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Land Tenure and Labour Relations
by Nadia Forni

12.1 Introduction and summary

Relations between people and land in Syria take a multitude of forms, evolved during the history of the country. Customary and formal legal systems play a complementary role.

A massive effort was made by the Syrian Government to address rural inequalities in access to land, in particular through land reform. However, pressure on land is increasing in line with high population growth and is at the root of illegal occupations and conflicts between non-cultivating owners of the land and would-be cultivators. The proportion of agricultural households without any access to land or fixed employment is growing.

State land, including a variety of different categories, has a very important but decreasing role, while the problem of squatters on public lands is on the way to being solved through a programme of regularization and award of regular contracts.

Finally, pressure on pasture and open access policies in the badia facilitate free riding. The potential role of the cooperatives as local organizations representing the range users is emerging as one way to redefine traditional land tenure within a legally recognized user rights system.

The labour organization system is relatively efficient but few workers are registered, because they work on very short contracts. Hence they are insecure. Most agricultural wage labourers within Syria are women, while men prefer to access foreign labour markets with higher wage rates.

12.2 Land tenure systems and historical background

a) Land tenure systems in Syria

Land tenure can be defined as the bundle of rights an individual, household or community may have with respect to land. It includes property rights but also use rights of a permanent or a seasonal nature.

Some critical areas of land tenure systems in Syria include: (i) the evolution of tenancy and sharecropping systems, and the emerging problem of squatters on private land; (ii) regulations affecting land reform beneficiaries; (iii) extreme fragmentation of small scale operations and growth of landless agricultural households; and (iv) issues related to land tenure in pastoral areas, relevant in more than half the Syrian territory.

A tenure system may include rights sanctioned by law, and rights sanctioned by custom. That is, beside formal legal systems following defined administrative procedures there exist also customary rules accepted by the majority of users. The two systems may sometimes enter in conflict with each other (FAO, 1993).

The existence of formalized systems of tenure side by side with customary institutions (‘Urf) applies in Syria, as in most countries. During the twentieth century, the changes in land tenure have been substantial with the passage from Ottoman administration to French mandate and ultimately to the independent Syrian state. Each have left a legacy of institutions pertinent to access to land and acquired rights.

In Syria, as elsewhere in the Near East, redistributive land reform and public land distribution have been used extensively since the late 1950s as measures to benefit poor farmers. This has, however, not prevented the growth of landlessness. The landless, defined as those agricultural workers not owning or renting land and without access to permanent employment, were estimated to represent in the Near East Region between 20 and 35 percent of total number of agricultural households according to the 1980 World Agricultural Census (cf. El Ghonemy, 1996) and even more at present. In Syria, their growth was slowed down by redistribution of land confiscated to large feudal owners, with a process set in motion in 1958 by the agrarian reform legislation. However, landlessness is now again becoming a matter of concern in many governorates and is connected with claims of squatters occupying land to which they have no title. As a consequence there is a lively debate on legal tools to enforce property rights and property security.

b) The historical background

The current land tenure system in Syria was influenced by the mass peasant uprisings of 1889-1890, during Ottoman rule, when the peasants wanted the reduction of the sheikhs’ share to land to one-eighth, the parceling out of the rest of the land to the peasants as well as the elimination of the right of the sheikhs to evict peasants. (For a wide ranging historical panorama of Syrian agriculture see Batatu, 1999).

The historical role played by state and collective land also influenced the current pattern of land tenure in Syria. State land today is only a partial remnant of land under different types of state and communal tenure that existed up to the end of the 19th century. Communal farming systems (musha) existed in wide tracts of the Syrian countryside until when, with the 1858 Land Code, hundreds of villages became the property of Sultan Abdul Hamid’s family and of a handful of powerful Syrian families. In this way, the process was started whereby personal title of ownership to much of these musha lands came to be given to powerful absentee owners. In many cases in Syria, as elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, tribal chiefs were transformed into private owners while tribe members became their sharecroppers (cf Lemel, 1988). However, to this day musha land exists and is at the disposal of the communities for activities such as grain threshing or grazing. The musha land system has many analogies with the open fields system common in much of Europe until the 18th -19th centuries (cf. Ciparisse, 1999).

As for state land, crown land became state land after the Turkish revolution of 1908. Later, under the French mandate, state land came partly under the personal control of the sheikhs. In the badia, grazing areas were recorded as state land, with pastoralists’ customary access rights.

In the post World War II system, the most important changes were brought by legislation which came into being during the union with Egypt; in 1958, both the Agricultural Relations Law (law No 134) and the Agrarian reform law (Law No 161) were enacted. In this way, policies started to focus on the hitherto underprivileged peasantry, which benefited from land distribution acquiring owners-like possession to the distributed land. On the other hand, farmers obtained fairer shares of production in the case of sharecropping through the Agricultural Relations Law.

About 22 percent of cultivable land was confiscated because of land reform ceilings. This was only partially redistributed to farmers (see Sarris, 1995). Some forty percent of the land reform land was distributed to farmers, mainly before 1974, at which time increasing attention was given to the needs of public organizations, for production as well as for research and development purposes. Redistribution to farmers started again, later.

12.3 Public and private land tenure in forest, pastoral and agricultural areas

a) Public and private land

In terms of land use, and irrespective of whether private or public, it is reported (FAO, 1999) that out of the total of 18.5 million ha: 6.0 are cultivable land, 3.7 uncultivable, 8.3 pasture and steppe, 0.5 forest. There is some overlapping between pasture and steppe land on the one hand and uncultivable land on the other, which explains some difference in the statistical breakdown in different sources.

