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Drought and war push Syrian peasants into rural exodus

The worst drought that Syria has experienced in the last 40 years stifles impoverished peasants by the war economy that are pushed to an accelerated rural exodus

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Drought and war push Syrian peasants into rural exodus

"We returned to our lands a year ago," says Abu Yusef, a farmer and far of six children, in souastern periphery of Aleppo. With fighting in area and road that leads to Homs assured, this family has cultivated its plot again. In distance, and resting on hinge of door of a demolished home, his wife feeds a few squalid hens. "We had to leave when fighting came." We took our animals and pulled field inside, "says Abu Yusef at wheel of his tractor removing plow discs with a reddish sand. The scarce heads of cattle y had lasted little. "Some of m got sick, some of us were robbed by armed men and rest or we ate m or sold m to buy bread and blankets."

Abu Yusef, a man of tanned hands and resigned spirit, never thought of seeking refuge in city. "We are peasants, children of peasants, we don't know how to do anything else," he replies. They have folded gnawed canvas tent that for months served as a home waiting to be able to harvest ir wheat today and pray that no tractor disc stops with a mine. Its fields abut highway leading to Aleppo and are bordered by a water channel recently rehabilitated by one that does not run or drop. Abu Yusef has opted to reopen an old well in disuse, ignoring sanitation.

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Wheat production represented one of largest incomes of Syrian agricultural sector with cotton and olives. In pre-war times, it produced about five million tonnes of wheat. Syria had to import 2.3 million tonnes last year, estimates UN food organization. Abu Yusef is part of a minority of farmers who have decided to resume ir agricultural work. But at least one-third of six million Syrians displaced (families who left ir homes without leaving country) are peasants who have abandoned ir lands because of fighting. The massive exodus has contributed to collapse of second source of income, after oil, and that in 2011 it employed 26% of active population.

A series of insurmountable obstacles have been added to bombs and mortars for se peasants. "The main problem is water." 50% of country's wells are damaged or destroyed, explains Damascus Haytham Haidar, director of Ministry of Agriculture's planning department. A lack of water adds anor long chain of added problems that peasantry has turned into an impossible profession: lack of seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, veterinarians, exorbitant fuel prices and generators to supply lack of Electricity, and insecurity of roads. In order to avoid cost of so many intermediaries and of commercial rentals, Farmers travel daily route that separates ir fields from cities loaded with chard or tomatoes to sell ir products on asphalt of a sidewalk or on foot of shoulder.

Enlarge photo drowned by costs of cultivation, manufacturing, transport and rental of shops, farmer Anuar omits to pay intermediaries and sells directly its products in streets of Aleppo/NATALIA SANCHA

Tired of being victims of volatile fighting, thousands of peasants continue to be adding to rural exodus. Barefoot and desperate looking, Habba Halil, 66 years old, lamented two years ago in what was front of Mahin, in center of country. Aceituneros's daughter refused to leave her land. He saw jihadists of ISIS first, n Syrian regular soldiers to witness anor round of both destroying ir olive groves between continual advances and setbacks of front. "We rot crops every time and it is only thing we have to live," said Halil. Over past five months, ISIS has massacred about 140 people in that region, according to information from Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In norrn provinces of Raqa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Idlib and Hassake, 36% of arable land is concentrated, precisely most punishable by war. Desperate, many peasants have opted to seek refuge in unknown and saturated metropolis, causing drastic demographic changes in cities. Begging has spread in Aleppo and Damascus, which now total 37% of urban population. Thousands of peasants have been stopped re without qualification. Ors have opted to seek refuge in neighboring Lebanon, offering landowners an army of cheap labor.

On or side of agricultural production chain, consumers face a rise of 800% of price of food since start of war. In most devastated neighborhoods of Aleppo, displaced opt for breeding of birds that run between rubble left by fighting. "Insufficient food production, combined with reduction of government subsidies and monetary depreciation [ parity of Syrian pound with euro has gone from 45 to 450 in six years], has led to a continuous and profound rise in food prices left To nine million people [half of current Syrian population] in need of food assistance, "explains a report from World Food Programme."

The ranchers and herders have also been forced to undertake a constant pilgrimage through region to Badia, desert areas of Syria, which represent 50% of territory and where y graze ir cattle. "Of 18 million of heads of lambs counted in 2011 only half remain," says Haidar on a precious cattle that once exported to Gulf.

Fleeing fighting, and without resources with which to confront exorbitant rents of city, hundreds of peasant families have been trapped in limbo as near 3,000 people who dragged ir animals with m to live three long winters and summers in canvas tents in desert region of Yurud that separates Syrian west border from Lebanon.

Agrarian cuts and subsidies versus revolution

The drought that struck Syria in 2007-2008 has been worst of last 40 years, causing an exodus of 800,000 peasants. Already in 90, previous droughts expelled millions of farmers from ir lands at a rate of 400,000 per year, according to World Bank data. There are few analysts who have related outbreak of social protests with progressive deterioration of an agricultural sector, mainstay of an almost autarkic economy, with cuts in subsidies that Government has undertaken at end of last century. Ors, such as regional expert in water Francesca de Châtel, do not link revolution with drought. But it does stress that poor management of country's aquifer resources for half a century has contributed to sinking of vital sector by exasperating farmers.

"The government has squandered aquifer resources that 90% have forced to use in specific crops subsidized such as wheat or cotton that need a lot of irrigation," says Châtel in an interview via Skype from Liberia. With demographic growth, policies of fuel cuts and pesticides meant a final thrust for peasants unable to reach end of month with new costs. In mystery of agriculture in Damascus, Haytham Haidar ensures that y are developing a plan of subsidies and advantageous loans to encourage farmers who want to return to ir lands. "If you return to policy of subsidies, it will be like putting a new patch." In short term it will allow farmers to satisfy, but without good management, in long run re will be no wells or water to irrigate crops, he concludes from Chatel.

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