Agriculture and Food Sovereignty in Syria

A multi-coloured bus is picking up children from the Zaizoun refugee camp in Daraa, southern Syria. This ‘bus of joy,’ also called ‘the olive bus,’ is a service set up by a local organisation named ‘olive branch.’ Olives are one of the most important agricultural products in Daraa, with 6.5 million trees farmed on close to 30,000 hectares.

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A multi-coloured bus is picking up children from the Zaizoun refugee camp in Daraa, southern Syria. This ‘bus of joy,’ also called ‘the olive bus,’ is a service set up by a local organisation named ‘olive branch.’ Olives are one of the most important agricultural products in Daraa, with 6.5 million trees farmed on close to 30,000 hectares.[1] At the camp’s entrance, joyful children carrying exercise books and pens are looking forward to a day spent outside its confines. Camp Zaizoun houses six hundred families, most of them refugees from Homs, the surroundings of Damascus, and villages in the province of Daraa; war zones where returning home is a distant prospect. After three or four years on the run, many of their homes have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting and their towns and villages no longer offer a source of income.


In Zaizoun many trees have been felled for firewood during the winter. The children on the olive bus are going to visit a local seedling production site with a tree nursery.[2] Rafat, who is in charge of this local initiative, explains, ‘our aim is for the children to build a relationship with the land and, eventually, for them to grow plants in the camps. The children need to develop a positive relationship with nature and agriculture. Nature is the source of our food and our medications – this is what we’re trying to teach them. In the nursery, we’ll show them why trees are important for us.’ Prior to 2011, the olive harvest had always been a collective experience with entire families working together in the fields. In part, this tradition continues today, however, displacement and the loss of lands have led to its disruption.[3] Rafat goes on to say, ‘having been driven off their land, it is especially important to rebuild a relationship with the soil.’ During their visit to the seedling production site, the children talk about their villages and the fields and gardens they used to have. Rafat adds, ‘in war, agriculture has a special meaning. (…) Farming the land is a form of resistance, and thus it is important to get the children to relate to nature.’


Indeed, the lot of Daraa’s farmers is not an easy one. Daraa is a region shaped by agriculture and, at the beginning of the uprising this was used against the people farming the land. On 25 April 2011, a week after the first protests in Daraa, the regime sent tanks across the fields destroying what had been farmed with little mechanisation and in a labour intensive way; a siege for a number of days followed.[4] These measures were specifically directed at food and the production of foodstuffs. For example, in 2012, the regime targeted bread lines in front of bakeries,[5] starved political prisoners[6] and then, in 2013, laid siege to whole communities and towns.[7] In the process, farmers were cut off from their fields (as was the case in southern Damascus), or were rounded up and eventually disappeared without a trace (as in Zabadani), leaving communities without providers. In the Old City of Homs, in Daraya, Modamiya, Madaya, Zabadani, Tell, and Al-Waer, people starved then whole villages were abandoned and people displaced to other parts of the country.


A Revolution has to Originate in Daraa

It is ironic that the demonstrations that took place in Daraa on 17 March 2011 triggered a national uprising. Previously, many Syrians had quipped that a revolution would only ever succeed if it originated in this province. This was a reference to the fact that the ruling Baath Party had been particularly powerful in rural areas of Syria.


But not always: originally, the Baath Party was not a rural organisation and only became one in 1952 when it merged with Syria’s first agrarian party, Akram Hawrani’s Arab Socialist Party.[8] Hawrani had tried to fuse the fight for peasant’s rights against feudalism with the creation of an Arab nation[9] arguing that farmers were an ‘essential component’ of the Arab nation and that without liberating and emancipating the peasant masses first a united Arab nation could never come about.[10] Officers from peasant families rose through the ranks of the Baath Party while, according to Nikolaos van Dam, the expert on Syria, some farming families were so poor they had to sell their daughters to wealthy urban families.[11] At least sixty percent of the rural population didn’t own any land and twenty percent owned less than ten hectares.[12]


The year 1958 marked the beginning of several periods of land reform, which initially improved the situation in the countryside. Up until 1961 15,000 families became property owners through the redistribution of 148,000 hectares of land. However, the amount of expropriated land was significantly larger, in total 670,212 hectares.[13] This policy was continued after the Baath Party came to power in 1963. Still, the land reforms only saw a redistribution of around twenty five percent of the 1.37 million hectares of confiscated land to farmer families,[14] with the rest being turned into state owned farms.[15] While the normalisation policy was predominantly aimed at the ‘old bourgeoisie’ and considerably diminished their property,[16] as Myriam Ababsahas demonstrated in her work for the al-Jazira-region, the agricultural policies pursued by the Baath Party after 1963 were, generally, fairly pragmatic in nature and avoided overly snubbing the country’s elite[17]; indeed the persistent poverty of the rural population is plain to see in the films of Syrian director Omar Amiralay.