In terms of property and tenure, it is estimated that out of the total Syrian land area (18.5 mill ha) 62 percent (11.5 mill ha) comes under the general term of state land. The remaining 38 percent of the territory, or about 7 million hectares, are privately owned and operated. Cultivable land is to a large extent private, while uncultivable land is shared between private and public with a greater portion belonging to the public sector.

Under the general term of state land are included natural resources and utilities for collective use, state land cultivated for agricultural purposes in state farms and similar enterprises as well as land distributed under various title or rented, within the framework of land reform and assimilated programmes. The difference between these various types of land, from the point of management and from the point of view of individual rights to them, is so great that it is not unusual in Syria to hear that there are in the country three types of land: state, land reform and private. The first two do however technically fall together under the term state land, as will be illustrated further below.

Table 12.1 State land and private land, year 2000 (million ha)

State land


Private land


Total land area


11 464


7 054


18 518


Source: MAAR.

It may be useful to stress that breakdowns in terms of land use and in terms of ownership (private or state) are only partially coinciding. In particular: cultivable land exists under both state and private control. Communal pastures and forests are mainly state controlled, but some pastures have come under private control.

Private land

Private land includes mainly cultivated land, in rain-fed or irrigated conditions, in addition to fallow and some uncultivated and uncultivable land. With increasing population and pressure on land the tendency has been for using all available resources and in a more intensive way; uncultivated land in private areas is almost stable (around.5 million ha) and areas left fallow are in sensible decrease since the late 1980s.

Private land is used for crop and animal production in holdings owned, and/or operated, either by individuals or companies. It occurs under a variety of tenures and systems of management, with a predominance of direct operation by owners or through sharecroppers. On the other hand, crop and animal production is also taking place under different categories of what is defined as ‘state land’.

State land

Currently, the general category of state land in Syria includes:

(i) agricultural land rented or allocated to individuals, for instance to land reform beneficiaries, and which is privately operated;

(ii) state farms;

(iii) forest land;

(iv) pasture land in the steppe used by herders under traditional rights of access; and

(v) state land used for roads or any other public purpose, as well as uncultivable areas such as wastelands, rivers and lakes.

Lands under (i) and (ii) are used for defined agricultural production purposes and managed in the form of holdings; item (iii) is managed by the state with limited rights of use by certain population groups; item (iv) according to some statistics accounts for as much as 55 percent (10.2 mill ha) of total land area, and close to 8 million ha according to more conservative definitions; it includes the desert and semi-desert area or badia to which mobile herders have traditional access rights, but also some marginal agricultural areas in zone 4.

The specifically Syrian definition of state lands warrants some further attention. Based on characteristics of access, legal delimitation of the territory and type of management, the first two categories above - rented or allocated agricultural land and state farms - tend to coincide with cultivable land under the category known as ‘registered’ state property, whereas all the rest falls under the category of ‘unregistered’ open access and communal resources.

Unregistered state property includes:

Registered state property includes:

The area recorded under these categories is reported in Table 12.2

Table 12.2 Registered and unregistered state land (million ha)

1. Unregistered open access and communal resources

7 675

2. Registered state land

Registered state property (not related to land reform)


Registered areas after confiscation through land reform

1 390

Subtotal registered

3 789

3. Total

11 464

Source: MAAR, 2000.

A complex system evolved over time in Syria in order to directly manage state land, as in the case of state farms, rent it out to farmers, allocate it to individual beneficiaries as owner-like possessors, or allocate it for different types of public use. Such policies have given direction and support to a large mass of small individual land recipients, as well as to large scale public holdings. However, it also implies heavy demands on public sector establishment for monitoring purposes.

b) Land reform and state land distribution

Almost 555 000 hectares were distributed to users out of the expropriated private lands following the 1958 land reform. Land reform distribution took place mainly in better agricultural areas.

In a similar way, since the late 1950s 303 000 ha of original state land have been distributed to farmers with a possibility of redemption after ten years of registration. This took place mainly in rain-fed, lower quality, land areas of zone 4.

At any rate, land distributed to operating farmers accounts for only part of the destination of the total stock of registered state lands (Table 12.3). Public sector units and rented land remain important, while substantial areas out of original state land were sold, mainly to achieve land consolidation.

Land reform beneficiaries have many rights common to full owners, but also limitations. In fact, the land reform law gives the beneficiaries owners-like possession but no right of sale, and tied cropping systems.

The size of distributed plots was related to size of households and was thus aiming at covering basic needs of the households. The holding was expected to remain one undivided management unit, but no mechanism for compensation between heirs of the household was foreseen.

The law was to be implemented in a way to create small holdings not to exceed 8 ha in irrigated or tree crop areas, 30 ha in rain-fed conditions with more than 350 mm, and up to 45 ha in rain-fed areas with 350 mm or less.

Table 12.3 Allocation of original state land and land expropriated according to land reform law

Type of Allocation

Land Reform Land (ha)

Breakdown (%)

Original State Land (ha)

Breakdown (%)

Distributed to farm beneficiaries

554 744


303 444


Public sector (includes municipalities)

140 491


307 196



5 685

- -

444 812



448 094


490 584


Vacant wasteland

240 685


852 936


Total (errors due to rounding)

1 389 699


2 398 972


Source: MAAR, 2000.

