Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Contrary farmer wonders if Syrian crisis is Malthusian

The Contrary Farmer | Recently I heard on the news that a widespread sandstorm was blanketing a large part of Syria. The farmer in me immediately perked up but there was no commentary, no details, and I did not hear the news repeated. I admit, ashamedly, that I know nothing much about Syria, but a widespread sandstorm indicated a situation that deserved a little more attention, it seemed to me.
I started doing a little digging into Syrian agriculture, and just as I suspected, the farm news there is not good, and is connected directly to the terrible upheaval and conflict going on there. Syria’s population is estimated at around 17,000,000 and is about the size of Iowa  whose population is right around 3,000,000. That should tell us something right away. About 20% of the land in Syria is barren desert and 50%  is pasture of very limited productivity, so it seems obvious that most of that population is concentrated in a relatively small part of the country. Then in 2007 and 2008, the worst drought in 40 years hit the most agriculturally productive part of the country. Some 800,000 rural people, including 60,000 herders, were forced to abandon their land and migrate to city slums (I am reading this from the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace website, a post titled “Drought, Corruption, and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis,” but you can find the same information from many sources). The tragedy was enhanced because the government under the Assads, father and son, has been following a policy of shifting farm laborers into the cities to increase the growth of the urban service sector. Earlier there had been a vigorous attempt on the part of big business to get into farming since increasing demand for food suggested that it was a good way to make some fancy profits with the help of advanced technology. This move to industrialize Syrian agriculture proved disastrous. Officialdom did a turnaround and made valiant attempts to encourage small farmers, even enacting laws to limit the size of farms in some areas. But the old rural society was broken and that didn’t work either. That was when the Assad regime started shifting farm labor into city jobs. Then the great drought came along. And the weather has only improved a little since then. Irrigation that seemed so promising in the days of big business farming has lagged. In some places ground water simply dried up.
I need not point out that a lot of this sounds very familiar to other parts of the world too. What makes the Syrian example so horrendous is that all these farm problems have been occurring against a background of almost constant warfare. Going back at least to when Europe started getting involved in the Middle East, there has been, in Syria alone, an uprising against government or between ethnic groups literally every decade. How can any agriculture endure when both nature and human society seem out to destroy it.

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