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Land Reform

The dynamism of the agricultural sector caused by the opening of new farmland in the north and northeast through investments of wealthy merchants worsened the situation for the poor and often landless rural population. In 1950 the first Syrian constitution placed a limit on the size of farmholdings, but the necessary implementing legislation was not passed until 1958, after the union of Syria and Egypt.

The 1958 agrarian reform laws were similar to those in Egypt and not only limited the size of landholdings but also provided sharecroppers and farm laborers with greater economic and legal security and a more equitable share of crops. The Agricultural Relations Law laid down principles to be observed in administering tenancy leases, protected tenants against arbitrary eviction, and reduced, under a fixed schedule, the share of crops taken by landlords. It also authorized agricultural laborers to organize unions and established commissions to review and fix minimum wages for agricultural workers.

However, by the time Syria withdrew from the merger with Egypt in 1961, opposition from large landowners, administrative difficulties, and severe crop failures during the prolonged 1958- 61 drought had effectively curtailed movement toward land reform. The conservative regime in power from 1961 until March 1963 blocked implementation of the land-reform program in practice by enacting a number of amendments to the original law that substantially raised the ceilings on ownership and opened loopholes.

Shortly after the Baath Party seized power in March 1963, Decree Law 88 of 1963 was promulgated, cancelling the actions of the previous regime and reinstating the original agrarian reform laws with important modifications. One of the most significant modifications was lowering the limit on the size of holdings and providing flexibility in accordance with the productivity of the land. The new ceilings on landownership were set at between 15 and 55 hectares on irrigated land and 80 and 300 hectares on rain-fed land, depending on the area and rainfall. Land in excess of the ceilings was to be expropriated within five years. The compensation payable to the former owners was fixed at ten times the average three-year rental value of the expropriated land, plus interest on the principal at the rate of 1.5 percent for forty years.

The expropriated land was to be redistributed to tenants, landless farmers, and farm laborers in holdings of up to a maximum of eight hectares of irrigated land or thirty to fortyfive hectares of rain-fed land per family. Beneficiaries of the redistribution program were required to form state-supervised cooperatives. The 1963 law reduced the price of redistributed land to the beneficiaries to the equivalent of one-fourth of the compensation for expropriation. The land recipients paid this amount in equal installments to their cooperatives over a twentyyear period to finance such cooperative activities as development, dispensaries, schools, and cultural centers.

By 1975 (the latest available data in early 1987) 1.4 million hectares (68,000 hectares of irrigated land) had been expropriated, primarily in the early years of the program. Distribution moved much more slowly. By 1975, redistributed land had amounted to 466,000 hectares (61,000 hectares of irrigated land) and undistributed land to 351,000 hectares. In addition, there were 254,000 hectares of land that had been allocated to cooperatives, ministries, and other organizations, and 330,000 hectares that were categorized as excluded and sold land. Although it was far from clear what the disposition was in the latter two categories, the statistical data gave the impression that land reform had not transformed the former numerous farm sharecroppers and laborers into landowners. This impression was supported by government data indicating that slightly more than 50,000 family heads (over 300,000 people) had received land under the reform program. In addition, at various times the government offered state farmland for sale to the landless on the same terms as expropriated land, but reported sales were relatively small; farmers apparently chose to lease the land.

Most observers credited land reform measures with liquidating concentration of very large estates and weakening political power of landowners. Some government data of uncertain coverage and reliability indicated that before land reform more than half of agricultural holdings consisted of one hundred hectares or more, but after reform such large holdings amounted to less than 1 percent. The same data showed that smallholdings (seven hectares or less) had increased from about one-eighth before land reform to just over one-half of total holdings after reform, and that 42 percent of holdings were between eight and twenty-five hectares. Other government statistics indicated that holdings of twentyfive hectares or less, representing 30 percent of all land under cultivation before 1959, represented 93 percent in 1975. A May 1980 Order in Council mandated additional expropriations and further reduced the size of agricultural holdings. Data from the 1970 census revealed that the average farmholding was about ten hectares, and that one-fifth of the rural population remained landless. Despite the Baath Party's commitment to land reform, the private sector controlled 74 percent of Syria's arable land in 1984.

Data as of April 1987

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