One problem faced by land reform beneficiaries are the high transaction cost to apply for final title. In any case, this refers to usufructuary rights and not to fully disposable private property. Registration is the first step needed, and even this was sometimes considerably delayed. Applications for final title can be made twenty years after registration and after payment of yearly dues.

The prescribed path seems to be fraught with difficulties. This is especially true because the share of the assets within the household of the original beneficiary, and his heirs, needs to be sorted out first.

The distribution was originally based on existing children at the time of distribution, i.e. each member of the household counted in establishing the total household allocation. Each individual child had a theoretical share. This had abnormal developments: i.e. upon death of the father, his individual share of the total allocation was divided among all his children. Those who were already born at the time of the land distribution received their part of the father’s share plus their own share; those who were born after received only a part of the father’s share; ii. the holding is eligible for inputs as one unit but the existence of separate beneficiaries is recognized.

To sum up, ways and means to apply for final title of possession are still open issues. Clarification of the individual rights within the household at this point has a high transaction cost, still there are limited transactions in the parallel market to sell shares of the land to other beneficiaries. In the meantime, the beneficiaries pay rent to the state in partial compensation of the value of the land they receive in use. According to limited information obtained in the field, the process was easier in the case of original state lands distributed to farmers.

c) State farms

State farms cover a large part of the public sector allocation and the new trend is towards their privatization. Land allocated to state farms comes from two major sources: original state property, and land confiscated from private owners following land reform.

As of 2001, a total of 112 420 hectares were in 12 state farms or an average of 9 400 hectares each. Ninety percent of this area comes from confiscated private land in excess of land reform ceilings. It is planned to redistribute most of this area to individual operators and to keep only about 10 percent for demonstration and research purposes. Thus, about a 100 000 ha would be redistributed according to the same priorities as land reform areas i.e. privileging local, land-poor, directly operating farmers.

After privatization of state farms the remaining area under state control is likely to be much less relevant today for agricultural policies and production.

d) Pastoral areas

A large but not precisely defined portion of agricultural activities, particularly with reference to grazing, but also to some extent to forest and crop production, takes place under communal tenures which stretch across public and private land.

The relevance of use rights, as opposed to property, is highest among migrant herders in the badia, which covers such a large proportion of the country, even if sparsely populated.

Traditional communal access rights to pastoral areas have often come under threat. Pastoral areas are officially considered state land and the population use rights to them are not codified. Also, the border between land suitable or non suitable for cultivation, based on rainfall, is not rigid and there have been many attempts to extend the cultivated areas and to acquire private rights to formerly communal land.

In Ottoman times, about 550 000 ha of pastures were registered with individual titles (personal communication Al Hindi); this trend continued with creeping privatization in the course of the last decades. Lands with at least some agricultural potential were put into barley cultivation with erratic production.

The expansion of the land frontier has been particularly noticeable in the 1960s. According to some authors (cf. Ngaido, 1997), in this period most of the arid zone pastures located in the 200 to 350 mm of rainfall were put under cultivation and came under private possession. The putting under cultivation of marginal land, mainly for barley, continued being the way for acquiring private rights up until the early 1990s, when legislation was enacted for the protection of rangelands (‘Decision’ No.17 of 1992, and ‘Decision’ No. 27 of 1995). This legislation banned cultivation under both irrigated and non irrigated conditions in the steppe, but still recognized the private possession on the areas previously cultivated. This means that at present there are portions of the badia which are under private possession even if not open to cultivation but only to grazing. (In theory, planting of shrubs and reseeding for grazing purposes is allowed, but does not seem to be much practised).

For most of the rangelands, communal rights are traditionally recognized by the users, who are at least nominally part of the country’s cooperative system, but free riding cannot be legally sanctioned because communal rights are not officially recognized. The situation is particularly critical where pasture users come from different groups with sometimes conflicting claims. As these claims emerge from the customary system, government monitoring tended to ignore them, but a role is increasingly played by the cooperatives in sorting out local conflicts. This process includes also the difficult task of defining cooperatives’ responsibilities in terms of territory, not a straightforward exercise among pastoral populations who hold different rights at different seasons (cf. Rae, 2000).

12.4 Main trends in cultivated areas and the growth of part time farming

a) Land owners and land operators

Owner operators were more than 70 percent in 1994, while 29 percent were holders whose main occupation is not farming. This latter category consists mainly of absentees, with different levels of participation in management, who operate through sharecroppers or hired labourers, but also of part-time farmers with a prevalent non-farming occupation.

Several waves of migration have swollen the number of absentees. In fact the latter include members of the urban middle classes with some agricultural property, but also relatively poor farmers unable to make a living out of agriculture and attracted by better opportunities in neighbouring countries or in the cities. Properties were in most cases given for cultivation on the basis of informal sharecropping agreements.

Finally, in the 1980s increasing availability of infrastructure brought improvements to the basic livelihoods in rural areas. This took place for instance through electrification and improved road links. Such improvements permitted a gradual return to the villages of many holders as part-time farmers who regularly commute to cities, even at substantial distances. Such a phenomenon is typical of all peri-urban areas in the country. Part-time farmers enjoy all the benefits of full-me farmers in terms of Government services and subsidized inputs.

The return to their home base of many households may also be a partial explanation to increasing conflicts between owners and operating farmers where the former want to recover possession of their property and the latter are not willing to terminate the existing sharecropping or labour agreements. Hence, the phenomenon of return to the land may have side effects on an already saturated land and labour market.

