Syria Becoming

Farmers plow the future

With its rich agriculture heritage, Syria would easily feed itself... if its farmers could do more than fight for survival. Today, they enjoy little of the state support on which they long relied; without it, they are probing individual solutions that may work on a small scale, but fail to provide good answers to the country’s growing problem of food insecurity. Instead, Syria is going through a slow, chaotic shift toward decentralized farming, which will redefine how society sustains itself for years to come.

Four seasons of crisis

The past decade has dealt one blow after another to Syrian agricultural producers. Amid the country’s 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict, swathes of its most vital farmland transformed into frontlines: the southern Hawran, the Ghab plain, the northeastern Jazira region, the olive groves of Idlib and Afrin, and the rural hinterlands of Syria’s major cities all witnessed large-scale violence. Bombs and mortars set crops ablaze and exploded irrigation channels, while militias looted pumping infrastructure and razed forested areas for firewood. Farming communities were uprooted: Some families squatted on land abandoned by those who had fled, while others made their way to urban centers or neighboring countries.

Some lands were spared violence, only to whither from neglect as shifting checkpoints and battle lines blocked farmers from tending their fields. A farmer in the town of Yabroud, in the Qalamoun mountains ranging Syria’s western border with Lebanon, lamented how war had forced him to abandon his apricot trees: “All my trees dried out and died because I couldn’t reach my land to care for them.” The consequences, he explained, may be irreversible: “I don’t see how I can ever go back to farming. Repairing these lands would be hugely expensive. Even if I could afford to plant new trees, they would take seven years to bear fruit.”

Indeed, although violence has subsided across most of Syria, farmers now face an economic breakdown that affects them at each stage of the production cycle. Just to put crops in the ground, they must procure inputs that—due to inflation, currency devaluation, and the effects of Western sanctions and internal checkpoints—have grown ever costlier. “Fertilizers and pesticides have gotten more and more expensive, and harder to find,” explained a researcher in northern Idlib who has studied the region’s agricultural sector. “These inputs have to be imported from Turkey or [across checkpoints] from government areas. Grains and seeds are more available, but have also gotten more expensive.”

Having sown one’s crops, irrigation poses the next challenge. Farmers rely heavily on pumping groundwater, which in turn requires fuel. But diesel has grown so scarce that some simply cannot find it, while others pay exorbitant fees to purchase it on the black market—sometimes taking on debt to do so. An elderly farmer in Raqqa’s Tal Abyad voiced frustration at his own rising costs, as well as the criticism he has faced for passing these costs onto consumers: “Our lands need irrigation, which needs fuel. Tomatoes are getting more expensive because the price of fuel is rising, not because farmers are greedy. People in the cities have this idea that farming is just about putting seeds in the soil and waiting.”

Farmers who successfully harvest their produce run another gauntlet: getting it to market. Transportation demands yet more fuel, and often means crossing checkpoints manned by factions who demand bribes from commercial traffic. This economy has grown so entrenched that producers and traders must systematically factor it into their pricing. The owner of a nursery in southwest Syria, who ships his olive, fruit, and rose seedlings to buyers all the way in the northeast, said: “We count the bribes paid at every checkpoint, divide the total by the number of seedlings in the shipment, and add that on to the final price.”

But not all producers can pass costs on to consumers, who may find better prices elsewhere. “I used to export sheep to northern Iraq, but lately I’ve been forced out of the market,” explained a sheepherder the northeastern town of Manbij, some 400 kilometers from the Iraqi border. “Ever since the hashad [Iraqi paramilitaries] took control of the border, they demand such high taxes that I can’t compete with livestock raised on the other side.”

To make matters worse, Syria’s homegrown problems are being amplified by climate change. As temperatures rise and precipitation grows increasingly erratic, Syria’s rivers and reservoirs have plunged to perilous lows—endangering irrigation flows. What remains is increasingly polluted by runoff from makeshift oil refineries along the all-important Euphrates. Abnormally hot, dry weather has helped fuel wildfires, which devoured forests along the northwest coast and wheatfields in Syria’s northeastern breadbasket.        

Taken together, these problems are enough to force some farmers not just out of the market, but out of the country. “About a third of our village has emigrated,” said a farmer in the Hama countryside, who himself intends to leave Syria along with his family. He worried that unchecked migration would spell the end of his region’s deep-rooted agricultural traditions: “If people keep leaving at this pace, it will wipe out this area’s agriculture entirely. You can’t have farming without farmers.”        

Unsowing the state

Faced with this litany of challenges, the farmers who still work the fields must increasingly fend for themselves. As the conflict took root, state institutions retreated from expanding swathes of the country’s most important agricultural land. Any troubles that farmers now face are magnified by an unraveling of support structures that had facilitated their work for much of the half-century preceding Syria’s uprising.

