Reclaiming Al Badia: Sustainable Soil Management in Rural Damascus

John Todd (MArch I) – and Tiffany Way (MArch I)

Project Overview

“De-rocking” is a long-standing land reclamation practice used by Syrian farmers for thousands of years to manually render the shallow, rocky soil of Al Badia (the Syrian steppe) into arable land. In the past few decades, state-initiated land reclamation projects have introduced mechanical de-rocking methods that far surpass manual methods in efficiency. Within the Syrian government’s objectives of increasing agricultural production and food security and halting migration to the towns, de-rocking has been touted as an “unmitigated success…on par with providing irrigation to dry areas”(IFAD 2003). These efforts are aimed toward empowering poor rural populations within the region to establish micro industries of agriculture, generating income and stimulating a sense of place. For this study, we traveled to farming communities in rural Damascus—areas vulnerable to rural-urban migration—to capture the technical and social narratives of de-rocking process beneficiaries. We addressed how farmers adapt technical solutions toward positive and sustainable impacts on incomes and livelihoods, producing a specific cultivation strategy which fosters local responsibility over maintaining land. Beyond documenting the accelerated transformation of the physical landscape, we investigated how mechanized land reclamation reconfigures the social structure of rural communities, restructures rural-urban identity, and reshapes the cultural landscape.

© 2011, Tiffany Wey and John Todd

Project Information


Agriculture constitutes an important sector in the Syrian economy, employing 25 percent of the labor force in 1999; at the same time, only 30 percent of Syria’s total area is cultivated (IFAD, 2003). A major concern of the government’s agricultural policy is the presence of rocks derived from volcanic lava flows that limit cultivation.  A soil composition averaging 2,000 cubic meters of rocks per hectare, has significantly inhibited agricultural growth. Syrian farmers reclaimed piecemeal patches of this landscape through laborious de-rocking done by hand, allowing for only very small plantings of fruit and olive crops. In 1977, state-initiated mechanical de-rocking for large-scale land reclamation developed as the National Fruit Tree Project. This enabled newly arable land to substantially increase its capacity of productivity. The rural areas of al Badia, a vast plateau stretching from the leeward Eastern slope of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and extending across the southern portion of the country, have been key sites of reclamation. In its interventions, IFAD has taken on a “holistic approach integrating the use of heavy equipment with complementary activities such as adaptive research, extension and training, in order to have the highest impact on productivity and farmers’ earnings” (Ibid). The project’s participatory management approach involves the Bedouin in identifying problems and finding solutions that are both socially and culturally appropriate.

We traveled to rural Damascus to legibly situate the evolution of our study area, Qarah, within developmental factors of environmental degradation, and human cultivation. We focused our documentation of the land reclamation process on three viewpoints to understand how de-rocking impacts the village social dynamic. We conducted interviews with local academic experts, farmers, and rural-urban immigrants to record the process of change within the rural landscape and the social organization of the village­­­. In studying this specific topographic condition and its modification through human intervention, we sought to document a hybridized and complex social and natural landscape.

02_Background / Academic View:

Our first interview of the trip was with Dr. Hassan Habib, Professor of Soil Science, Faculty of Agriculture, Damascus University. In order to determine the stability of farming communities, we first established the metrics that influence the rate of transformation of the landscape. Dr. Habib explained that two main factors affect soil management in Syria: water—in terms of the quantity achieved through rainfall, and quality (degree of salinity) of water derived from the Euphrates—and soil quality—which is determined by grazing patterns, crop-switching, and other natural factors. Desertification has been a serious threat to the Syrian landscape from the 1970’s on, with as much as 55-60% of land degraded. Such change has been exerted by the increasing demographic pressure for agriculture resources that were exacerbated by the 1980s population explosion from Iraqi refugees as well as government sanctions. The situation has been worsened by the past years of low rainfall.