It is in theory possible to group households partaking in farm operations, and agricultural production in general, into a number of categories. These are:

(i) landed holders whose main occupation is not farming (mainly absentees);

(ii) landed holders with farming as a main occupation, i.e. owner-operators;

(iii) sharecroppers and tenants having a written or oral agreement with the owner of the land;

(iv) land reform beneficiaries, i.e. owner-like possessors;

(v) tenants on public land;

(vi) squatters on public land, aiming at becoming legal tenants, for which regularization is on-going;

(vii) squatters on private land, who are mainly sharecroppers whose contract has expired;

(viii) labourers in state farms, joint ventures or larger private farms with a permanent contract; and

(ix) landless and near-landless labourers, mainly descending from small owner or sharecropping households with inadequate land base to redistribute to children.

These groups can be overlapping: for instance one household may be owner operator in one holding and sharecropper in another. That is, the groups are not discrete and also their interests often overlap.

From the management point of view, apart from absentee owners in category (i), and categories (viii) and (ix) who are permanent and casual labour working under instructions, all other categories, (ii) to (vii), function as farm operating households with different degrees of independence.

Thus, with the practical disappearance of traditional large-scale land owners in the wake of the agrarian reform, Syrian agriculture is characterized mainly by small holders whose main occupation is farming, but also by a substantial number of small owners who do not directly operate their farms. These owners are often of farming origin themselves, but have moved away from farming because they have entered other activities. Owners on the one hand and sharecroppers and tenants on the other, increasingly compete for more control over the land they respectively own and operate. This is expressed in increasing conflict which undermines social peace and investment propensity.

b) Land and gender

Legally, Syrian women are equal to men but many social relations are regulated by ‘urf’, custom, where their conditions are subject to traditional ties.

In the case of land inheritance in land reform areas, for instance, women do sometime renounce their shares in favour of brothers under social pressure. In other cases, brothers simply become squatters on sisters’ land.

The increasing feminization of agriculture is a general phenomenon among farm operators. It is mainly male members of the household who enter non-agricultural employment in their place of residence, or seek employment outside the village in the case of emigrants. This situation may put an increasing burden on women, but also has positive effects in terms of increasing their participation in decision making both inside and outside the household.

c) The evolution of agricultural holdings size. The geographical dimension

The number of holdings in Syria has been increasing side by side with population growth and consequent pressure on land. The bulk of holdings is small in scale and traditional in system of management with more than half, 56 percent, of all holdings having an area of 2 ha and below. See table 12.4.

Table 12.4 Percentage distribution of land holdings by major class size

Size classes

% Distribution

Up to 1 ha


1-2 ha


2-4 ha


4-6 ha


6-10 ha


10-20 ha


20 and more ha


Source: 1994 Census of agriculture.

The situation is differentiated over the national territory. In the coastal region, very small holdings were always predominant and continue to prevail: in Tartous, for instance the already small average holding of 2.7 ha in 1970 decreased to 1.8 ha in 1994. However, there are also cases such as the Rakka mohafadha where an above national average of holding of 22.1 ha in 1970 increased to 27.9 in 1994, probably indicating some land consolidation.

Subdivision of holdings into a number of parcels and their geographical variation is a connected issue. The average for the whole country was three parcels per holding. However in the areas where small-scale mixed cropping is predominant, fragmentation in several plots is, predictably, higher than in the grain areas of the northeast.

12.5 The legal framework for land tenure and the role of mass organizations

a) The legal framework

A strong emphasis on legal structures is traditional in Syria as in other Mediterranean countries. The policy discourse is mainly presented or supported by a series of laws and decrees.

The Agricultural Relations Law (Law 134 of 1958), gives the overall legal framework for all relations between employers and workers in the agricultural sector as well as between land owners and tenants. It includes two rather separate parts: a labour relations framework, and a land owners-sharecroppers relations framework. The labour-employer relations described in the law comply with advanced international labour legislation, but they may not totally reflect the current employer/labourer relations in Syria where the percentage of labour contracts actually registered is low. In the land related section, the level of detail prescribed by the law, with reference to sharecropping and leasing regulations, is rather high and may also not always reflect actual agreements prevailing in the field.

The law also states that oral contracts are not valid, but agreements between owners and farmers are rarely written and registered. Therefore the law functions only as a general frame of reference.

Law 161 of 1958 deals with land reform, the modalities for expropriation and for distribution to farmers. The ceilings for land property, which were later amended by a number of decrees, are related to land potential and take into account irrigation and rainfall. They go from a minimum of 15 ha in highly productive irrigated and tree cropping areas, 45 ha in well-irrigated areas, 55 ha in high rainfall (exceeding 500 mm) rain-fed areas, and up to 200 ha in the marginal rain-fed areas of the northeast.

Land ceilings established by land reform apply to ownership and not to operation and therefore there is no legal obstacle to establishment of larger scale operations, through renting private land.

b) The role of mass organizations in policymaking and implementation

The Peasant Union (PU), established in 1964, with close to a million members, is the most powerful and ramified organization of farmers. It represents both owners of land, non owning operators and agricultural workers. Its base units are the ‘cooperatives’ which can be established at the village level provided there are 30 members. Local cooperatives join in a league at the mantika level. Above this level, there are Peasant Union governorate and central federations. The central level of the PU participated to the highest level policy making in the Supreme Agricultural Council. It is yet to be seen whether and how the transfer of Supreme Council functions to relevant sectoral ministries, decided by Cabinet in late 2001, is going to affect PU’s participation in decision making, and namely whether this will affect only the method of participation or also the inherent power of the organization.

