Desperately seeking grain
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.