Syria: Olive Cultivation on Hilly Land in the Northwestern Part of the Country and along its Mediterranean Coast



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Western Asia


  • Syria (Aleppo, Idlib, Lattakia, and Tartous governorates)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of olive cultivation in northwestern Syria.


  • Agroforestry, olive cultivation, erosion


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Olives are one of the world’s oldest fruit trees grown by human beings, extensively cultivated in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean from Spain to the Middle East. It is believed that in human history olives were first discovered and used in Syria and that their cultivation began around 2400 B.C. For this reason, there are many wild varieties of olive trees distributed around Syria and it is claimed that Syria is an important area for the maintenance of the genetic diversity of the olive species (Five major varieties of olive account for 89% of all those cultivated) (Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, n.d.).

Olive cultivation flourishes on hilly land that extends over the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib in the northwestern part of the country, as well as on the land that spreads along the mountains running in parallel with the Mediterranean coastline (mainly the governorates of Lattakia and Tartous) from the boundary with Turkey to the administrative district of Damascus. Syria is divided into five major agroclimatic zones (Table 1). Ninety percent of olive cultivation is based on rain-fed agriculture. In Syria, olives are mostly grown in Zone 1 which receives more than 350 mm of rainfall and this zone is blessed with more rainfall than others. In general, these areas have much rain in winter. In summer, it is hotter and drier than in winter in these areas (Wattenbach, 2006).

Agriculture has been Syria’s most important industry since the country became independent in 1946, and in the 1940s to 1950s it achieved the fastest growth among all industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, its importance declined in relative terms because other industries grew, and the number of people engaged in agriculture, which accounted for about 50% of the working population in the 1970s, fell to about 30% in the 1980s (Collelo, 1987). Under these circumstances, the Syrian government initiated an agricultural promotion policy in the mid-1980s, expanding arable land and developing irrigation facilities. As a result, the number of people engaged in farming in the country exceeded 1.4 million in 2008, nearly double that for 1980.

The government took measures such as encouraging farmers to develop waste land and subsidizing part of the price of olive seeds when distributing them, and because of these measures, olive cultivation began to grow in the 1980s, and furthermore, it achieved rapid growth in the 1990s and thereafter. In 1990, there were 44.6 million olive trees in plantations nationwide that covered an area of 390,000 ha, and in 2008, the number of olive trees and the area of olive plantations increased to 90 million and 620,000 ha, respectively. In particular, the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo, Lattakia, and Tartous account for 72% of the area of olive plantations and 68% of the total olive production (Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, n.d.)

Table 1 Agro-climatic Zones in Syria

Source: Compiled based on Agricultural Development Consultants Association (1995) and Wattenbach (2006)

Syria has adopted a socialist system since it began to deepen its relationships with the Soviet Union around 1960. Therefore, all banks and other private enterprises that had up to then operated under a liberal system were nationalized. In 1958, the government carried out land reforms, setting an upper limit to the area of land that individuals were allowed to own in order to reduce the disparities in the area of land owned by individuals and confiscating the portion of land that exceeded the limit for nationalization. Approximately 22% of the cultivated land owned by individuals was nationalized through these reforms, but the government did not nationalize the land within the limit, and has until today allowed much of the agricultural land to be owned by individuals (Ciroet and Jacques, 2003; Agricultural Development Consultants Association, 1995). Therefore, most of the land where olives are cultivated is privately-owned land.

Since the hilly regions where olive cultivation is prosperous are densely populated compared to other regions, the average area of cultivated land per owner is 3.06 ha, smaller than the national average of 5.77 ha. For this reason, these regions are highly dependent on income from industries other than agriculture (Wattenbach, 2006).

Table 2 Form of Land Ownership in Syria (2000 figures; Unit:1 million ha)

Source: based on Ciro and Jacques (2003)

Characteristics of Olive Cultivation in the Region

Rainfed agriculture is practiced in the hilly land areas that extend from northwestern Syria to the Mediterranean coast with irrigation facilities remaining practically undeveloped. Olive cultivation is most successful in this region, and in addition, wheat and cherries are grown there although their share of the total agricultural production is small (Wattenbach, 2006).

Hills where olive cultivation is prosperous account for a large percentage of the area of MagharaVillage in the northwestern governorate of Aleppo. In this village, land is cultivated to plant olive seeds during the period from autumn to spring when much rain generally falls. The most commonly used method of cultivation (fadhan) is to have donkeys or mules pull a plow, an agricultural implement to turn the soil over first in preparation for the sowing and the planting of the seedlings. In general, while fadhan is used for steep slopes and irregular land, mechanized farming is employed for the easily accessible, large tracts of land. Some farmers cultivate strips of land along the contours (contour plowing), a way of farming that is effective in preventing soil erosion due to rainwater and the outflow of water, while others till the slopes vertically from high to low levels, which causes soil erosion. Most of the farmers do not use agricultural chemicals for olive cultivation, but they often put fertilizer on the olive groves. The olives are generally harvested from the end of October to the end of December, and the harvesting season is sometimes extended to January. Olives are usually picked by hand, and in many cases, harvesting work is performed by members of each farmer’s family (Van der Zanden, 2011). Furthermore, traditional techniques are used in the olive orchards to protect soil and water. One prominent example of these is the use of stone walls. Other examples include vegetation strips, which are formed by leaving wild plants uncut along the contours, and a combination of stone walls with semi-circular terraces created on the lower part of slopes where the trees grow. All these techniques are effective in reducing the volume and rate of flow of surface water to prevent soil erosion. They are also effective in increasing the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Still another example is a water collection technique that involves raising the ground level around trees in a V shape to channel all the rainwater running in the ditches to sink into the ground because part of the hilly land in the northwestern part of the country is often plagued by water shortages (Van der Zanden, 2011).