In year 2000, there were more than 500 cooperatives in Syria. One of their major roles in the villages is the collection of land reform beneficiaries’ yearly fees, assistance to them in obtaining credit from the agricultural bank and access to subsidized feed.

The financial and organizational role of the cooperatives is complemented by the technical role of MAAR, through the extension branches mainly, in defining cropping plans. In this connection those farmers who are not land reform beneficiaries may find it equally useful to belong to the cooperative.

The PU is thus representing different categories of agriculturists and their families, from landholder to landless labourer. The relative weight in PU’s membership of land reform beneficiaries and other farmers who do not fully own the land they operate make the organization particularly attentive to the problems faced by these categories. However, this is not to the exclusion of more general concerns for all rural households.

The Chamber of Agriculture with 400 thousand members, in 13 governorate level Chambers, tends to cater more to owners of the land and entrepreneurs in the agricultural field. Major activities are information and assistance to private farmers and other agricultural entrepreneurs in promoting their productive performance. A number of sectoral committees function at the governorate as well as at the central level and inform MAAR and the special agricultural committees within the Parliament of their desiderata.

There is a limited overlap between membership of the PU and the Chambers, i.e. farmers may be members of both organizations. Together, the Peasant Union and the Chambers of agriculture are the mass organizations through which the voice of the producers can reach the Government.

c) Conflict resolution mechanisms

The most important role of both PU and Chambers of Agriculture, in connection to land tenure, concerns conflict resolution. They intervene through the arbitration committees in land and labour relations at all levels, including in informal arbitration at the village level.

Arbitration committees and courts exist at the central and governorate level, throughout the country. They are formed by representatives of MAAR, Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour as well as PU and Chambers of Agriculture. They deal with numerous cases of complaints concerning relations between owners of the land and farmers, or workers. But their competence goes well beyond conflict resolution. The committees meet regularly also to assess levels of payment, in terms of rents or wages, with possibility of suggesting changes in line with expected values of production.

However, cases that reach the arbitration committees are only the tip of the iceberg. Most cases of conflict are dealt with informally at the village level where, beside representatives of the organizations listed above, local government and local political leadership play an important role. The local conflict resolution mechanisms are widely used to identify compromises. A greater recognition of their role may help decrease the high costs of the formal arbitration system.

One of the common cases where conflicts arise is where the owner of the land may want to terminate his agreement with the labourer/farmer. This may be because of dissatisfaction with the work performed, of desire to change the cropping pattern necessitating a different type of labour input than the one provided by the current sharecropper or labourer, or because of his decision to return to direct operation.

12.6 The land market and land operation contracts

a) The land market

The land cadastre, established in 1926 during the French mandate, is said to be relatively up to date, in terms of formal and registered transactions. However, the land market is largely informal, that is many transactions are not registered.

According to Seale (1988), it was the Turkish and later French attempts to set up a land register that were used by the local notables and sheikhs to register vast amounts of land under their name. This was also alleged to be the main reason for the already mentioned decline of musha communal land which had been up till then redistributed periodically to village households to give them a chance to access different qualities of land.

The current land market in Syria, in theory, only concerns fully owned and registered private holdings, as redistributed reform land is not open for sale because possession does not correspond to legal ownership. In actual fact, there are parallel land markets regulated by custom also for land reform areas and for musha, collective, land. As there is no possibility of registration and the land remains collectively owned, what are transacted in the market are actually land use rights. These transactions are sanctioned by local social institutions and are invisible to the law.

The market for fully owned land is extremely variable because of the tendency to invest in land as a security and for social purposes. Namely, in some areas migrant remittances are said to inflate land prices. Thus, it would seem that land monetary value is only partly defined by production potential.

At any rate, land purchase is not a preferred strategy for larger entrepreneurs, partly because it would absorb large capitals which could be invested elsewhere, but also because there is a history in Syria of a series of land ceilings under which expropriation took place without having the time to dispose of the excess areas. On the other hand, land purchase is a preferred strategy for very small owners or landless households desiring a minimal security.

In such situations, land markets easily become segmented with the poorer section of the rural producers participating in one market and the elites in another (cf. Riddell, 2000).

Market values of land are also affected by the potential for reclamation or development. In some potentially good areas, such as in Hasake where the tendency is to convert rain-fed areas to irrigation, investors are trying to obtain large plots in view of later investment in irrigation and mechanical cultivation. This is reflected in higher price of land per ha in the case of larger plots.

As for land reform areas, a land market cannot officially exist. In these areas sales are said to take place, but mainly between brothers and other legal heirs to the holding. There are statistics in each governorate of beneficiaries loosing their rights because of illegal sales. In these cases, the holding is confiscated by the state and reallocated. However, this does not seem to be enough of a deterrent to sales. In the tree-crop area, limited information suggests values some 30 percent lower than similar land in non-land reform areas. The differences in rain-fed and irrigated areas are sometimes substantial, about 50 percent, but sometimes only marginally different. This may mean that prices are affected by the local perception of the risk involved in the transaction.

b) Types of contractual agreements concerning land

In spite of the existence of a detailed legal framework, contractual agreements between owners of the land and tenants are often of a general nature and oral only. Specific clauses are not discussed and agreed.

