The Hama governorate appears to be facing difficulties in finding investors to take on farmlands that were left behind by forcibly displaced people in the Hama governorate and in parts of the neighbouring Idlib governorate under government control. Repeated announcements for investment auctions suggest that few potential investors have come forward, while some of those who have been granted land in the auctions have failed to cultivate it or pay financial dues.
On February 16, 2022, the Hama governorate issued Announcement No. 85, the third of its kind in a year, calling for investments in “saleekh,” or unforested farmlands. According to the announcement, auctions for the lands will continue until March 3. The governorate will accept applications from potential investors until the deadline provided that the initial deposit is paid.
Announcement No. 86, also issued on February 16, states that the winners of the land investment auctions who have not yet paid their financial dues are required to visit the Governorate General Secretariat to pay their dues and immediately begin investing in the lands before the March deadline. The announcement was meant to serve as a final warning to investors who would be punished with legal action if their payments are late.
The legal punishment for late payments includes seizing the investor’s initial security deposit, re-listing the land up for auction, and forcing the investor to pay the difference in value of the new auction. The security deposits are SYP 10,000 per hectare of rainfed land and SYP 50,000 per hectare of irrigated land.
The Hama governorate has been holding these public auctions in its main headquarters to encourage investments in lands owned by people displaced from rural parts of Hama and the neighbouring Idlib governorate. The auctions are meant to achieve a plan set out by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform.
The Minister of Agriculture stated in January that in the southern government-held part of Idlib governorate, investors have cultivated only 11,000 out of a total 18,000 hectares of rainfed land in Idlib and 3,000 out of a total 12,000 hectares of irrigated land. He added that failure to cultivate these lands would force the Ministry of Agriculture to step in and cultivate the properties.
In the Hama governorate, only 15,500 of 25,124 hectares of irrigated land had been cultivated with wheat, while 16,600 of 20,000 rainfed hectares had been planted with wheat, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture’s 2021-2022 agricultural plan.
Some investors who were awarded large parcels of farmland in the Hama governorate were unable to fully cultivate them, sources in the area told The Syria Report. Other investors focused solely on rainfed crops due to low production costs.
According to a local correspondent, some investors were unable to cultivate the land because they never received the first round of fuel promised to them for the pumps they needed to irrigate the crops. Meanwhile, the cost of ploughing land has risen to SYP 250,000 per hectare as tractor owners ignore the official price of SYP 100,000 per hectare, which is listed by the agricultural committee. Tractor owners received only 30 litres of subsidised fuel per hectare of land to be ploughed at SYP 1,700 per litre. However, the 30 litres were not enough, forcing some investors to purchase fuel at the market price of SYP 3,000 per litre.
The Syria Report found several cases of investors unable to secure the seeds they needed due to high prices or because they were unavailable. Some investors also complained of a lack of transparency in the Syrian Red Crescent’s distribution of supplies provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), including rations containing 200 kg of wheat seeds and 150 kg of superphosphate fertiliser. None of these rations were distributed in the Idlib governorate. Meanwhile, 4,000 rations were handed over in rural Hama governorate, distributed to landowners and some investors whose names appeared on lists made ahead of time by the governorate’s so-called “spatial technical” committees. The governorate had originally formed these committees in mid-2021 to tally farmlands left behind by people who had fled the war.
Finally, much of the farmland auctioned to investors this past year went uncultivated due to a lack of public transportation, bureaucratic and security complications to obtaining official documents, electrical outages, and some water well failures. The Agricultural Bank has also refused to provide loans to investors.
February is also an unusual time of year for the Hama governorate to announce a new auction for farmland investment. It is no longer possible to plant wheat, especially on rainfed land, while on irrigated land farmers can only plant summer crops, such as certain vegetables that have high production costs.
A gendered lens
The Syria Report found that women had signed up to participate in auctions in which preference was given to family members of the absentee landowners. These women had remained in formerly opposition-held areas of rural Hama governorate that regime forces recaptured in recent years, and are relatives of the farmers who had fled the area in order to seek safety further north in opposition territory. The Hama governorate announced on October 21, 2021, that it had accepted applications from relatives of the absentee farmers to invest in the “saleekh,” or unforested, agricultural lands for one season. Preference was given to relatives of up to the third degree residing in the area.
At the same time, a small portion of the lands being offered for investment are in fact owned by women. In rural areas of Syria, ownership of agricultural land is typically registered to male family members – women rarely appear on the title deeds or in inheritances. This absence is in stark contrast to the large role women play in manual agricultural labour. The wages for women day labourers are often equal to those of men labourers.
The “spatial technical” committees formed in Hama and Idlib governorates also failed to include women amongst their members, according to the correspondent for The Syria Report. The committees were composed of representatives from the farmers’ unions, the local Baath Party branch, and agricultural engineers. However, the committees that were formed to supervise the auctions did include female governorate employees.