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The lands which formed a cradle of plant and animal domestication exhibit today the greatest ‘food insecurity’ of any region in the world. Stark dependence on imported food is often attributed, on the production side, to aridity exacerbated by climate change, soil salinity, and under-capitalized small land-holdings, and on the consumption side, to population growth and change in food cultures. Dominant political and economic interpretations would have us see the region’s food deficit as ‘natural’ (a result of aridity, population growth and the force of the market).
But this argument dismisses the centrality of economic, political and social policies. An important example is Syria, where changes in policy from the end of the 1980s have led the country by 2007 to face, for the first time in its history, major national food insecurity and growing rural child-malnutrition. A comparison with Iran since the late 1980s is telling. While Syria lost industrial production, scaled back support for agriculture, and failed to develop a national consensus about the relation between wealth distribution and population policy, Iran sustained the growth of its manufacturing sector, strengthened its programme of national food-security, continued to engage with pastoral producers, and opened a public debate on population and development which led to an effective family-planning programme operating through the country’s public primary healthcare service.
Problems in food production need to be seen in the context of a more general de-development of Arab economies. Contest over the control of oil-rent from the region has condemned its people to seemingly unending international intervention and war. Oil wealth is highly concentrated producing the greatest income inequality of any major region in the world. More generally, measured per-capita, economic growth inside the region has been flat to declining over the last three decades. Workers and small farmers contend with the highest unemployment, lowest labour share in GNP, worst record on labour rights, and lowest female formal labour-force participation of any major region of the world. The counterpart to the weak position of workers and small farmers is a renewed concentration of urban and rural landownership. In North Africa, as elsewhere, competition over access to land and water is once again a pressing problem for small farmers.
Elite urban bias has led to a quasi-invisibility of Arab rural areas. Yet what is known is that rural poverty is deeper than its more visible urban cousin: many of the 70 million people across the Arab world who since 1980 left the countryside to move to the city will bear witness to that.
Thimar works to share information and analysis, to promote basic research, and to open policy debate on the nexus linking agriculture, environment and labour. The quality of economic and social data produced by the states of the region is often poor; and university-based research, both inside and outside the region, privileges political analysis over basic socio-economic documentation. Thimar seeks to work with others to counter these lacunae. This is not just a matter of knowledge in the abstract. Throughout the protests since 2011, working and unemployed people in and from the countryside expressed their distress. By transmitting their voices, Thimar will in turn seek to respond to a brutal restructuring of agrarian relations and related environmental plunder.
As researchers, we bring together perspectives from agronomy, anthropology, economics, geography, public health and sociology. Following three workshops in 2011, 2012 and 2013, we are now working on the development of our website, the launch of the electronic journal al-Awraq, and the elaboration of research projects.
The Thimar research collective is an independent, self-funded initiative. We have received support for meetings and development of the website through research grants awarded our members. The Thimar collective would like to thank the British Academy , the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) and the LSE /AUB Emirates Foundation Research Grant ‘The Palimpsest of Agrarian Change’ for financial support of work to date on this website.
Naji Elmir contributed design work, Ahmad Jaradat translation into Arabic; Karim Eid-Sabbagh and Mabelle Chedid on-going editorial work; and Martha Mundy coordination.