Duration of contracts is set by the law at one year only, although renewable. On the one hand, this signifies precariousness for the farmer who fears eviction. On the other, renewability tends to make these short and precarious contracts a continuing feature where the owner of the land fears eventual usurpation by the tenant.

It is possible to group the very many types of contracts involving land and labour into three main types.

The first occurs where an owner contracts in labour. The owner may be an owner operator and provide his labour together with the labour of his household. In addition he may hire outside labour for operations family labour is unwilling or unable to perform. There are also cases where the owner is not providing any of his household’s labour and uses hired labour only. Contracts are negotiated in the labour market.

The second occurs when the land owner is not directly operating his land, but rather he is renting it out to an operating farmer. A contract is therefore negotiated in the land market. This group includes systems of land leasing and fixed tenancy where the rent, which may be paid in cash or kind, is fixed, i.e. does not vary with the output.

The third occurs when an owner enters into an agreement with an operating farmer whereby each will receive a portion of the product obtained. The two parts agree on the inputs to be provided by each, including labour and other production inputs. These types of contract include all systems of sharecropping and involve both the land and the labour market.

In terms of risk the owner hiring labourers is facing the risk alone, as wages will not vary in relation to profits or losses. In the case of leasing the tenant faces the whole risk as the rent paid will not change with the product. In the case of sharecropping the risk is shared.

The situation of squatters, currently at the centre of the debate in Syria, does not fit in theory into any of the types of contracts described above because squatters are by definition illegal occupiers. However, in the traditional systems of access to land prevailing during the Ottoman Empire, and described by Lemel (1988) with the example of Turkey, there were traditional access rights for the landless to unused land. These were temporary agreements which could be equated to customary contracts, justified by the need to ensure subsistence for the whole community.

Experience in the field, shows that tenure relations in Syria are rarely of one type only. Multiple tenure is common in the villages. It is not unusual for one household to operate one small piece of land in private ownership, while being a squatter on another, and a land reform beneficiary on a third. In this very complex and overlapping system, some detail follows on forms of sharecropping and tenancy currently prevailing in Syria.


Sharecropping systems are extremely varied in Syria. According to the agricultural relations law, different cropping systems in irrigated or rain-fed area are supposed to correspond to different sharing agreements. In some cases, the agreement concerns purely labour. In other cases, a mixture of labour, land and other inputs come into play.

Sharecropping systems have evolved over time. They are common particularly in the better lands where there is an interest for investment by non operating farmers. They are rare in marginal areas, e.g. zone 4.

The shares of the owner and of the farmer vary widely over the territory and are even fluctuating year by year depending on anticipated market values of the main crops grown. In addition, the share of the crops is closely linked with the sharing of inputs, which varies.

There are, therefore, many variations to the concept of sharecropping and its applications. But, there tends to be a common pattern within a certain area and an accepted sharecropping market.

The sharecropper in local terminology is usually defined as the farmer, a terminology adopted here for simplicity. In practice, the more frequent system is sharecropping built on the following premises, with local variations:

the farmer provides his and his family’s labour. If the farmer is fully responsible for all inputs he will pay a 20 percent share of the product to the owner of the land. However, if the owner provides water and or other inputs the latter receives a bigger share of the product, up to 60 percent. A 50-50 share is common when it is the owner who provides mechanical cultivation and fuel as well as fertilizer, but there is also some input sharing with participation of the farmer. Finally, when the farmer contributes labour, he usually receives only 20 percent of the crop. This is the so called labour sharecropping (muraba’a literally one-quarter, but in spite of its name it does not strictly correspond to payment of one-quarter of the crop against labour). Such a farmer is very close to a pure labourer, with little participation in management. The only difference with a labourer is in the form of payment, which is variable and measured in terms of a share of the crops.

Shares are also defined by crop. In the case of Hasake, for instance, it was reported that sharecropping agreements, in terms of amount of the shares, are defined for each crop according to market expectations. The agreements are purely verbal without reference to the law.

Widespread land occupation was reported in several governorates, for instance in Hama. In fact, the so called squatters seem to be mainly sharecroppers whose (yearly) contracts have expired and who refuse to leave. It is alleged that the tendency is to request a 50-50 share with all inputs paid by the owner. However, the latter are said to be generally unwilling to adhere to this request. Sometime the compensation requested by the occupying farmer is even more substantial, and is to be paid in land.

The land relation law regulates termination of sharecropping contracts. However, it leaves some loopholes for continued occupation by tenants or sharecroppers whose contract has expired. According to the interpretation confirmed by Ajamiya (2000) the terminated farmer can return to the land if the owner has not been operating the land himself or with his family for a year after termination. This implies that the owner can only get the land back if he wants to operate himself i.e. he cannot change tenants except for grave negligence of the latter. This amounts to say that if the farmer is evicted on the basis of the owner wanting to return to direct operation and then he does not, the farmer can occupy the land, become a squatter and have a legal backing to do so. During local conflict resolution attempts, it is not infrequent that the farmer requests a part of the land as compensation for work done and in exchange for returning the rest of the holding to the owner.

Some consideration needs to be given also to the nature of the landowners whose land is occupied. There seem to be few absentee land owners in the traditional meaning of the word, the current absentee is often a non-operating peasant who has another job. Therefore the picture of a classical confrontation between absentee landlords and invading landless would be misleading, and the potential role of local institutions in guaranteeing agreements could be high as they all belong to similar social strata.

