People of the Earth
Based between Turkiye, Germany and northwest Syria, Dr Shaher Abdullateef is an independent researcher, agronomist and environmental activist who advocates for food security and development in Syria, where millions of war-weary households grow food for consumption, especially in the northwestern rural areas where he is from. Yet, he explains, they are acutely food insecure, relying on food imports and NGO handouts just to survive inflationary increases in food prices that are 800% higher since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. He is preoccupied by the challenges of an agricultural sector that has lost billions in productivity in the last decade. The human cost is unaccountable. Larger farmers, who gave Syria its reputation as the “breadbasket” of the Middle East, were deprived of their seeds, supply chains, infrastructure and government subsidies, and faced ruin. The basic agricultural and livestock extension system, which once enabled small rural family farms in villages to adjust to low rainfall, water and fuel shortages, or upsets in the market, collapsed across the country and in the northwest in particular, an area outside of government control, where people were abandoned to their own devices.
Families were uprooted from their ancestral landscapes and severed from their traditional environments, forced to flee northwards or outwards, and the country was drained of its teachers, farmers, academics – it’s life. But Syria is far from barren. People will return one day. Like plants and new strains, regrowing and rebalancing ecosystems.
Abdullateef writes and speaks extensively about the role that higher education can play in rebuilding Syria. As a Cara Syria Programme-facilitated consultant, he has researched how Syrian academics, agricultural engineers and scientists have had to reorient lives and ambitions, adapting these to their changed landscapes. He is a specialist in many agricultural areas, but perhaps his oldest passion is hydroponics and the art of soilless cultivation, which he studied for his doctorate at the University of Berlin. At the time, hydroponics seemed a revolutionary science; a brand-new field in Syria, while in the West, private industry jealously guarded its potential and the military experimented with it for space travel and disaster scenarios. Now Abdullateef teaches it quite freely, along with other horticultural subjects, online to young agricultural students and farmers in N.W Syria and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as for high technology application such as in Qatar. Hydroponic cultivation was always going to be a lucrative industry, and he is hoping it will help to raise incomes, as well as proving a useful technique in the hands of the people who are food insecure from war, environmental degradation and disease: “It’s a solution to produce enough foods and enhance food security in the world, but I hope that as people of the earth we don’t only produce our food using hydroponics or soilless cultivation systems.” For him, restoring food security in a vulnerable region, populated by people who weathered the storm of war, faced water shortages, heatwaves in summer, disease, and now earthquakes, has become a moral imperative. “To think about rebuilding agricultural livelihoods into the long-term future is an act of extreme devotion.”
Abdullateef explains that the government’s priority before the war was to achieve food security at the expense of the people. It was a sector skewed towards large monocultural farms functioning within a fertiliser- and pesticide-intensive system, where small farmers handed over wheat to the government at fixed prices, who provided only basic extension services. Production, including prices, was controlled, top-heavy and centralised, so that the political chaos of the war left farmers without representation or support. “They have had to organise themselves, to work independently without government support or control. Everything now depends on humanitarian aid projects that provide fertiliser and seeds, making things worse. Recently, NGOs tried to support them [farmers] by purchasing their products, but that isn’t sustainable.”
Priorities now must be to make sense of a changed world, a decade of lost farming techniques, technologies, and research. New approaches to agricultural production should include the introduction of improved crop varieties and more efficient water management to reawaken the possibilities of the land, but most importantly to restore confidence in the people who work the land and who have lost so much. It takes research to figure this out. As Abdullateef explains: “I should be there, but I can’t be. I can, however, carry out research and generate and share much needed knowledge on agricultural practices. This is what we think about. How can we, as academics both outside and inside Syria, contribute?”
Since 2018, a number of Cara Syria Programme-supported and spawned initiatives have evaluated livestock chains, food security, agricultural livelihoods and the environmental impact of the war in northwest Syria. Collaborations with researchers from Kent, Cambridge, Sussex, Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, as well as from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. As Abdullateef says: “Through Cara, I found myself working with an interdisciplinary research team. We focused on food production, food security, farmers and agricultural workers, and health issues within these topics – a ‘one health’ approach. When I heard about the Cara Syria Programme, it was for me, and I think for all my Syrian colleagues who had lost their university roles, a lifeline that re-empowered us. I came from a German University, so academic development wasn’t my main need, but Cara facilitated my connected to other academics and the ability to build a network, the result of which you now see in my world. It was very important to be reconnected with colleagues.”
