Back on farms ravaged by years of war, Syrian pistachio growers now face even more challenges

Returning to their orchards after years of war, Syrian pistachio growers hoping to revive their precious crop have seen their hopes dashed by scorched trees and the ravages of climate change.

Laden with clusters of brown-colored nuts that are harvested in the summer, the pistachio tree is known in Syria as “a golden tree in a poor land”, reflecting the value of a fruit long exported across the Middle East and Europe. ‘Europe.

But farmers near the northwest village of Maan are only harvesting a quarter of the crop they harvested before the war, says Nayef Ibrahim.

Mr. Ibrahim and his family left their farms when the area became a frontline in the conflict that erupted in 2011.

They returned after government forces drove out the rebels in 2019.

Farmer Nayef Ibrahim returned with his family in 2019. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi )
A man's hands pick red pistachios from a tree, with the desert visible in the background
Some of the trees on the farm could take more than a decade to bear fruit. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi)

They found pistachio trees felled and burned during the conflict – and the new ones they planted will take up to 12 years to bear fruit, says Mr Ibrahim.

A successful harvest on his farm is likely to take longer, with the road to recovery slowed by “lack of rainfall, overall climate change and lack of basic materials that a farmer needs”, he said. he told Reuters.

Syria experienced its worst drought in more than 70 years in 2021, with crops badly affected across the country, according to the International Rescue Committee aid group.

A man is sitting on a pile of cinder blocks under a green tree.  Dry orange dirt all over the floor and a tarp erected next to it
Droughts and sanctions are hitting ordinary citizens in Syria the hardest. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi )

Mr Ibrahim estimates his fields have received half the rainfall of previous years, but rising fuel costs to pump the water mean he cannot afford an alternative.

Nutrient-rich soil that could help him increase production is also unavailable or expensive, he says.

“I need fertilizer. There is none. I need water. There is none,” he says.

Sanctions and global price hikes hurt farmers

The import of fuel, fertilizer and other basic agricultural needs into Syria is hampered by about a decade of Western sanctions, the collapse of the local currency and now the conflict in Ukraine, which has caused prices to rise global.

The West has tightened its sanctions against the Syrian government since the conflict erupted in 2011 over rights abuses, but many Syrians say the measures have hit ordinary citizens the hardest.

“It is difficult for me to get pesticides because of the economic siege,” says Mr. Ibrahim.

Some farmers are trying to find workarounds, with solar panels installed in a pistachio orchard to power irrigation.

The nuts are harvested at dawn and dusk – the times of day when their shells naturally split, generating a cracking sound that guides farmers to trees ready to be picked.

An overhead view of a group of women in headscarves around a metal table, sorting piles of small nuts
The pistachios are sorted and bagged for sale. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi )
A man puts pistachios in his hands above bags full of pistachios.  Some fall from his hands into the bag
50kg bags will be shipped throughout the Middle East. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi )

They are poured into machines that peel and sort them by size before being bagged into 50kg bags labeled Aleppo Pistachio – a household name in much of the Middle East.

Hugging a bunch of freshly picked pistachios, farmer Youssef Ibrahim says he is disappointed with the size of the almonds.

“If there was adequate irrigation, the nut should be bigger than that,” he says.

A man wearing a t-shirt and hat reaches out to pick small red berries from a tree.  meadow and blue sky behind him
Youssef Ibrahim is one of the Syrian farmers struggling with drought and the lasting effects of war. (Reuters: Firas Makdesi )

Farmers across Syria face similar problems.

Indications of a poor wheat harvest are adding to food supply concerns in a country where the UN says more people are in need than at any time since 2011.

Agriculture ministry official Jihad Mohamed said pistachio cultivation is suffering because the areas where they are grown have been badly affected by the war, noting the widespread felling of trees.

Despite this, exports continue, with Syrian pistachios selling in markets including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, he says.

Reuters

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