While most countries in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) had to import food, Syria maintained a certain degree of food self sufficiency until the drought in the 2000s.[18] The subsidizing of food production went so far that up until the 2000s certain foods were being smuggled into Lebanon to be sold below market prices.[19] Agricultural projects often followed Soviet models, that is, development was pursued by means of major irrigation and recultivation projects.[20] However, these projects didn’t develop as envisioned, and during the 1980s the economic liberals within the Baath Party won out and began to push policies that ‘replaced ideology with economic practicability’[21] and, as a consequence, partnered with the bourgeoisie, who, not long before, had been denounced as a ‘bankrupt enemy class.’[22] Still, agricultural policies continued to reflect the desire of the governing elite to impose centralised controls overseen by the Baath Party.[23]


Fearing that the West might use ‘food as a weapon’ in the same way that Arab countries had tried to use oil, the Syrian regime decided to introduce a new agricultural policy.[24] This policy gave precedence to strategic crops with high water demand (such as wheat and cotton) and promoted a type of crop rotation that favoured cultures dependent on high resource usage. Farmers who adapted to the agricultural scheme of the regime and began to grow strategic crops received privileged access to permits for the construction of wells, subsidised pesticides and fertiliser.[25] Cotton was produced for the local market but significantly was also destined for export to Italy, Taiwan and Turkey.[26] During the drought of 2006, these policies brought disastrous consequences,[27] resulting in the migration of around 300,000 people from north Eastern Syria with the majority going to larger cities such as Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.[28]


Dignity, not hunger

After the first deaths during demonstrations in Daraa, Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to the president, stated on 24 March 2011 that the government intended to undertake a number of socioeconomic reforms and improve living conditions through pay rises. However, this did not address the demonstrators’ key demands for dignity and liberty. They responded by chanting a slogan which became very popular during the uprising, ‘Ya Bouthaina ya Shabaan ash shaab as-suri mu juan’ (O Buthaina, o Shaaban, the Syrian people isn’t hungry), underlining the point that Syrians were not merely objects to be fed.[29]


Karam, a peasant from Idlib presently living in Lebanon, says his political goal is what he calls ‘agricultural liberty’ (Huriyya zira´iya). This, he says, is not about food as such but about the way food is being produced. He explains:


It is true, there’s been a decrease in agriculture and some of the liberated regions are being bombarded. Still, I have a feeling of liberty. I’m at liberty to grow whatever and how many species I would like to cultivate, and it is for me to decide whether and how to sell. Syria’s agriculture needs to be free, and the more freedom the farmers enjoy, the more they produce and the more ideas will flourish. The details can be sorted out by local councils or grass roots committees. What matters is that there is space for us to decide, because then we’ll be able to try out the things we would like to do – and that’s what I call organic agriculture. It is only an experiment but, I think, for the soil this method is the best. The soil’s completely depleted because the same methods have been used over and over again. And I’d like to educate all farmers and all alternative organisations in the liberated areas of Syria. My message is that we should restore life in ways that are similar to what our grandparents knew. Back then, everything was done in a much more natural way. This is my vision for the future.

Today, Karam teaches organic agriculture to fellow Syrians. His brother Moaz has stayed behind in Idlib where, in a joint effort with other villagers, he provides agricultural aid to hundreds of people who were displaced from other regions of Syria last winter. For years there had been bombardments, but because of the current ceasefire the last few months have been uneventful. In August 2017, the villagers are working together, chopping aubergines by the kilo and putting the chunks in water in order to produce seeds. Once this is done, the tomatoes will be next. The plan is to distribute the seeds among refugees and also use some of it to grow seedlings, which they will also distribute to cultivators: this is how local humanitarian help looks. ‘Before the war, if someone wanted to cultivate certain crops, they would go to a so-called “farmers’ pharmacy” to pick up hybrid seeds, chemical fertiliser, etc. Today, we have come to realise that, as far as seeds, fertiliser, and pesticides are concerned, it is better to be self-reliant. Many people see it that way now.’