Finally, it is worth stressing again that there are many different connotations of sharecropping in the country. In Hasake, for instance, sharecropping duration is in general three years, in spite of the one year renewable timing according to the law. This longer duration underlines the fact that in Hasake the sharecropper is the stronger partner in the bargain, as he tends to be an entrepreneur trying to enlarge the size of his operation. The building up of more substantial land operation is done through taking land in as a sharecropper, in addition sometimes to land owned. The system has become known as ‘inverse sharecropping.’

In ‘inverse sharecropping’ the power role is reversed - hence the name. The owner of the land (the weaker party) provides only fixed capital inputs, i.e. physical structures such as wells, and land, whereas the ‘farmer’ or sharecropper provides all the variable inputs. The owner of the land gets up to 15 percent for irrigated land, with all inputs the responsibility of the sharecropper. The sharecropper is unlikely to occupy the land and become a squatter, as happens in other parts of Syria, because he is the one who actually decides whether he wants to continue with the sharecropping agreement and at which terms. The overall share is defined by agreements between the parties which are locally accepted and backed by social institutions.

Fixed rent tenancy (leasing)

The most important issue involved in tenancy agreements in Syria is the degree of permissible involvement of the owner in the management of the land once it is leased out.

The agricultural relations law indicates the legal framework for renting, in the same way as for sharecropping. However in Syria, renting is common when the renting out partner is the state but rather uncommon when both parties are private.

In private areas it was reported that the few existing leasing agreements apply to rain-fed rather than to irrigated areas. The lack of popularity of rent in private areas is mainly connected to risk and to perceived loss of control by the owner in favour of the renting farmer. According to local perception and experience, when a contract involves only labour the ‘farmer’ is easier to evict. It is less easy when it involves an agreed relation with land as is the case with sharecropping, and it is most difficult in the case of land rented out.

It should be underlined that the common problem in all these cases is the lack of a written contract, which makes provision of evidence of agreement difficult to prove during later conflicts. As a result, renting as a way to invest in agriculture by an entrepreneur wishing to increase his land operation without investing scarce capital in land purchasing, is unusual.

An accurate breakdown of agricultural households renting state land with or without a contract is not available. The Government is involved in an effort of regularization of rental contracts so as to avoid illegal occupancy. At present all those illegal, squatters who regularly pay their fees are considered eligible for a contract, eventually. In view of both the Government’s concern to solve this problem and increased controls, the speed at which state land occupation takes place is likely to diminish from past levels.

12.7 Agricultural employment and the labour market: landlessness and labour shortages

a) The labour market

Gainful employment in agriculture is important for many categories of workers: owner operators, permanent labourers, occasional farm labourers. It is particularly important for the category of landless agricultural labourers.

The set of land tenure policies enacted since the 1950s promoting redistribution of private land and allowing use of public land on contract have helped small and medium farmers in Syria to acquire a production base. However their effects were partly neutralized by subsequent fragmentation, and redistribution has not provided a sufficient safety net against increasing landlessness.

The mere fact of not having title to land is not synonymous with poverty. Examples of non-poor landless are entrepreneurs, for instance those investors, common particularly in the northeast of the country, who bring in capital and machinery. Such entrepreneurs are an example of legally landless operators with a substantial economic power. The definition of landless in terms of deprived and powerless should therefore be qualified by lack of employment and capital in addition to lack of access to land or title to it.

Availability of employment opportunities either for full-time workers or in terms of occasional labour varies throughout the country and is affected by seasonality factors. In many parts of Syria, for example in the Hama countryside, a situation of labour shortage during harvesting co-exists with relative labour abundance throughout the year. The number of totally landless labourers in that governorate is said not to exceed 10 percent but is constantly on the increase because of population growth, insufficient development of non agricultural employment opportunities and continuing fragmentation of holdings through inheritance. This reaches the point where size of holding is minimal and would justify a definition of near-landlessness (cf. Sinha, 1984). However, in view of the active labour demand during the peak agricultural seasons, open unemployment of agricultural labour exists mainly for about two months in the slack season only.

Limited information derived from field studies presents a highly diversified picture. Landless labourers households, i.e. those households not operating land under any form and not having a non-agricultural employment, were recorded as accounting for from 6 to 36 percent of total households in eight surveyed villages in different parts of the country. This means that this category has a different significance over the territory.

The situation in some parts of central Syria is characterized not only by limited numbers of totally landless labourers but also an overwhelming presence of near-landless households. In Idlib, for instance, 80 percent of the households are below one hectare of surface and another 15 are between 1 and 3 ha. This means that the minimum subsistence security provided by the land base is such that the social balance may be toppled with another round of subdivisions through inheritance. Furthermore, in a situation of this type the prospective employers of agricultural labour force, i.e. having a land base large enough to require labour in addition to household resources, are perforce limited. This explains the presence of many organized labour groups in this mohafadha, which bring to other areas the surplus labour of Idlib. Fortunately, there is some complementarity between the different labour peaks, i.e. Idlib’s labour migrates after the local peak demand and moves to work with other crops in other areas.

More generally, in Syria, labour organization and mobilization functions in accordance with local and non-local demand. Traditional labour contractors, the chawesh, perform these functions. The chawesh organize the system whereby labour demand and supply meet. They pool labour and make it available in different governorates according to market demand. This extends also beyond the Syrian borders because the increasing level of landlessness has promoted longer distance migration (abroad) rather than normal labour movements within Syria.