Beginning in the 1960s, successive Baathist governments invested massively in uplifting Syria’s peasantry. They distributed subsidized seeds, fertilizer, fuel, and pesticides, and purchased staple crops at above-market prices. They doled out cheap loans, enabling farmers to drill private wells and make the desert bloom with thirsty crops such as wheat and cotton. Local agricultural bodies offered technical guidance on pest control and plant disease, and intervened in the event of fires or flooding. An elderly wheat farmer in Hassakeh grumbled about how little support he receives today: “The war ruined everything. It wasn’t like this before 2011: Public institutions helped us get seeds, fertilizers, and tractors, and took care of marketing our product. Work was good in the days of the state.”

Such nostalgia tends to gloss over the fact that support was waning even while the state was strong. As Bashar al-Assad liberalized Syria’s economy in the 2000s, he began dismantling the decades-old pillars of agricultural development established by his father. In the few years preceding the uprising—when northeast Syria was suffering its worst drought in recorded history—the government gutted subsidies to diesel and fertilizer. Prices rocketed, leaving many unable to sow and irrigate their crops. Communities plunged into poverty, driving waves of migration to Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, and rural southwestern areas where drought was less severe. The state downplayed the extent of this largely self-inflicted emergency, undercutting the prospects for an effective response. “The government insisted that there was no real crisis,” recalled an academic who saw its effects with her own eyes. “They did so even as tent camps were popping up around Damascus, filled with people who had fled their villages in Hassakeh.”

Syria’s uprising only hastened this process. In areas seized by opposition factions—including much of Syria’s most productive farmland—state institutions either withdrew entirely or dramatically scaled back their services. “We stopped many of our operations after 2011,” said a frustrated employee with Syria’s Agricultural Bank, the official body responsible for extending loans to farmers. “The unrest started in agricultural areas—Deraa, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh, Rural Aleppo—so there wasn’t much we could do.” Even in areas that the regime controlled throughout, farmers suffer from waning governmental assistance. A career agronomist and civil servant worried that the state’s shrinking budget and weakened administrative capacity had even undermined its relationship to its core constituency:

Greenhouse farmers in Latakia and Tartous are mostly from families with ties to the army, security services, and pro-government militias. Those farmers have been calling for the government to supply them with heating oil, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. The government has given them nothing.

The state’s role in fostering agriculture runs deeper than material contributions. Syria’s public universities historically played an integral role in training agricultural and hydrological engineers, replenishing a cohort of experts on a national scale. But these institutions have deteriorated spectacularly: Qualified staff have left in large numbers, and holdouts complain about unlivable wages, dismal teaching conditions, and a generation of students that sees little point in pursuing a career in agriculture. “I’d say a third of the professors in my faculty have left since 2011,” estimated a professor of agricultural engineering at one of the country’s premier public universities, before adding, despairingly: “I know so many graduates who studied agronomy but ended up working in mobile shops or low-level civil servant jobs.”

As the Baathist state abdicates its traditional role, a smattering of alternatives has sought to fill the gap—notably NGOs and alternative governance structures, such as the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in the northeast. Yet these actors are often the first to admit their own inability to stand in for a functioning state, not least due to their limited budgets and short funding horizons. A Western NGO worker active in the northeast summed up the dilemma:        

The Autonomous Administration can’t provide much support, because they don’t have enough money. NGOs do more, but it’s still minimal. By contrast, the regime used to provide everything farmers needed: seeds, fertilizers, water, fuel, technical support, and then even buying back crops at a good price. It’s impossible for NGOs to match that.        

The result is a mosaic in which the state, its political rivals, and the aid sector all extend bits and pieces of support within their areas of operation—from loans, cash handouts, and subsidized inputs to technical support and training. Such piecemeal assistance can be immensely valuable to individual growers, but does little to tackle more complex, collective issues of water management and food security. “Syria desperately needs a long-term strategy,” complained a Jordan-based water expert with a Western aid agency, adding: “Everything we’ve done has been very random.” 

Every farm for itself

Syrian farmers are thus mostly on their own in managing the transition from hyper-centralized, state-backed agriculture to an extreme form of privatization. Bereft of state safety nets, they are testing small-scale survival strategies, some of which show promise. For one, as both water resources and state funding dry up, some farmers are shifting away from thirsty crops formerly underwritten by subsidies. In the drought-stricken northeast, for example, small numbers of wheat farmers are trialing more drought tolerant alternatives, such as chickpeas and broad beans. In the village of Um Sharshouh, in the countryside north of Homs, a farmer described the economic and environmental logic of his own shift away from wheat:

I fled my village in 2014, when the Free Syrian Army took control. I went back in 2017 and started growing wheat again, but the profits weren’t much. So I took a neighbor’s advice and switched to growing aromatic plants like chamomile and cumin, which are more profitable and more weather resistant. Many others have done the same.

