Since 2022, the Damascus-run Idlib governorate has been organising annual public auctions for investing in lands owned by absentees, including people forcibly displaced from Idlib. The winning investors in these auctions must cultivate specific crops according to the annual agricultural plan approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. This requirement applies to both investors and farmland owners residing in regime-controlled areas. In both cases, the farmers face numerous difficulties in completing the cultivation of their land or in reneging on their investment contracts.
The Idlib governorate declared that its Announcement No. 1075, issued on October 15, 2023, serves as an official notification to all previous auction winners for the 2023-2024 agricultural season, emphasising the need to settle their financial obligations within three days. Failure to comply will lead the governorate to take legal action, including fines for withdrawal or default and re-listing these lands in new public auctions. In case of default, investors risk losing their initial deposits. They may be liable for damage costs, potentially leading to administrative seizure of their properties, as happened with an investor in rural Hama in February 2022.
The Idlib governorate invited investors to participate in public auctions for 18,169 hectares of uncultivated, non-forested land on November 15, 2023. These lands were previously offered for investment. However, they attracted no bidders, or the winners were deemed to have withdrawn due to non-fulfilment of their financial obligations.
A local correspondent for The Syria Report explained that the lack of previous investment in these lands is partly due to their proximity to the front lines between regime and opposition forces, making them relatively dangerous. This has led to some winners withdrawing their investments or failing to complete the required documentation and financial obligations.
The Idlib governorate had divided the lands offered for investment in auctions according to the administrative division of areas under regime control in Idlib. The auctions were held in the last quarter of 2023 at the governorate’s General Secretariat building in Khan Sheikhoun. The winning investors received their contracts from the local contracts office so they could start farming.
The Syria Report’s correspondent reported that the bidding procedures have become well-known and are being repeated for the second consecutive season in Idlib. Typically, agreements are made among investors within the same area to bid for lands owned by their acquaintances or relatives.
However, other reasons prevent farmers, whether they are landowners or investors, from completing the cultivation of their land. These include the obligation to adhere to the agricultural plan set by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform regarding the type of crops and the conditions for obtaining diesel and other production essentials like fertiliser and seeds at government-subsidised prices. Many farmers cannot meet these conditions, leading them to purchase these essentials at market prices, increasing their production costs. This is one of the reasons why some farmers default on completing their investment contracts.
To encourage wheat cultivation, the Idlib Agriculture Directorate has allowed farmers to plant wheat even if they exceed the areas determined by the Ministry’s agricultural plan for the 2023-2024 season in Idlib. The Director of Agriculture in Idlib, in a recorded meeting on October 21, 2023, and published by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Media page on Facebook, stated that the plan allocated 18,000 hectares for wheat cultivation in Idlib Governorate, consisting of 4,000 hectares of irrigated land and the rest of non-irrigated land. However, at the same time, the directorate did not provide incentives or facilitation for obtaining official documents that would enable farmers to obtain production essentials at subsidised prices.
Farmers receive specified quantities of diesel, termed “agricultural diesel,” for farming and irrigation purposes, priced officially at SYP 2,000 per litre. This diesel is distinct from so-called “free diesel,” which is available at gas stations at SYP 13,000 per litre. On August 9, 2023, the Agricultural Subcommittee, chaired by the governor of Idlib, decided to provide wheat farmers with 120 litres of agricultural diesel per hectare annually. The distribution of agricultural diesel is automated, using the “smart” family card managed by Integration for Trading LLC (Takamol) Company.
Landowning farmers must obtain an “agricultural organising notice” document based on proof of land ownership. This document allows them to access government-subsidised agricultural essentials like seeds, fertilisers, and agricultural diesel and obtain a crop certificate of origin. The agricultural organising notice is not a deed of ownership in itself. In contrast, investing farmers, either non-landowners or joint owners, must obtain a document called a “physical inspection notice” issued by a committee formed by the Agricultural Extension Unit affiliated with the General Union of Farmers. Based on the “physical inspection notice,” which notes the land surface and specifications, the committee determines the quantity of subsidised agricultural diesel for the farmer.
The General Organisation for Seed Multiplication set the price of wheat seed this year at SYP 3,950 per kilogram. Wheat seed is distributed at 250 kilograms per hectare for irrigated land and 200 kilograms per hectare for rainfed land. This distribution occurs between November 15 and December 15 each year, the optimal period for wheat planting.