“I feel angry and ashamed because my nephew invests in my land without recognising that I’m the owner,” says one forcibly displaced farmer from Kafr Zita, a town in the Rural Hama Governorate. He adds, “I never imagined that my nephew could treat me with such disdain.”
The story of this farmer, who was displaced to opposition-held parts of northern Syria, reflects wider political divisions within local families: between those opposed to the regime who were forcibly displaced from Kafr Zita and those loyal to the regime who still live in the town. There are similar family splits across rural northern parts of the Hama Governorate and the neighbouring southern Idlib Governorate, both areas now under regime control. It appears that Syrian authorities are intentionally playing on these divisions by encouraging loyalists to invest in farmlands belonging to their forcibly displaced relatives, as revealed by documents obtained by The Syria Report.
The General Secretariat of the Hama Governorate announced on October 21, 2021, that it would accept applications for such relatives to invest in the “Saliekh,” treeless lands, for one season, with preference given to first- to third-degree relatives who live in the area. First degree relatives include the father, mother, spouse, and children; second degree relatives include grandparents, siblings and grandchildren; and third degree relatives include uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews.
The October announcement came on the heels of a circular from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Letter No. 588 dated August 21, 2021, and Letter No. 594 dated August 23, 2021, which contained a “Vacant Land Investment Action Plan.” The plan is set to be announced for agricultural investment in the 2021-22 season.
Investment by relatives in absentees’ lands, in addition to increased estrangement with displaced farmers, has encouraged disputes between relatives still living in regime areas, according to a local correspondent for The Syria Report. According to a letter issued by the Ministry of Agriculture dated October 23, 2021, the priority is to set up agreements between relatives to approve one of them to invest in an absentee family member’s land. In the absence of an agreement, the system for degree of kinship is employed.
In a special letter, No. 795 dated October 3, 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture indicated that these confiscated lands are included in normal public auctions and that the investments of relatives do not apply in such cases. “Confiscated” here usually refers to properties of regime dissidents accused of “terrorism” before the “Antiterrorism Court” or lands seized by militias loyal to the regime.
There are no cases in which the investor derives any financial benefit from their relatives; the investor only has priority through kinship to the landowner. If the absentee landowner has no relatives, or if nobody is interested in investing in the land, then the property is put up for public auction. Many forcibly displaced farmers appear to have agreed to allow their relatives to invest in such lands and to share the harvest. At the same time, the risk of public auctions have compelled some displaced farmers to return to their hometowns, causing some to face arbitrary arrest.