Administration prevents farmers in the northeast from benefiting from the price difference in the centers.

Farmers wait in front of their trucks to deliver their crops. Photo: Raqqa Civil Council, 22 May

A number of sources told Syria Direct that farmers must be contracted with the Autonomous Administration’s seed distribution department in order to receive its financial and distribution services. That contract, sources say, requires farmers to deliver their crops to the Autonomous Administration.

"I am a contracted with the seed distribution department, so I receive good varieties of seeds, diesel and fertilizer, which covers the financial burdens of the harvest," said Ahmed Ezzeddin, a farmer from the city of Qamishli in Hasakah province of Syria.

"Their condition is that the crop be delivered exclusively to the institution,” Ezzedin added.

Sulaiman Baroudou, co-chair of Economic and Agricultural Body of the Autonomous Administration, told Syria Direct, “The prices were set according to the amount allocated for the purchase of wheat to ensure the seed and flour supply for next year.”

He added that the Autonomous Administration was able to buy “800 thousand tonnes of wheat and to market the barley crop in full.”

Based on estimates by the Autonomous Administration, Baroudou predicts that “the wheat crop in northeastern Syria will reach 1.5 million tonnes and the barley about 1 million tonnes."

“Last year, the wheat crop was no more than 300 thousand tonnes,” he said.

The gap between the prices set by the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration may encourage some farmers to hoard their crops in search of better prices than those currently set by the Autonomous Administration.

Fayez al-Khamis of Raqqa province told Syria Direct that he had planted 8.5 acres of barley. “And I financially depend only on my crops,” he said Thursday.

He added that the prices set by the Autonomous Administration are not good for him. “I’ll store the crop and put it up front sale in September to get a better price.”

Translated by: Jared Szuba