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Quneitra farmers lose sole income as regime tariffs upend fragile agricultural balance: ‘I haven’t even begun to harvest’

AMMAN: Farmers in rebel-held parts of Syria’s Quneitra province say […]

AMMAN: Farmers in rebel-held parts of Syria’s Quneitra province say they are losing thousands of dollars since regime forces introduced a tariff on their produce in recent months, disrupting a fragile economic balance in place between government and opposition territory in the country’s far southwest.

In the tomato and okra fields of Quneitra province, along Syria’s southwestern border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, harvest season began last month. Produce from the late summer harvest is the main source of income for local farmers in rebel territory, meant to hold over thousands of families through the winter months.

Supplies of tomatoes, okra and peppers travel by the crateful across regime lines to government-held territory in neighboring Daraa province, where residents rely on vegetables brought in from the agriculturally rich Quneitra countryside.

“The regime needs these crops,” Yasser al-Fuheili, head of Quneitra’s opposition-run agriculture directorate told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Most of the agricultural regions [in southern Syria] lie outside of regime control,” where a surplus of produce pushes farmers to sell in regime-held markets, he added.

“Each side needs the other in one way or another.”

But this year, two farmers told Syria Direct, a new tariff imposed on produce originating in opposition-held Quneitra and Daraa produce in recent months by regime authorities at a checkpoint between government- and opposition-held territory is preventing farmers from transporting their crops across regime lines.

A farmer in rural Quneitra on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Muath al-Asaad.

Since March, the new tariff has reportedly been enforced at the Khirbet Ghazaleh trade checkpoint north of Daraa city, through which all produce reportedly enters government territories from opposition-held parts of Daraa and Quneitra. However, farmers are feeling the impact of the tariff most sharply with the arrival of harvest season.

The halt in the flow of vegetables to regime territory means a delicate economic balance in southwestern Syria is poised to fall off course as winter approaches, severely disrupting a region reliant on agriculture.

Today, thousands of acres of tomato, okra and pepper fields are left full of unharvested crops, residents on the ground say, as some farmers once reliant on the income from late-summer sales say they cannot pay the fee to transport their products into regime territory.

“I haven’t even begun to harvest my tomato crop due to the high price,” Ali Abu al-Majd, a farmer in rural Quneitra told Syria Direct correspondent Muath al-Asaad on Wednesday. He says the tariff costs him SP20 [approximately $0.04] per kilogram of vegetables he transports across the regime checkpoint, an amount he cannot afford.

“This has been a very bad season for me,” said al-Majd.

Increased prices of water and fuel for irrigation had already hurt Daraa and Quneitra farmers in recent weeks.

Last month, pro-regime forces captured a stretch of rebel-held territory in southern Suwayda province, more than 100 kilometers east of Quneitra’s farm fields.

The advances severed a complex smuggling route that brought cheap, low-grade diesel from the Islamic State’s oil fields in eastern Syria across the open desert and west toward the farms of Daraa and Quneitra. There, local farmers used the cheap fuel to power their irrigation systems and other farm equipment.

Remaining supplies of fuel and equipment are running low, and sell at high prices, Ahmad Abu Karam, a tomato farmer in rural northern Daraa province just outside Quneitra told Syria Direct.

A tomato field in Quneitra on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Muath al-Asaad.

“One liter of mazot fuel has reached SP500 [approximately $1],” the farmer and father of five said. “The expenses associated with harvesting now outweigh the price of the crops.”

To recoup funds he spent on farm equipment and diesel this year, Abu Karam attempted to sell his crops in regime-held territory in neighboring Damascus province. But the cost of transporting his produce across the regime checkpoint was too high for him, he said.

As a last resort, he sold his tomato harvest to local sauce factories in rebel territory, “which buy the tomatoes at a very low price.”

“I rely on summer crops, including tomatoes, to make ends meet for my family every winter,” he told Syria Direct. “But the crossing put in place by the regime has led to a change in the market, and impacted everything here in opposition-held territory.”

Yasser al-Fuheili, head of Quneitra’s opposition-run agriculture department, estimates at least SP2 billion [approximately $4 million] in total losses to local tomato farmers during this fall’s harvest–“and this is just counting one crop,” he told Syria Direct. The losses are part of hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to food crops in Quneitra and Daraa since the start of the war, a 2017 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found.

For farmer Ali Abu al-Majd in Quneitra, the lack of profit from recent tomato sales means he still cannot justify harvesting his crops, which would likely bring in little profit. “This all goes back to the situation at the regime crossing,” he said.

“Harvest season continues until the end of November–but I can’t wait much longer [to harvest] before the soil is ruined.” 

With additional reporting by Muath al-Asaad.

This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here

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