Agriculture means Independence and Control

Samih grew up in an urban part of southern Damascus and used to study sociology at Damascus University. When Yarmouk, the neighbourhood he was living in, was besieged and starved, he, together with others, began to grow their own food – tomatoes, aubergines, and courgettes, using every type of seed it was possible to purchase from peasants in nearby areas. Samih explains:


One of the most important ‘weapons’ used by the Syrian regime to smash the revolution is hunger knowing that most of the besieged areas within the country are rural areas. However, there is little awareness of how to control agricultural production and hardly any outside aid. As a result, many such areas have been subjugated. (…) Agriculture means independence and control – and this, in turn, means greater freedom and thus greater dignity.


Ahmad’s story shows that other authoritarian forces in Syria use the very same strategy. Ahmad is from Deir az-Zor in eastern Syria. His sister, he recounts, moved to the countryside as the city no longer provided her with an income or livelihood. There she rented a small house and, in its garden, began to grow her own vegetables. The region is under ISIS control, and ISIS banned her from doing this. To Ahmad it doesn’t make a difference which authoritarian power uses food as a weapon, as he sees it, ‘the mentality of dictators is to make you dependent – and as a consequence they don’t want you to grow your own food.’


More than just Food Production

Majid, who teaches agriculture at Daraa’s alternative university, recounts that many agricultural engineers in Syria view ‘organic agriculture as a luxury.’ He adds that there’s just no market for people who demand a health-conscious diet. Oubaida, who studied agriculture and political science in Aleppo, remembers the acrimonious debates with older engineers during recent workshops. ‘They’re just plain unwilling to accept new ideas,’ he says, ‘and want to defend their authority by any means.’


Lina is convinced that the social function of agriculture goes far beyond the production of food and rejects the notion that the usual chemicals should be used in order to boost production. She explains: ‘We were under siege in Zabadani and had no seeds as, previously, they had been distributed through centralised authorities. Finally, after a great deal of effort, we managed to procure some seeds. Then, myself and other women got together to design projects to enable the young men fighting on the frontlines to become integrated into the daily routines of agricultural work.’ This shows how men began to take on a much more important civilian role than they might in combat on the frontlines. As these projects were located all over the city – on rooftops, in flower gardens, or on balconies – people said that we had managed ‘to bring, above all, young people back into the heart of society.’ Salih confirms this and tells how, during the siege, agriculture meant much more to him than just growing food: ‘The crops pulled me back from the brink – they saved me. During the siege I’d become a nervous wreck.’


Rebuilding the Economy

When the Syrian regime began to hone in on the neighbourhood Jafar inhabited with his family, he relocated to the Golan, the Syrian Governate of Qunaitra; the place his parents had fled in 1967 as a result of the war with Israel. Now Jafar’s family have moved back into the house in the Syrian part of Golan they had once abandoned. Today, about eighty percent of Syrian Qunaitra is not controlled by the regime. Even before leaving Damascus, Jafar, together with some friends, had organised medical services for the increasing numbers of refugees and together with the same group, he also became involved in humanitarian projects. After fleeing Damascus, he began to farm because, as he explains, ‘we had to rebuild the economy from scratch. Most people had no money, and thus they couldn’t grow plants that require irrigation, as pumping water was too costly. (…) At the same time, no one knew how the military situation would develop and, as a consequence, no one was willing to invest. Who wants to buy twenty sheep, if, at any moment, a rocket strike may kill them – or if you’re forced to flee overnight?’ Over time, the situation began to stabilise. Right now the area is considered to be one of the safest in Syria because the regime and its allies only shell it occasionally and refrain from using air power; they don’t want to risk getting too close to their enemy, Israel. This, to Jafar, is a strategic advantage: ‘Here you can build something – build a basis for a livelihood.’


So Jafar, together with other locals, created a group called ARDAQ (‘your soil’). Jafar explains: ‘We have a team of engineers that offers “field consultation services,” meaning, they visit the farmers and help them to overcome their challenges. Whenever there’s a recurring instance of e.g. a pest, we will document it, how to treat it and then publish photos on social media.’ Of course, many farmers do not have web access, which is why the group is currently compiling an ‘agricultural calendar,’ which will document the life cycles and characteristics of the important crops in the Qunaitra region and they plan to distribute a printed version of this to all farmers in the area. Jafar says: ‘It is difficult to come up with a neutral assessment of whether farming was better before 2011 than it is now. In general it was probably better, however (…) in the old days an agricultural engineer wouldn’t have visited a field as they do today; the farmers and engineers work together now to develop things. All in all, the divide between peasants and the rest of society has decreased because today everybody’s growing their own food. This means, we’ve all moved closer together.’