He has been principal investigator on several of the projects including an agricultural e-learning collaboration with Dr Tom Parkinson, University of Kent, who he now counts as a friend and with whom he had co-authored three academic papers. Cara also introduced him to colleagues at the University of Sussex looking to collaborate on an innovative study Agricultural Voices Syria, initially using podcasts and later videos to transfer agricultural knowledge to Syrian farmers in NW Syria, building up a following of thousands. Through Cara, Abdullateef was also connected to the One Health FIELD network, and an AHRC-funded initiative led by Prof. Lisa Boden from the University of Edinburgh SyrianFoodFutures (SFF), another Cara Syria Programme initiated and facilitated collaboration involving Syrian, Turkish and UK researchers from Edinburgh, Kent and Aberdeen, focusing on food security through interdisciplinary, gendered, historic, religious, and folkloric perspectives including music. The Syrian Humming Project, an online soundscape of hums and songs sung by people across NW Syria, capturing the emotional and psychological memories of shared food in the context of family and celebration. Two connected humanities projects engaged people who were not from the agricultural world, but who provided an archive of rarely shared memories linked to food. The project also spawned a graphic novel, May God Bless the Hand that Works, by Mackenzie Klema and Dr Ann-Christin Zuntz also from the University of Edinburgh, drawing on the stories of 80 Syrian agricultural workers in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and NW Syria between November 2020 and January 2021, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When he talks about his family home in northwest Syria, in the agriculturally fertile governorate of Idlib, where his passion for horticultural sciences originated, he visibly brightens. His parents were farmers: “Before I was a researcher, I was a farmer. My father produced different crops. We had olive trees, grapes, vegetables, tomatoes, and eggplants. Where I’m from, people also produce lentils, wheat and chickpeas.” Although it was hard to labour on the farm while pursuing his studies at the University of Aleppo, he graduated with a first-class degree in Agricultural Engineering in 2003 gaining the “Best Student” prize in his academic year. He was awarded a distinction for his PG diploma in horticulture on the propagation of potato shoots using tissue culture, and won a PhD scholarship to study advanced Biotechnology, including a focus on soilless cultivation systems in Germany. In 2004, he was offered a teaching post at Aleppo University but was still studying in Germany with his young family. “It is not easy to pursue education when you come from a traditional farming family, but I worked very hard to get a scholarship to be able to complete my doctoral degree. When the war came, it was a big shock to me to find that all these things were suddenly lost. The topics I studied were not suited to Germany but to the Middle East.”
He was very homesick and, as soon as he received his doctorate, moved to the southern border of Turkey to be as near his homeland as he could safely get. His wife and children remained in Germany, hoping the war would soon end. “Next year? Each year we said, OK, we hope this is the last year. I didn’t imagine that the conflict would last so long.” The last time he saw his village, or his family since the outbreak of war, was in 2015. His brother, a teacher in a rural school, had been arrested and detained. He wasn’t involved in any military action, nor did he demonstrate: “Every day, he biked to school to teach the children and then return home. When they arrested him, the regime was sending a message to other teachers to leave the area and the school.” His parents left their village in Aleppo Governorate in 2019, the last significant battle of the conflict, and fled to the northwest.
Since 2022, he has been teaching and supervising online graduate projects for MSc students at Al-Zaytoonah University, in Azaz, Syria; working with a German NGO on a water management project; and managing various projects. He founded the now incorporated NGO, Syrian Academic Expertise for Agriculture and Food Security (SAE-AFS) bringing together a team of brilliant agricultural experts, working in exile and in NW Syria. They aspire to build a physical centre to provide research, technical and practical solutions, and information, where instructors can engage with farmers in person, rather than online, because that will enhance their learning. Along the way, he envisions teaching more hydroponics and other forms of green biotechnology to disseminate these skills. Until then, he believes he has found the right networks and affiliations, like-minded people who, like him, are defined by their creativity, freedom and commitment to social justice.