DAMASCUS // Syria's agricultural industry is collapsing, with farmers unable to plant crops in the face of a deadly security crackdown and crippling fuel and fertiliser shortages.
Regime officials have long trumpeted food self sufficiency and shrugged off economic breakdown and international sanctions by insisting the country will always be able to feed itself.
But large areas of land usually cultivated for wheat, vegetables and fruit have been left fallow this season, farmers and economists say.
"When the villages are cut off by checkpoints and there are tanks in the fields, no one can go out and work even if they want to," said one businessman who owns land in Deraa.
The full effects will not be felt until late spring and summer when crops planted now would start to arrive in the market. But traders are already anticipating shortages and a sharp rise in the cost of the basic foods most Syrians eat.
The businessman, who specialises in farming and transporting food, said limited supplies this year could push prices of fruit and vegetables beyond the reach of the growing ranks of poor, already unable to afford increasingly expensive meat.
"Prices are already rising and they will rise much more," he said. "Last year a 10-kilogram box of tomatoes cost almost nothing in season, say about 50 SYP (Dh2), but this year we are going to be talking about 500 SYP (Dh22) for the same box."
He said in Deraa province, a major agricultural centre producing wheat, fruit and vegetables, 70 per cent of the land normally under cultivation had not been planted.
Deraa has been a focal point for the anti-regime uprising that began there last March and has been subjected to prolonged security operations, including military assaults backed by tanks, designed to crush the revolt. So too have other farming centres, including Idleb - famed for its olive and nut trees - rural Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Homs and Hama.
In the Ghoota agricultural belt on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, where protests have become routine and armed rebels have fought with government troops, farming has all but halted. "No one is really growing anything, 85 per cent of the farming has just stopped," said Abu Yazin, owner of a smallholding on which he grows fruit trees and other crops.
"We'll harvest whatever comes off the trees naturally but nothing else, we've not been working the land, there will be no wheat, no cotton or anything else."
This month the United Nations warned that 1.4 million Syrians had been affected by "food insecurity" since March, and estimated Damascus would have to import about four million tonnes of cereals this year to meet domestic needs.
UN figures indicated grain output fell 10 per cent last year against 2010. There are no formal predictions of the likely strength of this year's harvest.
The worsening security situation has played a central role in disrupting agriculture, as military operations in restive rural areas affect everyday life. Farm hands normally working in the fields have instead joined protests and gone into hiding or have been sent to jail.
Just as important have been the faltering economy, deepening fuel shortages and the effect of spreading chaos on the basic functions of government.
Diesel fuel, used for heating, commercial vehicles, tractors and irrigation pumps, has been in short supply throughout the winter. Prices on the black market are more than double the official rate of 15 SYP a litre.
Land requiring irrigation has, therefore, largely been left unwatered while rising fuel costs have put farmers off ploughing land.
Fertiliser, usually provided by the government at a subsidised rate, has also been in short supply. Chemicals that cost 16,000 SYP a tonne last winter now trade on the black market at 50,000 SYP.
"This year we had a fine rainy season but we have no fertiliser and no diesel," said Abu Hussein, a farmer from the northeastern Hasika province, a major cereal-producing zone that has suffered years of drought.
"All the farmers are waiting for their fertiliser allocation from the government. If it doesn't come soon, we will lose the season," he said.
It was impossible to pay the black market price because the Syrian government buys wheat at a fixed price per tonne, he said. "We wouldn't even break even, we'd be selling at a loss so there is no point in planting a single seed," he said.
Much agriculture in Syria depends on cash-rich businessmen paying independent farmers in advance for crops. Under this arrangement, the investors get a preferential price for produce they can then sell at a profit and farmers get the money they need to cover basic costs.
This year, businessmen have held off such advance payments because of uncertainty about which farms in which areas will actually be able to plant and harvest.
Without the advance cash, and facing spiralling costs, farmers have been conserving any savings. In some cases, they have planted small areas that may be enough to feed only their families.
"We're seeing a lot of people reverting to subsistence farming as the economic crisis gets worse," said an economist from Deir Ezzor province. "There's no work and no money coming in so people are planting what they need to survive but they can't afford to do more."
Publicly, the government continues to insist that all will be well with production, helped by strong winter rains that have ended years of drought.
Privately, however, officials monitoring the agricultural sector are alarmed, pointing out that the uprising has been strongest in the farming heartlands.
"If we can speak frankly, the agricultural sector is collapsing," said one government economist. "The effects are not obvious yet but will become very clear in the coming season. I'm sorry to say this year there will be a shortage of food in the market and we will certainly not be exporting anything."
Another farmer from Hasika said if the authorities acted within two weeks to provide fertiliser and diesel at the normal price, it could still avert disaster there.
"Local officials have been told by us about the situation but providing the solution is not in their hands, it's up to the central authorities and so far there has been no reply from them," he said.
Economists and analysts say they have little expectation that the government, struggling to retain control over a country that increasingly appears to be slipping into civil war, will take the necessary steps in time.
A political analyst based in Damascus said security officials, not technocrats, were making decisions in Syria, and had no interest in or understanding of agriculture.
"The regime is giving its diesel to tanks, not tractors," he said. "It is living from week to week, there is no strategic thinking and they don't realise what a big mistake they are making in ignoring agriculture."
He said regime officials were counting on continued political support from population centres in Damascus and Aleppo to overcome the crisis but, fuelled by food shortages and soaring prices, discontent would increase in these big urban centres.
"They think they just have to worry about the cities and that the rural areas are something different," he said. "They don't realise they are all connected and if the farms are not producing food, the cities will have nothing to eat and then they will have bigger troubles."
The economist from Deir Ezzor said the authorities had long ignored rural areas, and would one day rue that oversight.
"Neglect and arrogance by the regime in Damascus towards the provinces is one of the reasons why we are seeing this uprising in the first place," he said.
"This revolution has been powered by the dispossessed majority who live outside of Damascus and Aleppo, and conditions in the provinces are only getting worse."