Jafar recounts the group’s successes: ‘In 2015, we had to purchase seeds from areas controlled by the regime. We got local Syrian wheat from the Agricultural Bank and we don’t purchase hybrids – just baladi, that is, seedfast varieties. (…) This year, we will begin to build a seed bank and collect ten percent of the seeds we distributed earlier. We’ve already done that for wheat, and we are trying to focus on using Syrian varieties. Next we’ll collect sesame and other foods that are staples of the Syrian kitchen.’ Jafar describes the importance of this: ‘Local seed has adapted to local conditions – the weather, the temperatures, the lack of rainfall.’ This is why ARDAQ will not work with imported varieties, ‘our local varieties go back millennia and they have survived.’

ARDAQ is a good example of how, in the absence of other organisations, local agricultural groups may mobilise existing social capital through initiatives such as seed banks.[30] In Idleb, Moaz, too, intends to create a seed bank. Both projects go to show that, faced with the collapse of Syria’s economy an ethical version of this economy can be created via social networks in accordance with the principle of food sovereignty. Food security is a fundamental right, not a matter of charity. Practically, they take it even one step further: During the siege of Yarmouk where more than a hundred people have already succumbed to hunger in the area, Samih taught seminars on ‘citizenship’ at the local civil society centre.[31] These courses dealt with starvation and how the local community had defended its right to live by creating its own agricultural projects.

Pooling your labour and expertise in agricultural projects is one of the ways to build mutual trust and networks. Be it the Olive Bus in Moaz’ village or the work of ARDAQ: decisions are made jointly, they include everyone and they value the knowledge and experience of local people as one of their central tenets. Karam, in Lebanon, expressed regret that a great deal of knowledge around sustainable agriculture had been lost in the centralisation processes of the Syrian regime. However, through joint communal projects such knowledge is now being passed on to new generations. The potential for joint action is on the rise, yet there are many challenges. There are still no farmers on many local councils and it is only in very small communities such as Idlib Province that will they be represented.


Alternative Governmental Structures

Local councils are the backbone of paragovernmental structures out of reach of the regime. Even in small towns, most of them will operate an Agricultural Office (Maktab Zira´i). Here, the General Organisation for Seed Multiplication (GOSM) bears the same name as its Syrian government counterpart because, as Abdalqader, one of the senior agricultural engineers in northern Syria, explains, ‘it was initially created to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the regime.’ GOSM is part of Syria’s interim government’s Ministry for Agriculture and it has seven offices in those parts of the country controlled by the opposition. The main objective, explains Abdalqader, is to provide ‘agricultural equipment from familiar sources.’ This is co-ordinated by local councils and, he stresses, ‘farmers may visit our offices at any time.’ In the case of wheat it is important to conserve old Syrian varieties and, says Abdalqader, the GOSM is working with local peasants in order to propagate and distribute seeds via seed multiplication stations. Varieties of potatoes, however, are imported in part as hybrids from outside Syria, while some local varieties are being distributed as part of a ‘national potato project’ (Mashru´ watani l´-ikthar al-batata). Rami, another employee of GOSM says, ‘there is a lot of uncertainty about the origin of agricultural products, and this is why we procure some things, especially pesticides, from familiar sources such as Syngenta and BASF,’ and so he continues in the best advertising vernacular of these multinationals. Indeed, on its homepage, GOSM states, ‘In continuation of our strategic plan to offer all tools and materials for agricultural production at reduced, subsidised prices within the liberated parts of Syria, GOSM wishes to inform farmers that a number of vegetable varieties, fertilisers, and pesticides produced by Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer, Sumi Agro, and BASF are now available.’[32] The financing of GOSM is largely independent of Syria’s interim government. One important donor is the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), the implementation organisation of the Ministry for Development Collaboration. They focus on high performance seeds produced by big multinationals that require the addition of chemicals and minerals to grow even though development and farming organisations repeatedly protest that these projects also include small farmers with their traditional expertise and that this expertise has to be preserved.[33]


As early as 2005, and prior to the Syrian uprising, Sygenta had established an office, which among other things was responsible for the distribution of seeds in Syria.[34] Samir, a farmer from Idlib Province, says: ‘I’m in two minds about mineral fertiliser. On the one hand, the soil’s totally depleted, and continuing to add mineral fertiliser to it will not help. On the other hand, we, as private individuals, are unable to get the stuff into the country as it is labelled “dual use” goods, meaning they can also be used as explosives.’ For the moment, the best solution is offered by the production of organic fertilizer. The project takes care of all the communities’ waste through composting: ‘that way we’re able to get rid of our rubbish and can regenerate our soil.’ Still, he recognises the same thing won’t be possible everywhere because, ‘in many places people have nothing at all – not even organic rubbish.’