Deforestation, overgrazing, and soil erosion, compounded by poor water planning and management, wasteful irrigation systems, water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and a rapidly growing population exert much pressure on the Syrian landscape. Agriculture and animal grazing can intensify soil compaction and the erosion of the carbon-rich topsoil. Agriculture accounts for almost 90 percent of the country’s water consumption, according to the government and private sector, so the policies governing it are critical to the preservation of the land and efficient use of water. One complication is the common viewpoint of water, designated by Islamic law, as a gift of God rather than a resource regulated by the government. Traditionally, communities had methods to avoid desertification, such as rotation or leaving an area unused. This allowed the vegetation to grow back, but modernization and centralization takes the decision out of their hands.

As of now, experts still believe it is possible to reclaim pastures on a large scale, but it is a long-term project that requires more funding, studies and awareness raising. For Dr. Habib, the increased awareness of the land conditions is of such paramount importance that “people should start learning about these issues in kindergarten!” After all, he believes that “desertification is not an issue for machines.” Even if it is possible to extend agricultural land and cultivate the steppes through efficient mechanization, ultimately it is important to educate all members of society, especially the individual farmers and government officials involved. Farm subsidies for scarce years only go so far to solve a longstanding problem. Cooperation of local communities and governmental assistance in making land use and herd size decisions, would minimize land degradation, curb rural-urban migration and stabilize rural areas.

03_Ministry of Agriculture/Qarah Farmer View:

We traveled north from Damascus, following the eastern edge of the Anti-Lebenon mountain range toward the desert town of Qarah to meet Mr. Mohammad, an engineer and local official of the Ministry of Agriculture. While we gathered around in his office drinking ever ubiquitous assam tea, Mr. Mohammad explained the land reclamation projects of the surrounding area. The projects in Qarah consist of two sites that began the transition from rocky soil to farmland in 1985. These projects have been managed by the Syrian government through the Ministry of Agriculture but have been funded by both the government and international non-profit organizations. The projects we were seeing were co-funded by JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, as well as the government.

The first site is in the flatlands between the village and the mountains known as ‘The Green Strip’; the second, terraced in the mountains, is one site of a national land reclamation effort called the “Fruit Tree Project”. Both consist of 10 hectare allotments. The Green Strip allotments have poor soil quality but are provided free of charge and are dispensed to anyone in the village who files a claim with the Ministry. The mountain sites of the Fruit Tree Project provide richer soil with a higher iron content but the land allotments are sold by the government at a subsidized rate. Each plot can grow around 300 trees consisting of a variety of crops including almond, grape, pomegranate, apple, pistachio, cherry, fig, apricot, and olive. The land is converted from its natural state to a fully functioning orchard by the farmers themselves. This initial conversion process takes 1-3 years, and then an additional 6 years until the the trees can be harvested. Though the labor is performed by the owner, the process is subsidized through a government tool sharing program which provides the use of tractors, plows, and other mechanized farming equipment for the many farmers who cannot afford to purchase their own.

After a detailed explanation of the projects, we visited the sites themselves.We were shown some of the allotments at both sites as well as the holding areas for the mechanical equipment and a reservoir. Mostly empty, Mr. Mohammad explained that the majority of the water used for the orchards was from precipitation. He motioned to the base of a tree and showed how the rocks on and in the ground were only removed to make enough room for the initial planting, while the majority of the rocks are left alone, and even stacked up around the base of the trees.This, as he showed us while moving some stones, acts as a protective barrier for the soil, to prevent water from evaporating in the harsh sun. We then stopped at a very old stone hut once inhabited by farmers during the cultivation and harvest seasons, as the orchard land is located a considerable distance from the town. While we observed a number of newer, more eccentric and comparatively lavish dwellings amongst the fields, being at that particular dwelling–an example of how things once were–provided us an opportunity to engage Mr. Mohammad with questions of the social impact and changes that have been brought about through these projects. We asked Mr. Mohammad if it would be possible to talk to some of the farmers and inquire about how these projects have affected their lives. Responding with a laugh, Mr. Mohammad told us that they were all farmers–that everyone that worked at their Ministry office came from the town, working their own farms as well as administrating the farming projects.

