A raging five-year civil war has claimed nearly a quarter-million lives. Most of the population — an estimated 11 million — have fled their homes. Most of the territory is under the control of rival insurgencies. Air attacks from Russian and American warplanes pound the countryside.
Syria hardly seems like a place to make olive oil now, and yet according to official estimates this will be a banner year for Syrian olive oil.
The International Olive Council said this week that Syria forecasts an output of 215,000 tons, more than doubling the previous year and placing the war-ravaged country well ahead of Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco in terms of olive oil production. Syria will be the fourth largest olive oil producer in the world.
A study by the World Food Program said the war has had catastrophic effects on critical agricultural systems and infrastructure, displaced farming populations, disrupted trade, and caused untold damage to the ecology. But somehow there are producers able to carry on, and enough workers still around to harvest olives.
Mohamad Hassan Zeno, a producer from Aleppo, told IBTimes UK that the security of his workers is a major problem: Fighting and shelling often make it unsafe to go out in the orchard or the mill.
Zeno said his trucks, filled with olive oil, get hijacked repeatedly as they travel out of the Kurdish-controlled area where the company is based through areas held by rival insurgents before reaching the government-held port of Latakia. At every checkpoint, his drivers are forced to pay bribes. He credited his low costs for keeping the company profitable amid all the setbacks.
Despite losing control of more than 80 percent of Syrian territory, the Assad government has been trying to persuade Syrians to maintain a normal life during the crisis. Projecting life as usual is seen by the embattled leader as essential to his own political survival. This week there was a sporting goods expo in Damascus and a crafts fair in Homs featuring “cultural and artistic activities in addition to an exhibition of handmade works and handicraft.”
A cultural festival that runs through this weekend in Latakia called “Syria Stronger,” organizers said, “conveys a message on the resilience of the Syrian people and their determination to live the life with all of its sweet and bitter details.”