Akram Al-khatib

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Turkey
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"The price of wheat remained fixed for almost ten years until 2008, while the cost of production inputs such as fuel and fertilizers multiplied during that same period."

Akram al-Khatib was born in 1969 in the city of Raqqa. He went to school there and then moved to Aleppo to study at the Mediterranean Institute of Engineering.

“After graduation in 1990, I didn’t want to work in the public sector because on the one hand, employees' salaries seemed so low, and on the other hand agricultural investment in Raqqa, whether by land owners or by others, was a possibility. As such, my father commissioned me to pursue his work of rainfed agriculture.

He adds,The most important crops grown in the province of Raqqa, whether irrigated or rainfed, were known as “strategic crops” and fell within agricultural state policy, namely wheat, cotton, maize and sugar beet. The state constructed grain silos in various rural centers in order to store those crops. It also built two large centers dedicated to cotton marketing. At the start of the third millennium there was also a tendency to grow olive trees because there was much land adjacent to irrigated projects that was itself excluded from irrigation. Olive trees don't need that much water but if needed it can be brought by simple pumps to adjacent irrigation canals.”

Akram says that rainfed agriculture needs work and effort only twice a year - in the seeding season in the tenth month, and in the harvest season, which begins in the middle of the fifth month. "Rainfed agriculture is similar to gambling because it depends on rainy seasons and it’s fun. Those who enter this field of work cannot easily leave it, even if they lose."

Akram invested in land located to the west around Tabaqa Lake, to the north towards Ein Issa, and to the east around Al-M'ayzaliyeh area. All of this land was far away from large population centers. "After seeding, we waited for the rain. If the rains were heavy, the season would be plentiful. If rains were scarce, the harvest would be modest and it would compensate for the loss in an acceptable manner. However, if there was total drought there would be a complete loss of crops and seeds."

He adds, “Rainy seasons can be compared to holidays when you see peoples’ faces happy and smiling. When rainfed seasons are a success they produce a lot of profit since they do not need chemical fertilizers, irrigation or water pumping. Even failed crops during dry seasons can be sold to cattle owners”.

Akram worked in livestock trading as well as he owned land to graze and fatten cattle, which he would re-sell after a few months. In 1995, with extensive relationships with merchants and experience in crop agriculture, he began to trade in grain as well as investing in agriculture.

“Whether on rainfed or irrigated land, we used to work for about 45 days during the wheat and barley harvest season. We bought crops from farmers who preferred to sell their crops to a trusted merchant rather than dealing with state employees and government centers that did not usually pay them directly.”

Merchants would buy crops from farmers at small price margins at less than a single kilogram. The merchants’ profit margins would be achieved through the resale of large quantities of the crop to the State, estimated to be in the tens of tons. The State policy of dealing with farmers was not to increase wheat prices in proportion to the rise in prices of other materials. Akram says,” The price of wheat remained fixed until 2008 - that is for nearly ten years. At the same time, production costs, including fuel to pump water, seeds, fertilizers, bags etc., greatly multiplied. Nevertheless, farmers planted their land despite this very tight margin of profit. This put great pressure on them, so they started to borrow from banks and agricultural associations.”

Akram believes that Raqqa province was marginalized by the State and was similar to a cow that produced milk without benefiting from it itself. Actual government services, such as equipping roads, gardens, facilities, etc., did not start in Raqqa until after 2007.

“If the agricultural economic policy had been successful and kept pace with the agricultural projects that were established in the province, we could say without exaggeration that the agricultural production of Raqqa could have formed the basis of a state economy in light of the availability of thousands of hectares of irrigated agricultural land. Unfortunately, even the livestock economy that should have yielded high returns did not receive sufficient attention from the State, which rationed the distribution of feed. This drove livestock owners to buy feed from the black market. It also led to the selling of sheep through smuggling routes to Turkey and the Gulf countries because of the spread of corruption and favoritism in the General Establishment for Feeds.”

Akram mentions that the sale of strategic crops by farmers to any party outside the State was forbidden. It was also not permitted to transfer these crops from one province to another, and even merchants who bought them from the peasants had to sell them exclusively to the State.

Prior to 2011, some private mills that purchased wheat from farmers had appeared. These were forbidden to move crops to another province but corruption was prevalent in all governmental departments concerned with agriculture. In 1998, Akram stopped working in agriculture and grain trading and moved to construction. "I made a lot of profit from agriculture during the 1997 and 1998 seasons, which led me to expand my activities into another area within the city of Raqqa. I worked in construction and contracting until 2010, which was possible because of my previous knowledge and studies at the engineering institute."