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The Syrian Farmer Turned Amateur Oil Producer

RAS AL AYN, Syria / Like many of his countrymen, Abu Zechariah, a now-penniless farmer, spends his days trying to eke out a living. As war makes crop farming here all but impossible, he’s been forced to harvest another kind of crop — oil.

Written by Annabell Van den Berghe Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

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Zechariah got together with a neighbor and cobbled together a primitive oil-digging contraption, which today yields steaming petrol. It’s not much more than a rusty tank and tubing, cooled in a self-made stream, but it’s sufficient enough to transform crude oil into gasoline.

“There is no water to grow potatoes and no gasoline to keep the machines running. Whoever wants to survive as a farmer here must provide for his own needs,” he says. “A part of the gasoline I use for the land, the rest I sell in town.”

On a recent day, Zechariah “harvests” the oil, which flows rich and black, and kindles a fire under the tank. A rickety container, which looks in danger of exploding, sits on the pitch-black earth where he used to cultivate potatoes.

Syria has been an oil-producing country since 1946, producing 380,000 barrels of crude per day before protests began in March 2011. That oil provided a significant chunk of the government’s revenue until the European Union imposed export sanctions last year. Production has since plummeted to 20,000 barrels per day.

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The E.U. lifted its oil embargo in May 2013 to allow crude exports from rebel-held territory, which could be good news for civilians who are capable of farming it. The bulk of Syria’s oil wells are located in opposition-held areas, mainly in the Kurdish northeast of the country and along the border with Iraq.

The area around Ras al-Ayn is tense, with Kurdish militia and Free Syrian Army rebels living in separate parts of town, governed by a tenuous cease-fire that was negotiated in February by polarizing Christian opposition figure Michel Kilo.

The question remains as to whether international purchases of oil from opposition-held regions will help people like Zechariah, who belong to neither political camp.

Every week until he learned how to produce it himself, Zechariah purchased crude oil from a city five hours away. He said rebel fighters operated the oil tap for those who were willing to pay exorbitant prices.

Zechariah is uncertain of what the E.U.’s decision to allow opposition oil exports will mean. He is barely managing to financially support his family and complains about the pollution of his once-pristine farmland, now coated in traces of oil. “This I [would] never have chosen,” he says. “I do it out of necessity, because it is not possible anymore to cultivate my potatoes and my family still needs to be fed.”

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The small-scale production of diesel is being carried out by an increasing number of small rural farmers. The area around Ras al-Ayn is filled with smoke plumes. But  the infrastructure to pump oil and provide safe transportation is still far off. Without solid oil-producing infrastructure, it is doubtful whether the E.U.’s decision will make much difference here.

But Syria itself is hurting for oil. Self-refined petrol is sold in Ras al-Ayn by the liter and half liter. (One liter will set you back nearly one euro, high in a country where the economy is at a standstill.) Selling small batches of oil locally could be a solution both for Zechariah and his neighbors.

Dutch photographer Ruigendijk and Belgian journalist Van den Berghe traveled to Syria in April 2013 to record the stories of Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority. They are currently producing a documentary (called “What About Kurdistan?!”) that will show the reality of daily life in Kurdistan today. 

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