Perched more than 1,000 meters above sea level in the water-rich Wadi Barada region, Zabadani’s mild summers and fertile soil once produced Syria’s most famous variety of apples.
Prior to the Syrian civil war, Zabadani apples, noted for their sweetness, could be found in merchant stalls and shops across the Arab world.
Like many of Zabadani’s residents, Umar al-Qalamouni is an apple farmer. He relied on a family farm with 1,600 apple trees which used to generate up to $22,000 per year.
Today, the apple orchards around Zabadani are either scorched or cut off from their farmers by a Hezbollah- and regime-enforced blockade.
Today, al-Qalamouni has fewer than 20 apple trees. Even if his destroyed trees were replaced, “it’s impossible to start over,” the farmer tells Syria Direct’s Amjad al-Muhandas.
“In order to yield apples, a tree must be more than 10 years old.”
Q: How has apple production declined in the Qalamoun mountain region?
When the war started, the regime established checkpoints near Zabadani. These regime checkpoints kept some farmers from reaching their farms to tend to and harvest their crops.
The situation quickly declined when battles began in the Qalamoun mountain range. When Hezbollah entered west Qalamoun, they began to burn apple trees and farmland. They destroyed the orchards to prevent opposition ambushes against them.
Hezbollah also filled many of the area’s wells with gravel.
Besieged and without other sources of fuel, some residents were forced to burn the remaining trees for warmth last winter.
The siege also drove up the cost of pesticides and fertilizers, leaving many trees and their produce to wither.
A Zabadani apple tree in 2012. Photo Courtesy of Dimashqi Lens.
Q: How much did the people in the area rely on apple production? When did the region stop exporting apples?
In areas like Zabadani and Rankous, most of the residents were farmers who relied on apple production as their main source of income.
Of course the size of the farms and number of trees differed from family to family, but most families brought in $7,000 annually from the apple crop.
I owned 1,600 trees and made over $22,000 a year.
The harvest started to gradually decline in 2012, but in 2014 apple production [in Zabadani] virtually collapsed.
As things are now, if you don’t count the trees in the gardens and around the rural homes, there are no crops. This is because so many trees were torched. While the trees that weren’t destroyed are cut off from the population by snipers and bombing.
Q: Is there any way to protect the remaining trees and gradually increase production?
It’s impossible to start over. Most of the trees were around 30 years old. In order to yield produce and export it, a tree must be over 10 years old. And only a few trees remain in the village.
Recently I was speaking to a merchant I used to work with, who is in Damascus. He said the export of apples has ground to a halt. Syria has begun importing apples from Iran and other countries, which he said aren’t of the same quality.
As for areas under regime control, such as Homs, the apple production remains nearly the same as it was before the war.
Q: How has this affected your financial situation?
I had savings from harvests before 2012, which held over my family for a while. But now it has been years and we’ve spent my savings. Without any income, my son is now the sole provider for our family. He repairs mobile phones and home appliances.
Apple farming was my only source of income. Now I own fewer than 20 trees within the town and what these trees yield isn’t a quality product. Without fertilizers and pesticides, I can’t produce anything.