Farmers’ struggles to remain afloat have made such experimentation increasingly widespread. Some innovations are as simple as buying a cow to produce natural compost, replacing expensive chemical fertilizers. Others are more ambitious: Deprived of state electricity and unable to afford fuel to power water pumps and irrigate their crops, some have turned to renewable energy. “Farmers love solar panels,” said an electrical engineer who sells them to a growing client base in the Damascus countryside. “In the long summer days, they can run their pumps from 7am to 6pm without buying any fuel.”

Investments, both large and small, are often supported by the Syrian diaspora. At the individual level, remittances can plug some of the gaps left by disappearing state loans and subsidies. In some instances, these transnational networks help not just with production costs, but also with tapping export markets where their produce fetch higher prices than in Syria’s broken economy. An olive farmer in the eastern Deraa countryside explained how family connections have helped him make good money exporting to the Gulf: “We produce our own olive oil using my father’s press, and also buy from other producers who need help selling. Then we ship it in bulk to the Emirates, where my relatives own a shop and take care of all the marketing.”

Occasionally, some venture to hope that these small investments will revitalize a local, subsistence-based agriculture in Syria itself. “Those abroad are trying to help their family back home feed themselves,” said an activist in Suweida, where economic pain has fueled rising crime and occasional street protests. “Remittances have helped people plant apple, cherry, apricot, plum, and almond trees, and also allowed them to buy cows, poultry, and bees.”

In some cases, this logic of self-sufficiency has even driven city-dwellers to return to their ancestral villages—in a mirror image of the more common trend toward abandoning rural land in search of urban livelihoods. A middle-aged civil servant explained how he had abandoned his home in the city of Latakia and moved with his wife and two children back to his family’s home in Syria’s coastal mountains:

We reached a point where we couldn’t afford enough vegetables and dairy to feed ourselves. So, when the school year ended in April, we returned to our home village to live next to my parents. My father owns farmland, which me, my wife, and children work all day to produce some vegetables and milk from my mother’s cow. It’s a simple life, but at least we have enough food. Many have chosen to return to this rural life.

Ultimately, though, these adaptations don’t seem to add up to a sustainable path toward feeding Syria as a whole. For every farmer that can scrounge the cash to purchase livestock, install solar panels, or buy seeds to try new crops, many others cannot afford to do so. Moreover, the scramble for individual solutions has hidden, collective costs. Crop substitution, for example, is a double-edged sword, as the most economically viable crops are not necessarily those which society needs most. In some regions, farmers struggling to break even have sought to cash in on a flourishing drug trade by replacing traditional crops with hashish: a switch that may be financially sensible, but which also fuels the country’s shift toward an economic model ever more dependent on illicit activity.

More commonly, farmers faced with rising temperatures and consecutive dry seasons have drilled ever deeper in search of groundwater to irrigate their crops. In this literal race to the bottom, larger farmers—those with the resources to drill farther and pump longer—threaten to push water tables beyond the reach of smaller players. Viewed through this lens, the rise of renewable energy implies something more ominous: As solar panels allow farmers to pump and flood their land for hours on end, they hasten the depletion of Syria’s already scarce water supply.

Finally, without a functioning state to regulate the market, farmers’ ad hoc efforts to cover their own costs have helped push the prices of even basic goods beyond the reach of Syria’s expanding underclass. Consumers find coping mechanisms of their own: say, cutting out ever more foods from their diet or settling for lower quality, less nutritious products. “Prices are so high that we think about buying zucchini almost as carefully as we think about buying meat,” confessed a journalist in the Damascus suburbs, observing in her own neighborhood the unpalatable alternative: “More and more people now buy rotten produce from vegetable shops, because vendors sell it at a discount.” This shift has profound implications: In a society with rich, proud traditions of cuisine, hospitality, and self-sufficiency, shrinking access to quality food is as much a cultural and psychological shock as a nutritional one.

Seeds of something

Incipient and imperfect though they are, the survival tactics which farmers adopt today will determine how Syria feeds itself in the future. Patterns of migration are determining which swathes of land will remain in cultivation and which will be abandoned to disuse or urban development; farmers who remain are assembling a new repertoire of crops, techniques, financial mechanisms, and trade routes, some of which will blossom while others wither. 

Taken together, these trends point toward a more decentralized form of agriculture that will take decades to mature. Their final shape will depend not just on the efforts of individual farmers, but on the broader question of how Syria’s power structure and society reconfigure themselves and their relationship to one another. Securing enough food for one’s people is a core function of the state; for years to come, however, it may be little more than an afterthought for a regime bent only on muddling through. In the meantime, the bottom-up reordering of Syrian agriculture is certain to be painful, but also fertile: bearing lessons not just for Syria itself, but for other societies—in the region and beyond—that are navigating climate change with little help from their decaying governments.

20 June 2022

Illustration credit: "Mother Earth" by Anas Al Braehi, gratefully reproduced with permission of the artist.

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