After we made our way back to the Ministry office, we gathered inside with a group of farmers and friends of Mr. Mohammad. They told us of the history of their town whose families have been tilling that land for countless generations–over thousands of years since pre-roman times. The introduction of modern farming techniques and tools that came along with these government-implemented projects dramatically changed the social organization of the village and familial structure. Before this time, everyone farmed; the amount of manual labor required by the farming dictated a large family size of 7-8 to work the land and be housed together as one family unit in one place. The land was passed down through inheritances divided among sons.

Mechanization changed all this. Decoupled from labor requirements, family size shrunk to the current average of 4-5 members. Children were able to remain in school, only assisting in the fields during the summer harvest. The increased time devoted to education provided a greater range of opportunities for children to pursue other careers, even to leave town to work or pursue university studies in Damascus. Such change has engendered greater autonomy to the individual, fragmenting the familial structure, yet providing new generations the opportunity to choose their paths in life, no longer bound to inherit the life of a farmer. This is especially true in its restructuring of women’s role, allowing some freedom from the social constraints of hereditary domestic life.

The expansion of free time provided adults the opportunity to pursue secondary occupations. This has created, according to the farmers we spoke with, an increasing class fragmentation between the residents of the town. Before, everyone was more or less equal, but now many have begun to define themselves by their other occupation and the associated status. But, Mr. Mohammad expressed, when it comes time to harvest, these differences vanish, “out in the fields, everyone is a farmer–everyone gets their hands dirty and wears the their Keffiyeh,” the traditional scarf of the Bedouin.

Greater productivity with the farm and a second income has increased the wealth of the townspeople. From this, the townspeople have been able to afford modern luxuries such as hot water, television, and computers. The influx of money and other trades into the town has led to the arrival of many new residents. What used to be a very old and dusty farming village–a stop along the road to Homs since Roman times–Qarah has very quickly become a town, increasing in population from a mere 150 to over 20,000 since the 1980s. Roads were paved and whole neighborhoods have sprung up from the desert. Residents no longer know all the names of their peers. To further problematize the issue of scale, the free time available to residents is no longer spent socializing with neighbors, forming community bonds, but rather spent with technology sitting in front of a television or computer.


The mechanization of farming has been the result of global demands and pressures–a reaction to international sanctions and government development initiatives created in the face of growing populations. Yet these broad influences have exerted change at an immediate level, rapidly re-structuring rural life into modernity. The scale of social identity has dramatically expanded beyond the limits of the village, including it in a larger urban system. Inhabitants of Qarah are metaphorically and literally connected to Damascus and the complexity of its urban identity. The family unit expands, and children are able to leave their family household for lives in the city. Technological media creates a bond of shared stories, news, and events that transcend physical place and bridge between the central urban production of Damascus and outposts like Qarah. The time gained from greater farming efficiency has been spent on increasing the variety and volume of services and trade, creating a complex and interdependent social network between individuals of the community. Increased wealth has led to more amenities and traditional measures of quality of life. Yet as these social identities of the rural expand into the greater urban system, immediate ties thin, as the close familial structure weakens though generational diaspora. Anonymity increases as time is spent with media rather than with neighbors. Increasing specialization connects individuals into a larger engine of capital but fragments the cohesive identity of the community as farmers, introducing difference through class stratification.

The residents of Qarah and similar rural communities are acutely facing an existential crisis of modernity, as a way of life known in the community for thousands of years has, within two generations, been replaced. They are faced with a paradoxical social condition of simultaneous connection and isolation. Mr. Mohammad expressed, however, that though the rapid and dramatic changes lead to some problems, their overall quality of life is better; people live longer and have more opportunities Plugged into a greater network, life is no longer autonomous and self-sufficient. Awareness becomes the most important concept to engage this new condition in a socially and environmentally sustainable way; if community members are aware of their larger scale impact, they can work together to manage their shared resources.


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