The stone wall technique has traditionally been handed down from generation to generation. In olden times, land was manually developed bit by bit using this technique starting from areas in which the conditions were favorable. Old terraced fields use the microtopography of slopes skillfully, and it is inferred that in an effort to minimize the labor required for the construction of stone walls and to maximize their effects, farmers observed the original geographical features, the way the rainwater flows after rainfall, and other conditions in extreme detail. The stone walls that have been mechanically built according to design drawings in recent years, meanwhile, are said to be more likely to collapse than traditional ones, although they are beautifully finished at first glance (Appropriate Agriculture International Co., Ltd., 1997).

Olive cultivation is the most important traditional agricultural activity in the Mediterranean coastal areas, and olive orchard landscapes are culturally valuable (Van der Zanden, 2011). They are also important for food production, providing local residents with part of the food they need. One of its economic benefits is to contribute to value added agricultural production and the gross national product (GNP), and another is the acquisition of foreign currency through the export of olives and olive oil. Syria is currently the world’s fifth largest olive producer with olives accounting for 65% of the country’s garden produce. Olives are one of Syria’s most important crops in that the olive sector earns the nation 25% of its income directly or indirectly through their cultivation and processing into olive oil (80% of the total olive production), storage, transport, export, and so forth, and olive cultivation is considered an important industry for the creation of employment (Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, n.d.).

The environmental importance of olive cultivation lies in the prevention of soil erosion using traditional techniques such as stone walls and techniques for the effective use of water, as well as the utilization of land (such as semidry areas, slopes, and other types of land) for which there are only limited uses other than olive culture. Furthermore, olive cultivation is effective in curbing the process of desertification.

Challenges and Responses

According to Syria’s national biodiversity strategy in 2000, the rapid rate of population growth (annual rate of 3.6% or more) is a factor that has had the most serious impact on the preservation of biodiversity. Changes in land use are considered to have major adverse effects on agricultural biodiversity. Examples include a shift in land use from agricultural and grazing land to housing land, the disappearance of forests in mountainous districts and coastal areas where the original, wild species of currently cultivated olives, almonds, and other fruits grow due to development, and the discontinuation of traditional uses of the land (Syrian Arab Republic, 2000).

In recent years, olive cultivation has spread from the northwestern region, previously the center of olive culture, to neighboring areas, including the southern and eastern regions, which are extremely dry and poor in water resources. The spread of olive cultivation is seen mainly in marginal lands with many of the newly developed olive plantations found on steep slopes. Steep slopes are prone to soil erosion, but olive cultivation has been expanded without taking into consideration the danger of soil erosion. In these regions, water shortages and the excessive pumping of groundwater are also becoming problems (Barneveld et al., 2009). In the future, it will be necessary to both take measures to control soil erosion and deal with water problems and maintain the productivity of olive culture in order to help farmers to earn a livelihood.

In addition, protecting soil on steep slopes in hilly areas is an important issue to be addressed. Most of the gentle slopes are used for olive cultivation, and the traditional stone wall technique is also observed there. But on steep slopes, which cannot be used to raise crops, soil protection measures are taken through tree planting and other projects, but significant collapses are taking place on these slopes depending on the nature of the soil (Appropriate Agriculture International Co., Ltd., 1996), and more effective countermeasures are required.

In the rapidly deteriorating mountain watershed located in the northwestern part of the country where olive cultivation is flourishing, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Syria is implementing a three-year project as a GEF Small Grant Programme (GEF SGP). The project is called “Land and Water Management, Diversification and Micro- Credit to Combat Land Degradation and Improve Livelihoods in the Mountains of Afrin,” which began in September 2008. This project aims to ensure the sustainable and effective use of land and water resources and stabilization of the lives of farmers mainly by developing land and water resources management technologies. The project is working to develop a microcredit system to support land and water resources management. The project is also working to increase agricultural income through the diversification of agriculture such as the cultivation of medicinal herbs and fruits and the production of honey. Moreover, it is helping farmers to reconstruct the rapidly deteriorating olive plantations using the increase in income they have achieved by themselves.


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Barneveld, R.J.; Bruggeman,A.; Sterk, G.; Turkelboom, F. 2009. Comparison of two methods for quantification of tillage erosion rates in olive orchards of north-west Syria. Soil and Tillage Research. 103, p.105–112.

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