Whenever you use those chemicals, it will create a chemical reaction between crop and soil. Let’s assume, a crop requires ten days of growth, and once you add chemicals this is cut in half, to five days. This increase in productivity, however, has its shortcomings for the soil is slowly being burnt up. Productivity will decrease as the soil can no longer support agriculture and the result would be that we’d destroyed the soil ourselves – without war, bombardment, or some kind of modern weapon.

(Ibrahim, a farmer from Syria, currently living in Lebanon)


Debates about rebuilding the country tend to neglect the fact that many Syrian farmers would prefer an approach that emphasises their autonomy and aspires to a type of agriculture, which will not create new dependencies. Such an approach would reflect the ‘rules for rebuilding Syria’ proposed by Steven Heydemann, which demand ‘bypass Assad, go local, go small, go slow.’[35] Agriculture is a key component for achieving the goals of the uprising and the answer to the question, how do we rebuild Syria can be found in the diverse ideas of local communities and in the conversations between Syrians.

This article is dedicated to all the courageous Syrian farmers and horticulturists. While researching this article the author conducted ten formal and many informal interviews. All interviews were conducted in Arabic; all personal names where changed by the author.


Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.


[9] Batatu, H. (1999) Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 127.

[10] Batatu, H. (1999) Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 127.

[11] Van Dam, N. (2011) The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society Under Assad and the Ba`th Party. London; New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. p. 9.

[13] Keilany, Z. (1980) ‘Land reform in Syria,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 16:3, S. 212

[14] Keilany, Z. (1980) ‘Land reform in Syria,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 16:3, S. 212-213.

[16] Perthes, V. (1991) ‘The Bourgeoisie and the Baath: A Look at Syria´s Upper Class,’ MER170 (21).

[17] Ababsa, M. (2014) ‘The End of A World.’ In: R. Hinnebusch and T. Zintl Syria from Reform to Revolt: Political Economy and International Relations. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, p. 86.

[18] Zurayk, R. (2011) Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, p. 21.

[19] Zurayk, R. (2011) Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, p. 44.

[20] Springborg, R. (1981) ‘Baathism in Practice: Agriculture, Politics, and. Political Culture in Syria and Iraq,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 17:2, S. 192.

[21] Hinnebusch, R. (2011) ‘The Ba’th’s Agrarian Revolution (1963–2000).’ In: R. Hinnebusch, A. El Hindi, M. Khaddam and M. Ababsa, Agriculture and Reform in Syria. University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, p. 4.

[22] Hinnebusch, R. (2011) ‘The Ba’th’s Agrarian Revolution (1963–2000).’ In: R. Hinnebusch, A. El Hindi, M. Khaddam and M. Ababsa, Agriculture and Reform in Syria. University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, p. 3.

[23] Springborg, R. (1981) ‘Baathism in Practice: Agriculture, Politics, and. Political Culture in Syria and Iraq,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 17:2, S. 201.

[24] Hinnebusch, R. (2011) ‘The Ba’th’s Agrarian Revolution (1963–2000).’ In: R. Hinnebusch, A. El Hindi, M. Khaddam and M. Ababsa, Agriculture and Reform in Syria. University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studiesp. 4.

[25] Aw-Hassan, A., Rida, F., Telleria, R. and Bruggeman, A. (2013) ’The impact of food and agricultural policies on groundwater use in Syria,’ Journal of Hydrology, S. 205.

[27] de Châtel, F. (2014) ‘The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution,’ Middle Eastern Studies.

[28] de Châtel, F. (2014) ‘The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution, Middle Eastern Studies,’ Middle Eastern Studies, p. 527.

[29] In Arabic, the surname Shaaban and the word for ‘hungry’ (Ju´an) rhyme.

[30] See also: Shrestha, P., Vernooy, R. and Chaudhary, P. (2012) Community Seed Banks in Nepal: Past, Present, Future, Proceedings of a National Workshop, 14-15 June, Pokhara, Nepal. p. 31.

[33] Particularly in the context of the criticism of the ’German Food Partnership,’ these voices were outspoken: (accessed 18 September 2017).