Each chawish organizes 25 to 30 workers, mainly female. He assumes all risks connected with labour identification and employment. He organizes travel and residence when away from home, usually in tents, and is responsible for paying the workers, who have no direct dealings with the employing farmer.

Information collected in selected villages confirmed the essential role of the informal labour organization coordinated by the chawish, who are themselves of peasant extraction. As far as could be ascertained, the system was not perceived as exploitative. This is indirectly confirmed by the regularity of the chawish earnings, which seem to be established in the labour market.

Another phenomenon relevant to labour use and its coordination is inter-household cooperation between farmers producing different crops and hence having different labour requirements peaks. For instance, cotton producing farmers get into cooperation with onion producing farmers and exchange their family labour, as needed.

The general supervision of labour policies in agriculture is assigned to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour which attempts to monitor labour contracts through registration, to increase security of both employers and employees. However, the already minimal ratio of contracts registered (not exceeding 5 percent) refers to contracts of more than three months duration, i.e. most seasonal and casual labour remains unmonitored and unregulated.

The inherent insecurity of the system causes some visible side-effects, i.e. the tendency among workers to occupy land permanently whenever possible. Labourers are said to want to become sharecroppers, who are more difficult to evict, while all employers would like to continue using casual unprotected labour. Currently, however, labourers are unlikely to be able to become squatters, and so slowly acquire rights to stay on the land as sharecroppers. This is because they are employed for short periods and for specific tasks only for the very purpose of preventing any possibility for them to settle on the land and claim any right to it.

b) Agricultural wages

The minimum wage for agriculture, 75 Syrian pounds per day in year 2000 was lower than the base market rate of 100 Syrian pounds for unskilled labour. In Idlib, for instance, the running rate for most types of agricultural activity is 125 Syrian pounds per day.

Actual wages vary according to activity. Discussion in parliament on the agrarian relation law may lead to an increase of the minimum wage in agriculture. This would then correspond to what had already been adopted by the private sector. However, the increasing supply of labour is not matched by similar increase in demand and results in stagnation of daily rates.

However, it should be noted that Syrian agricultural labour moves in a larger than national context. Findings from a field survey conducted in the Idlib and Hama provinces in early 2001 indicate that workers compare the local daily rates with the ones prevailing in Lebanon or in the Gulf. In the case of Lebanon the rates would be about five times higher for comparable work, and the proximity allows labourers to move according to the regional market.

c) Agricultural employment and gender

It is mainly women, more constrained by social custom, who are continuing to operate in the national market only, but by no means in the purely local one.

Women constitute the bulk of the migrant labour force which the Chawesh mobilize to provide the needed number of labourers at the right place and time for all the major agricultural operations, and particularly harvest.

The difference between male and female wages are said to depend more on type of work than on gender discrimination, i.e. equal wages for equal work.

A limited investigation conducted in 2001 in eight villages indicated that up to 90 percent of internal migrant labourers are female, but that most migrants abroad, e.g. to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, were male. That is for social reasons. Women tend to be left behind and accept the less rewarding conditions of the internal labour market. Hence, there is an increasing feminization of internal migrant labour due to low pay for jobs that men can afford to refuse as long as they have an alternative.

12.8 The major policy challenges

The preceding sections point to the major problem areas connected to tenure that the Syrian policy makers are facing. The urgency to deal with them depends on the overall socio-economic dynamics of the country. Namely, if the non-agricultural sectors develop in such a way as to create employment for substantial sections of the rural population, and thus cater for the increasing number of landless or near-landless households, some tenure related problems might lose some of their urgency. Inevitably, they will need to be dealt with.

Ever smaller agricultural operations will not be sufficient to ensure minimum household livelihood and optimal utilization of available labour resources, unless supplemented by other gainful activities. Furthermore, where micro-operations are fragmented into many plots, as is often the case in Syria, rational use of resources becomes even more difficult.

There are major challenges to policy makers attempting to counter excessive fragmentation: i.e., inheritance rules facilitating a minimum size of farm operation, with compensation of other legal heirs, as well as land consolidation programmes encouraging resource pooling and services sharing.

In this context, the highest priority appears to be a revisitation of the land reform areas. The major social improvements engendered by the redistributive land reform implemented in the 1960s and 1970s need to be reassessed with full cognizance of the changes that occurred in the countryside with population pressure on land, and of the distortions brought about to the initial plot distribution to households. An imaginative policy making implies the recognition that the current situation in the field is different from the normative one and that alternatives need to be found which do not damage equal rights of all heirs, but preserve the farm as an economic unit.

Related to the above is the more general need for a reassessment of the rights of access to land, clarifying the rights and duties of land owners and of land operators, penalizing absenteeism but also preventing the growth of the number of squatters on private land. Policies in this sense may help limit the socially costly sequels of litigation over land and increase propensity to invest by land owners who are not threatened in their rights, and by operators who are not threatened by eviction.

There are no univocal directions to deal with the mentioned policy issues - rooted as they are in local history and custom. International experience is of limited use. Individual rights and duties, as well as collective rights and duties acquire validity and effectiveness by social consensus. Syrian policy makers in their current process of reform have the opportunity to involve their rural population in a consultative process to identify best acceptable policy alternatives reconciling customary and codified legal systems, and thus get away from centrally devised rules and regulations which are more difficult to adapt and monitor. A re-examination of land tenure in the badia where customary rules are strongest has already been initiated in the country and may be the ideal starting point and a challenge for such a participatory process.

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