In Syrian opposition strongholds: cultivating wheat for the “enemies”

Investigated by: Mahmoud Al-Shamali

Farmer Al-Khamisi Abu Shadi is used to dedicate his efforts to working on his land in Sahl Al-Ghab, western Idlib. Abu Shadi’s land, 40 dunams*, is his only source of income. He usually cultivates it with wheat. He had to move to a camp close to Turkey, with his family, because of the war in Syria. He’s keen, however, on working on his land in the seasons of seeding and harvest.

Abu Shadi’ downsized his use of agricultural inputs to a great extent because of price hikes, which caused production to fall from 500-600 kg/dunam before the war that started 7 years ago, to 300-350 kg/dunam in 2016-2017 season. Beside the fall in production, Abu Shadi and other farmers are facing another problem. “I couldn’t deliver the production of my land to the wheat reception centers run by the opposition, that pay 165 USD/ton but do not have the capacity to get all production, so I had to sell it in the black market at 125 USD/ton, and then it is transferred to areas controlled by the regime”, he said.

Abu Shadi’s story is a common one for wheat farmers in Idlib, where largest areas controlled by Syrian opposition are found. There, the farmers dwindling production, in terms of quantity and value, goes to the regime areas- the regime they rebelled against and fought.

Abu Hassan is a farmer from Qastun in western Idlib countryside. He used unprocessed seeds. He stored the seeds from last season, like other farmers who are used to such procedure since the war started in Syria.

According to Abu Hasan, “the quantity of seeds that I use is the same, didn’t change since before the war”. He indicated, however, that “production fell back due to many reasons, most important of which is the quality of seeds used. Before the war seeds were of good quality, and it was produced under supervision of the government. Seeds strains then included Sham 1, 2, 3, and 4”.

Abu Hassan cultivated around 127 dunams with bread wheat in the 2016-2017 season. The yield of his land reached around 50 tons of wheat, while before war it was around 65 tons. “In 2015-2016, my loss was big, because my harvest burned due to shelling by the regime troops at Jourin Camp in Sahl Al-Ghab”, he said, “my only harvest was loss”. The camp is around 10 km away from Abu Hassan’s land.

The situation wasn’t substantially different for Qasim Khatab, a farmer from southern Idlib countryside, who said that under the conditions of production costs hikes, “the farmer doesn’t have enough for income, after paying his debts and production costs”.

“Current production costs are as following: cultivating [sic] one dunam costs 2500 SYP (5 USD). Preparing the land in one dunam costs 1100 SYP (2 USD). Sowing the seeds, per 1 kg is 180 SYP (0.36 USD), and one dunam needs around 30 kg (or 10.8 USD). In terms of pesticides, we can only find low quality types, with the cost of (3 USD). Also, the costs of harvest: one dunam costs around 6000 SYP (12 USD), and it needs fertilizers per dunam at 50 kg, with the cost of around 10,000 SYP (20 USD)”.



Dr. Khaled Al-Hassan, the general manager of Agriculture Association in Idlib, that follows the National Coalition for Revolution and Opposition Forces, said that in 2012 the yield of wheat was 188 thousand tons in the governorate, and it was cultivated on 68 thousand hectares**. The production dwindled in 2016 to 40 thousand tons, and the cultivated area shrunk to 15 thousand hectares. In 2017, the production increased to 122 thousand tons and the area was 45 thousand hectares, because of increased rain and more suitable weather during that year.

He said there are no statistics for the period from 2013 to 2015 because of the instability in Idlib around that time.

Farming is not enough

Abdul Sami` Haj Mohamed is a farmer from eastern Idlib countryside. He is 52 years old. The average yield of his land before the war was 20 tons, and the price of one ton was 16 thousand SYP at the governmental silos, or around 355 USD/ton, since the dollar price back then was around 45 SYP.

Average production fell back now to around 13 tons. The ton is sold at 123 thousand SYP (232 USD).

Mohamed said that under the conditions of increased prices of agricultural equipment and the Syria Lira devaluation against the US dollar, the farmers had to find other jobs to put bread on the table, because agriculture is not enough anymore.

He sold the production to traders at 120 SYP/kg, or around 120 SYP/ton (226 USD), according to current exchange rates. A ton of wheat is sold at the opposition reception centers, as well as those in the regime controlled areas, at between 265 USD and 275 USD, according to quality.

“It is all loss to the farmers and gain to the traders, who used the inability of the opposition product reception centers to take in all production, and exported it to regime areas”, he said.

Mohamed Al-Khalil looked for another job to get alternative income, instead of cultivating his land in Saraqib, eastern Idlib. He opened a grocery store to get income for his family. He now cultivates his land with crops that need less production costs, like fennel flower and cumin.

There are 6 wheat reception centers to receive wheat from farmers in opposition strongholds. These centers are under the supervision of the interim government formed by the opposition, they are in: Idlib, Ma`arat Al-Numan, Saraqib, Ra`a, Dara `Azza, Al-Atarib. These centers received around 10 thousand ton in 2017, according to Raqi Khatab, the accountant at the wheat reception project supervised by the interim government.

