Farmers in northern Hama are being restricted from accessing their farmlands in formerly opposition-held territory which was seized by regime forces in a military campaign early this year.
Syrian opposition groups lost a combined total of 230,000 hectares of farmland in rural north-western Hama and Idlib provinces to the government between the end of August 2019 and March 2020. At the same time, around a million people fled those areas towards remaining opposition-held territory in Idlib and neighbouring rural Aleppo province.
The Farmers’ Office of Hama’s Baath Party branch decided in June to confiscate thousands of hectares of pistachio fields in rural Hama and Idlib, referring to owners of the properties as “terrorists.” The office publicly released lists of the names of those whose lands were being confiscated, most of whom were farmers who had been forcibly displaced to Idlib. The lists were posted on the Hama Baath Party’s notice board. It is not yet clear on what basis officials were describing former owners of the confiscated fields as “terrorists,” though usage of the term allows judiciary police to carry out precautionary seizures of properties in accordance with Legislative Decree No. 63 for 2012.
Building off the decision of the Farmers’ Office, Hama province’s security and military committee released its own decree to conduct a public auction for one season on July 21, to invest in the pistachio fields that were confiscated in the towns of Latamna, Latmein, Kafr Zeita and Zaka in rural northern Hama. The province’s security and military committee includes the security branch and military leaders as well as Hama’s governor, the provincial Baath Party secretary and local police leader. The Hama committee’s head, General Ramadan Youssef Ramadan, who serves as commander of the 9th Tank Division, acts as Hama’s military governor. The proceeds from the public auctions will go towards the Fund for Supporting Martyrs, which is affiliated with the local branch of the Office for the Central Commission to Support and Monitor the Situations of Martyrs’ Families in Hama, which is in turn affiliated with the Hama branch of the Baath Party.
The security committee set the harvest period for the pistachios to start one month from the date that the winning contractors were given the order to start their work. The Hama Agriculture Directorate estimated the current season’s pistachio harvest for the northern part of the province to be 32,241 tonnes.
Previously, the security committee had allowed only agricultural landowners residing in Hama city who possessed title deeds and identity documents and were not wanted by security forces to return to and work on their lands in the northern part of the province. In other words, the committee prevented all farmers who aren’t considered “terrorists” from returning to their lands until they had submitted official requests, including the property numbers and areas of the lands they wished to invest in, provided that they pay taxes imposed by the Martyrs’ Support Fund — that is, they are permitted to invest in their lands in return for paying a tax set at 800,000 SYP per hectare.
By the end of June 2020, regime forces had deployed 60 military posts along the orchards in rural northern Hama and southern Idlib, each one consisting of 10-15 personnel. In addition to carrying out military tasks, soldiers stationed at the military posts are monitoring farmers and ensuring they commit to paying the money they owe to the fund, or, in some instances, collecting bribes to look the other way.
A human rights source based in Idlib told The Syria Report that personnel at the military posts were levying some of their own fees on the farmers. It appeared that disputes between those at the outposts over shares of the revenues, as well as disputes between the investors themselves, had led to arson, impacting some 200 hectares of pistachio fields in rural northern Hama.