In September, the parched Hawran plain in southern Syria feels more like a desert than the ‘Granary of Rome’ as it was once known. The red volcanic earth alongside the highway to Jordan is thirsty for the autumn rains.
Trucks zoom by at high speed, ferrying merchandise to the Gulf. They hold fruits from the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, and vegetables from the Gouta oasis around Damascus.
It’s believed that wild wheat was first domesticated in the Hawran. The plain lies in the southern quarter of the ‘Fertile Crescent,’ a vast region that extends from Iraq through present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and on southwards – some maintain – as far as the Nile delta.
Yet despite this rich history, today Arab countries subsist on foreign grains and are deeply food insecure. Egypt is the world’s biggest wheat importer. Many nations can barely afford the foreign currency needed for imports. And so they are vulnerable to the vagaries of the market and political pressure from nations that control the global food supply.
Dara’a is the urban centre of Hawran. It is an unassuming city, randomly spread across swathes of dry farmland, and an unlikely candidate for the Syrian insurrection that has blossomed there. Until, that is, you consider the profound agrarian changes here in recent years.
Farming was once a major source of income in Syria. But after a decade of economic liberalization under Bashar al Assad, small farmers can barely scrape a living. Many are seeking cheap labour abroad, or migrating en masse to join the ranks of the unemployed in the misery belts of the cities. This creates immense discontent and has been one of the driving forces of the Arab Spring.
Arab food insecurity has many roots. They include poor national policies and oppressive regimes’ disregard for the welfare of their people.
But cheap food originating from the subsidized surpluses of richer countries has played a part, flooding markets and devastating local industry. In Lebanon, there was a time in the 1990s when the cost of milling a kilogram of locally produced wheat was higher than the shelf price for the same weight of imported flour. Farmers abandoned their fields or turned to cash-cropping, which delivered them into the waiting arms of unscrupulous intermediaries. It’s these traders who make money from the fresh produce on the trucks heading south.
Meanwhile, both rural and urban dwellers have become heavily dependent on cheap food imports. Patterns of consumption have changed. Now obesity and malnutrition co-exist among the poorer social classes – the majority of the Arab people. Any food price spikes give rise to instant discontent, which is expressed loudly in the streets.
It’s no coincidence that both Tunisia and Egypt, once home to market-friendly dictators Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, were also the sites of food riots in the 1980s and most recently in 2008. The 2010 food spike helped mobilize the insurrection that ended Mubarak’s rule.
But the Arab Spring has brought change and renewal. In the new Egypt, everything feels possible. The agenda for change is huge, but agriculture is high on the list – with a new mantra of self-sufficiency.
Both the public sector and civil society are working to enhance food sovereignty. Newspapers carry articles about new rural development initiatives by the Egyptian government. There is a plan to provide seeds and fertilizer to wheat farmers, to lower the costs of production, and talk of agricultural renewal.
Activists are calling attention to the plight of small farmers. The government is questioning the transparency of land acquisitions by large investors such as Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, one of the richest men in the world. Some land sold in dubious transactions has already been repossessed.
Driven by people’s protests, the Arab world is being reborn. We have toppled dictators, and others are on their way out. From Morocco to Yemen, the streets are resounding with the call for freedom and equality.
If we channel the oil surpluses of the Gulf to improve the livelihoods of farmers in the Moroccan Rif, in the Yemeni highlands and in the Sudanese plains, we can liberate ourselves from global markets. In a new, integrated Arab world, a space can be carved out for rural society, which will be strengthened and revived. We must strive for this, because the hungry can never be free
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