Ma`an Nassir, the director of the General Organization for Seeds Multiplication (GOSM) that reports to the opposition coalition in Idlib, said, “wheat is delivered through our centers based on how much money is available for this. It is not possible to receive the whole yield. In 2017 we received 9500 tons of wheat in all liberated zones. Idlib’s share of it was around 1000 tons, and the money dedicated for 2017 season was around 4 million USD”. On the other hand, Dr. Hassan from the Agricultural association in Idlib stated that yield of wheat reached 122 thousand tons. The reception centers receive production from farmers on the basis of serving those who come first, until the money dedicated for buying wheat runs out.

Nassir added that money is provided through supporters as a beneficence loan paid in kind, as wheat. This goes to parties like the Qatari Red Crescent, and the Assistance Coordination Unit, that coordinates support from donors and local partners.

Farmer Mohamed Al-Radwan, from Sahl Al-Rouj, western Idlib countryside, cultivated in 2016-2017 season around 40 dunams with wheat. He produced 17 tons. He said, “I had to sell wheat to traders in the black market at 100 SYP, less than the normal price by around 40 SYP, because I couldn’t sell the production to the reception centers run by the opposition, who received as much as they can of wheat already”.

Grow food for your enemy

Firas Abu Ahmad is the supervisor at the Qalaat Al-Madiq crossing in western Hama countryside, and he is a member in Ahrar Al-Sham faction. He said, “opening the road for wheat trucks from opposition areas to regime areas through crossings is due to seeking the interest of the farmers, after wheat prices decreased in the market, and with the absence of buyers”. He added, “We had to open the crossing for them, and to facilitate the passage of wheat”.

A trader who takes wheat to regime areas, who requested to remain anonymous, said, “they buy wheat from farmers or local traders, collect it in trucks, then the truck go to the regime areas passing through Qalaat Al-Madiq crossing”.

These traders get the money for their wheat from the regime, through intermediary persons who receive the cargo, get the money from the regime, then pay the traders.

Traders get 3 Liras per kg of wheat exported to the regime areas, or 300 SYP for one ton (around 6 USD). The investigator saw many receipts issued by regime authorities holding names of wheat importers, including receipts issued on 23 June, 2017, and on 24 June, 2017. They are people living in opposition strongholds.

Scattered responsibility and difference in prices

 The issue of wheat in “liberated” norther Syria is handled by many entities. In 22 May, 2017, these entities concluded an agreement for determining the price of bread wheat at 265 USD/ton, and the price of durum wheat at 270 USD/ton. The signatories included the General Organization for Seeds Multiplication, the assistance coordination unit that follows the interim authority, the civil services administration that follows the dissident Levant Liberation Committee, and the civil services committee that follows the Ahrar Al-Sham movement.



The civil services administration, however, declared a different price after a week. It issued a statement on 28 May 2017, where it said that the Supplies Administration, that reports to it, declares it will buy the whole yield of wheat and barley from farmers, at 105 thousand SYP (210 USD at the time) for a kg of durum wheat  and 103 thousand SYP (206 USD at the time) for a kg of bread wheat. It declared that the money will be paid on delivery, on the spot.

Although it signed the wheat prices agreement, the civil administration said in a statement that farming authorities signing the decision are not able to buy the whole yield of wheat in the liberated areas in northern Syria, which opened the door for smuggling wheat to regime regions.

The services administration however issued a confirmation on 31 May 2017, stating that it will “keep on applying the agreement related to most agricultural matters, and that it will take the wheat at the price declared”.

Farmers support efforts

Humanitarian organizations are trying to support the strategic cultivation of wheat and providing food security to the people living in opposition strongholds. They try to conserve the local wheat strains and increase their quality, according to a report issued on the official website of the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), a report it issued aboutthe 2017 wheat project.

According to the report, the project overseen by three parties (Qatari Red Crescent, ACU,  and General Organization for Seeds Multiplication), will aim to grow wheat on 8 thousand hectares (80 thousand dunams) in opposition controlled areas, in 2017.

Direct beneficiaries are around 17,697 families (88,485 persons) at a budget of 6.3 million USD, 4 millions of which will go to the establishment of the Farmers Support Fund, which is a loans fund to support farmers with agricultural inputs across the season in return for the farmers to deliver the harvest to the supporters.

According to Ma`an Nassir the director of GOSM, this project, and although it had been going on for more than 3 seasons, did not solve the whole problem, because beneficiaries are only a fraction of the farmers population, since the project has budget limitations.

Conserving a strategic supply of wheat, and not exporting it to the regime areas “provides for a stability in wheat prices, and preserves the rights of the farmers and their profit margin, unless they are affected by weather and other factors they cannot do anything about”, as agricultural engineer Adib Mighlaj, who lives in opposition strongholds in norther Syria, said.

* Dunum equals 1,000 square meters in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

** Hectare equals 10,000 square meters.

This investigation was completed with the support of the Syria in Depth project, an initiative by International Media Support (IMS) and The Guardian Foundation, alongside Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).


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