These financial burdens have led many olive farmers to consider leaving their land in search of a more profitable craft. “Half the land here has been neglected, and nothing was grown this season,” says Sowar Khalil, a farmer from Afrin in the Aleppo governorate.
“The current situation has stopped famers from getting the needed agricultural materials. Meanwhile, mills are trying to cover their losses by putting up their prices and selling burlap bags for 200 pounds, when they used to give them out for free. They also charge 800 pounds instead of 100 for empty tins. Consequently, the farmer is the biggest loser at the end of the day. We weren’t able to make any profit; on the contrary, we have paid money from our own pockets to get through the olive oil extraction process.”
He says that he will quit agriculture altogether should the current situation remain unchanged.
Abu Hamed, a farmer living close to the city of Idlib with his four sons, depends on olive crops as a secondary source of income. He says that the exodus of Syrian youth to other countries has created a labor shortage, adding that olive farmers are looking for a new source of daily income, rather than wait for seasonal olive harvests that are no longer profitable.
Abu Hamed believes that traders who export the oil are still making a living off the farmers’ work. One of the many difficulties facing olive farmers, he says, is the high cost of transporting crops from groves to the mills.
The skyrocketing cost of fuel has led his transportation costs to double, and he says farmers have found themselves forced to sell their olive oil to special traders for 4,000 Syrian pounds per 18-liter tin. These traders then send the oil to Turkey with the help of a corporate network, which is responsible for marketing and selling the oil for 20,000 Syrian pounds per tin, none of which goes to the farmer.
Syrian olive oil’s largest market was once the country itself. Now the industry relies on exports to Turkey.
Trader Ayman Habal says that the the exports are the reason why the price has spiked in Syria.
“While exports are important because they add to the national income, it doesn’t make sense to export oil when the price of an oil tin in Damascus costs the same as an employee’s salary.”
In 2012, the Syrian government agreed to export olive oil and citrus fruits to Iran in exchange for potatoes and fertilizer, with the only set condition being the non-negotiable continuation of this trade.
Price of Olive Oil Doubles in Damascus
September is traditionally the time when Syrian families start filling their pantries with winter provisions. One specialty is Makdous, a popular dish served at breakfast. However, since this dish needs copious amounts of olive oil, many families say they will have to forego Makdous this year due to the high oil prices.
Previously, an 18-liter olive oil tin would sell for 3,000 Syrian pounds in Damascus. Today, a tin sells for 10,000. The price hike puts oil on a list of luxury items, along with scarce eggs, meat and dairy. (Highlighting the hikes caused by transport, the same 18-liter tins sell for 4,500 pounds in olive country.)
Syrians have been frustrated and perplexed by the price hikes. Saner, a Damascene, blames traders for “the inexplicable increase in prices,” given that Syria was once the second largest producer of olive oil in the Arab region. Another, Rania, says that olive oil is an essential product, and asks government authorities to subsidize it.
Mohammad al-Asfar, the marketing manager at Syria’s Agriculture Ministry, says that the reason behind the price hike “is the lack of a functional union specialized in marketing olive oil as well as being responsible for collecting oil produced all year round so as to realize a real margin of profit for the farmer.”
He adds that “the smuggling of large amounts of olive oil into neighboring countries in the past has been an additional reason for this price increase,” explaining that the treasury doesn’t get any money from those illegal transactions.