Desperately seeking grain

Friday 03/07/2015
A Syrian farmer harvests wheat in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Damascus - The Syrian government is desperately trying to gain access to the country’s wheat crops, which are mainly grown in areas outside its control. While officials of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime expected strong wheat pro­duction in 2015 due to beneficial rains, they have little hope of woo­ing farmers to sell their crops to the government despite offering many incentives.
“I have sold all my wheat crop of 2,000 tons to tradesmen at prices higher than what the government is offering,” said Salem, a farmer in Kurdish-controlled Hasaka prov­ince in north-eastern Syria.
Many Syrian farmers like Salem are selling crops at competitive prices to dealers connected with the various armed groups control­ling the fertile lands in which their fields are located.
The government has allocated $300 million for the purchase of wheat, paying $200 per ton instead of $130 and promising to pay for the crops within 24 hours.
“But none of the measures that were taken by the government to fill its empty silos is working,” Ab­del Moin Kadamani, director of production at the Ministry of Ag­riculture, said. “Despite all these incentives, the results were very disappointing.”
Kadamani said that through June 17th, the government had received 129,270 tons of wheat from farmers this year. There is little indication the volume of delivered crops will increase significantly, according to a source at the ministry.
“It is a simple comparative calcu­lation. If the office for grain has so far received less than 130,000 tons from 363,000 hectares of harvested fields, it implies that once all the cultivated area of 1,196,798 hec­tares is fully harvested, it will be a miracle if we get more than 500 tons,” the source added on condi­tion of anonymity.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecast Syrian wheat and barley production for 2015 to be as high as 3 million tons and 1.2 million tons, respectively, due to heavy rains.
But more than 45% of major ag­ricultural areas is in Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, areas out­side Syrian government control. Another 43% is in Hasaka where control is shared among the gov­ernment, Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish armed groups. Only 22% of wheat fields fall under the control of the government.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al- Halqi made an unprecedented visit to the Kurdish-controlled part of Hasaka on June 15th, announcing the allocation of $4 million to the province, a move largely viewed as an attempt to win over wheat farm­ers.
Economist Sleiman Sleiman downplayed the effect of the visit, saying “it came a bit too late”.
“Brokers have already purchased the wheat harvest at prices as com­petitive as the government’s,” Slei­man said.
He said security hazards and risky roads are other factors “pre­venting the delivery of crops to the government. Moreover, farmers are constantly threatened and intimi­dated by armed groups who want to stop them from handing over the wheat to the authorities”.
Nonetheless, ISIS in March al­lowed 185 trucks loaded with wheat from Qamishli in Hasaka to cross its territory to government-controlled areas according to a Raqqa-based source speaking to The Arab Week­ly on condition of anonymity.
That apparent “largesse” was likely because of problems in stor­ing excess grain. ISIS also confis­cated 25% of the crops and levied a 10,000-pound — about $45 — tax on each truckload of barley, the source said.
Syria, which boasted surplus in wheat production before the war, is grappling to ensure there is enough grain. The government may have to import wheat after already drawing on strategic reserves. This prompted the Central Bank to offer incentives for next season to farm­ers who deliver their crops to the government. Government efforts are, however, trounced by trad­ers and brokers, who are offering 46 cents-57 cents for a kilogram of wheat, compared to the govern­ment’s 28 cents.
Salem, the wheat farmer from Hasaka, said he sold his crop to the Kurdish “autonomous administra­tion” and had no intention to hon­our loans from the state-run Agri­cultural Cooperative Bank.
“The Syrian government’s deci­sion to write off the interest on the loans and fines on overdue pay­ments came very late,” he said. “I am not under the obligation to pay money to the bank. I cannot afford to dispense any penny to the gov­ernment under the current (harsh) living and financial conditions.”
On his part, Mounir, a wheat farmer from Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, had no choice but to sell his 500-ton wheat harvest to the Islamist group. “I wish I could deliver my produce to the govern­ment but I cannot under the pre­vailing situation,” he said.
In the meantime, the government has been content with the crops de­livered from Homs, Hama, Tartus, Latakia and Sweida, Kadamani said.
The government is also not risk­ing storing crops in “hot areas” where they could be seized by rebel groups but has been transporting them quickly to secure silos in Da­mascus, Tartus and Latakia.