In June and July 2023, the General Secretariat of the Idlib governorate held a second season of public auctions inviting people to invest in agricultural lands left behind by absentees, including those who fled or were forcibly displaced from regime areas. Although most of the Idlib governorate is outside regime control, part of it still is and the governorate’s official administration continues to formally operate.
The auctions included absentee-owned pistachio groves, as the governorate determined in its Announcement No. 456 on May 18, 2023. The General Secretariat opened up the first auction round of the new season on June 4, afterward holding three additional auctions, the last of which was on July 24. These auctions focused on lands that had not yet been invested in previous rounds.
The governorate increased the required financial security deposits to enter the auctions for the current season to SYP 1 million per hectare, up from SYP 700,000 in the previous season last year. Meanwhile, the value of the final security deposits remained the same as the previous season, which is 10 percent of the “referral” value, that is, the final offer price for the land to be invested in. The technical dossier price for each piece of land applied for by an investor also increased to SYP 50,000, up from SYP 35,000 last season. The investor can obtain the technical dossier from the Contracts Department in the General Secretariat of the Governorate.
The General Secretariat set July 16, 2023, as the formal appointment date for investors to receive their pistachio harvest documents. This document allows the investor to harvest the crop, confirms the completion of payment of the due financial instalments, and prevents any harassment by the watchmen and patrols led by the Idlib Police during the harvesting period. The General Secretariat designated July 20 as the formal start date for the season’s harvest. However, given that the last auction was July 24, the General Secretariat is behind schedule on its original appointments.
According to the General Secretariat, this urgency comes from a keen interest in protecting the rights of non-absentee pistachio grove owners who personally invest in their lands. Their groves are often subject to theft by agricultural worker crews employed by absentee land investors. But now with a set date for the season’s harvest, there is no longer any justification for the work crews to be present outside their designated times.
The General Secretariat has sorted absentee land investors into three categories this season:
- The first category includes first- and second-degree relatives of the absentee landowner. They are entitled to apply to invest in their relatives’ lands without having to enter the public auctions, according to Council of Ministers Decree No. 12011 from October 2022, so long as they obtain security approval. They must also provide a statement of inheritance, or family statement, or civil registry extract and proof of their kinship with the absentee landowner, as well as pay an investment fee set by the governorate for members of this category. First-degree relatives include parents, spouses and children while second-degree relatives include grandparents, siblings and paternal grandsons.
- In the second category are third- and fourth-degree relatives — participation by these individuals is referred to as “actions by mutual consent”. In such cases, those hoping to invest must submit requests to participate in the auction for the land owned by their absentee relatives, as well as enter the regular auction sessions and pay the initial security deposits. The relative/investor in this category has the right to invest in lands at the final auction price, so long as they indicate their desire to invest in the finale of the auction. The investor must provide a document signed by themself and their other relatives proving that they have agreed by mutual consent to invest in this particular piece of their absentee relative’s land.
- Finally, the third category includes all investors who are not relatives. However, according to the most recent auction announcement, this category is only for residents of Idlib governorate. The Syria Report’s local correspondent reported that there have been calls from locals to limit auction participants solely to residents of the area whose lands are offered for investment. These residents argue that an investor from the same village as the original absentee landowner would take more care of the land and preserve it better than outsiders would.
The state-run news agency SANA reported that the Minister of Agriculture, Engineer Mohammed Hassan Qatana, recently visited the southern part of the governorate, which is under regime control, where he stated that the government’s goal of investing in these agricultural lands is to ensure their continued production and preservation of their fruit trees. This is especially true for olive and pistachio trees, which require many years to reach the production phase. Mr Qatana did not refer to the revenues that the Idlib governorate generates from organising the investment of the agricultural lands of the absentees, as an objective for the auctions.
The minister added that a committee is working on amendments to the investment guidelines and conditions for first- and second-degree relatives, in a way that “facilitates the investment of these lands and guarantees the rights of their owners”. He affirmed the government’s efforts to restore the production of these lands and return them to their original owners.