Syria pistachio farmers return to orchards after years of war

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This picture taken on June 24, 2020 shows a view of pistachio trees growing at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria. (AFP)
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A pistachio farmer tends to a tree at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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This picture taken on June 24, 2020 shows a view of ripening pistachio fruit on a tree branch at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria. (AFP)
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A pistachio farmer tends to a tree at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 16 July 2020

Syria pistachio farmers return to orchards after years of war

  • Many farmers hope this season would mark the revival of what was once a leading industry

MAAN: Pruning scissors in hand, Syrian pistachio farmer Fadi Al-Mahmoud inspected his orchard, hoping for his first harvest after years of war, as nearby army de-miners swept the ground for buried explosives.
“I will be fine as long as my orchard is fine,” said the 40-year-old, who returned to his village of Maan in the north of battle-scarred Hama province only months ago, after years of displacement.
The region, long a center of Syria’s famed pistachio production, was controlled for years by extremists and rebels, but it fell to President Bashar Assad’s government forces early this year.
After the violence subsided, many farmers like Mahmoud returned, hoping this season would mark the revival of what was once a leading industry, its produce beloved across the Middle East.
“The pistachio tree is the lung that allows the villages of the Hama countryside to breathe,” Mahmoud told AFP during a break from pruning the trees with shears and a small saw.
Parting the green leaves, he examined the pistachios, looking for the purple hue on their greenish cream-colored outer casing that indicates they are ready to be picked.
Syria was once a top exporter of the green nut that is widely used in sweets and sprinkled on ice cream across the Middle East.
The country produced up to 80,000 tons a year before the start of the conflict in 2011, mostly for export to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe.
In 2013, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Syria was still the world’s fourth largest pistachio producer after Iran, the United States and Turkey.
But years of bitter fighting blocked access to Syria’s best pistachio regions in Hama, Aleppo and Idlib provinces, leading production to plunge by more than half during the war, according to the agriculture ministry.
Of more than 70,000 hectares (170,000 acres) of farm land alloted for pistachio growing in the northwest, a quarter has been damaged by war, said Hassan Ibrahim, director of the ministry’s pistachio department.
Mahmoud said that on his farm, “some tree branches had withered, and there were trenches and land mines scattered all around.”
“I hope I can start to make up for the losses during the war,” he said.
He explained that pistachio orchards “require a lot of care.”
“They must be plowed four times a year and sprayed with pesticides twice annually or more.”
Although the battles have died down, danger still lurks in the soil in the form of anti-personnel mines and other unexploded ordnance left behind by rebels and jihadists.
The authorities “have sent teams to sweep the area,” Ibrahim told AFP.
Outside the village, where the skeleton of a charred vehicle sits in an arid field, Syrian army de-miners swept the rust-brown earth with metal detectors for remnants of war.
A loud blast echoed across the land as they detonated a land mine.
Another local pistachio farmer, Ibrahim Ibrahim, recalled harvests before the war.
“We used to pluck tons from our trees every year and distribute them in local markets or export them,” said the 55-year-old.
The nuts “make up our main source of income.”
“This is the first year that farmers re-enter their lands without fear,” he said.
“I hope... this year we will see production rise to pre-war levels.”


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

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“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.