Saturday, April 26, 2008

News from Syria and Jordan

I've been in Amman, Jordan for two days. On my way here, I drove from Beirut across Mount Lebanon's Dahr el Baidar pass (1,500m) then through the Biqa` plain to the other mountain pass of Masna` into Syria. Between Syria and Lebanon, ther is a no man's land of several kilometers. This is a reminder that the borders between Lebanon and Syria have not yet been fully traced. Who uses these lands? They are very nice ranges with oaks and some conifers at 1,200m and there are a few orchards and some fields.

The heat was unseasonal: near 40 celcius. Between Syria and Jordan one drives through 100 km of basaltic plain between the foothills of the Golan and the Jebel al Arab, the Druze Mountain also known as the Hawran. The red soils are very fertile, but there is no water except from the deep wells tapping the water table. There are many olive orchards, but the area is mostly planted in extensive cultures. It hasn't rained enough this year, and the wheat fields are doing very poorly: the plants are stunted, and it is clear that the grains will not fill. I'm not sure that even if they get some rain now it will change much. The Hawran was a great wheat producing zone, and Lebanon used to import Hawrani wheat since the 17th century. One of the old traditional varieties of wheat is called "Hawrani". Today, yields have dramatically dropped, and one of the reasons is that there is not enough rainfal, but also that the cultivation of wheat has moved from the terraced hills where the fields are small, but rainfall is slightly higher, to the vast plain where there is less rain. Economies of scale.

Jordan is as always during this season, parched. Flocks of sheep and a few goats graze on the rubble. One wonders what they find. There is no doubt that these animals are all hand-fed, from imported feed. Grazing is to take them out, and to supplement the feeding.

Yeterday's newspaper had a front page article addressing the food crisis. The prime minister was reported to have made a declaration about the intention of the government (under the wise guidance of his majesty) to continue supporting the poor. The prices of bread and animal feed will not liberated. This explains how the sheep farmers can still make a living. The PM also promised salary adjustments. Elsewhere in the paper, the farmers from the Karak area in central Jordan were praying for April's rain which, according to the proverb, "revives the human". No rain, no crop, they said

Later that day I met with an old friend of mine who is in the agribusiness sector. I asked him about the impact of the food crisis. He said he thought it was a bit hyped, and that there is no food crisis, just an oil crisis. All prices have increased due to the increase in the price of oil, and this was affecting food prices. In fact, he told me, Jordanian farmers did well this year: their main product is vegetables and some fruits, and the season was poor in Lebanon and Syria due to a cold spell, so they exported at good prices, eventhough their production was low. However, this is a very small success: the current season appears to be bad, and the production costs are higher than ever: labour is becoming scarce, as many workers are drifting into the better paid construction sector. The increase in oil prices is making irrigation (reliant on water pumping) too expensive. The increase in price of agrochemicals and its volatility (especially fertilizers) has made it impossible for companies to offer credit as was usually the case. Cash is king, and prices have tripled. Farmers are resorting to applying less fertilizers, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether they adopt organic manuring and recycling of farm waste. Of course, there may not be enough farm wastes to start with.

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