“It was devastating. All my trees were burned within the blink of an eye,” said Jassem Kafra, 45, an olive farmer from Lattakia governorate. Jassem is one of 4 000 fruit producers who was affected when forest fires destroyed almost 1 400 ha of the governorate’s farmland between October and December 2016. More than 251 000 fruit trees in Heffeh, Lattakia Markaz, Jableh and Kerdaha districts were lost, damaging livelihoods and jeopardizing families’ food security.
Jassem and his wife lost more than 100 young olive trees, which provided the family’s only source of income. Each year the trees would produce more than 140 litres of high-quality olive oil. The Syrian Arabic Republic used to be a leading olive-oil producing country in the region before the crisis, with more than 79 million olive trees producing about 1.1 million tonnes of olives – 250 000 tonnes for consumption, and 850 000 tonnes for oil production to produce a net of around 200 000 tonnes of olive oil.
Due to the crisis, there has been a significant reduction in olive production. The security situation, forest fires, cutting of trees, damage to irrigation systems, drought, changing climate and the inability to access farms to care for the trees were all factors contributing to the reduction. By 2016, Syrian production had dropped by around 40 percent to 670 000 tonnes of olives; yield also reduced, producing only 164 000 tonnes of oil.
To support the most vulnerable fire-affected farmers, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with funding from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, provided 2 700 families with more than 51 200 olive tree saplings. These farmers had lost at least 50 percent of their production. As it takes five years for saplings to become mature enough to produce olives, FAO also distributed winter vegetable seeds, tools and irrigation systems to enable the farmers to cultivate vegetables to eat and sell in local markets.
“Lattakia governorate is one of the country’s most important areas for fruit production, including olives, and the kinds of disruption we have seen severely affect the livelihoods of fruit growers as well as local and national food security,” said Mike Robson, FAO Representative in the Syrian Arab Republic.
“FAO immediately met the vulnerable farmers’ needs to restore their main livelihood, while providing an interim source of income from farming. The Organization is very aware of the difficulties they faced – the lack of access to quality inputs and high prices have added more pressure on farmers, and many were considering abandoning their land and their rural livelihoods altogether. This would have affected the country’s overall food production and its people’s food security and nutrition if we did not find some way to provide support,” he added.
The project also provided training for farmers in good agricultural practices, pest and disease management, compost management, intercropping and forest fire management. To support affected families until their vegetable crops were ready for harvest, FAO partnered with the World Food Programme, which provided food baskets to meet immediate needs.
Jassem planted the olive saplings immediately, as well as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. “I sold some of the produce at the market,” he said. “But I really cannot wait until I can get back to making good quality olive oil again,” he added. “I would say this is the excitement of a new beginning.”
In the Syrian Arab Republic, funding received in 2018 for agriculture-based humanitarian action has not come close to matching needs. FAO has received only 6.2 percent of the funding required to meet the food security needs of 2.3 million people. In the second half of 2018, FAO urgently requires USD 20 million to meet the immediate needs of 500 000 people. Despite years of conflict, the country’s agriculture sector continues to provide almost half the food supply in the country, serving as a lifeline for millions of vulnerable people.