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Changes in Migration and Feeding Patterns Among Semi-nomadic Pastoralists in Northern Syria

Research reports

The semi-arid and arid areas of Syria (<350mm mean annual rainfall) comprise about 80% of the country, with the principal agricultural commodities being barley and sheep. There are important links between livestock production in the steppe and barley production in the higher rainfall areas (more than 200mm), as barley is a principal feed for the sheep. The steppe, defined in this paper as the area receiving less than 200mm of rain (it covers 55% of the total country), is largely populated by "semi-nomadic" bedouin whose main occupation is the herding of sheep (JAUBERT, 1991).

Until the end of the 1940s, most of the bedouin occupying the Syrian steppe were fully nomadic, relying on natural grazing as feed for their flocks. Sedentarization and the extension of cultivation was quite slow, and found only in the western part of the country, up to the line of the Damascus-Aleppo road. Following the introduction of mechanization at the end of the 1940s, cultivation extended rapidly eastward, particularly in the Jezireh Plains and in the north of Syria. By the end of the 1950s, most of the land down to the 200mm isohyet had been brought into cultivation, changing the livestock feeding patterns as more cereal stubble became available for grazing in the summer months.

After a three-year period of drought from 1958 to 1961, when Syria's population of sheep was halved, a system of supplementary feeding was introduced, which radically changed the flocks' feeding patterns (LEWIS, 1987:174). The recent and continuing extension of irrigation in the Aleppo and Raqqa areas of northern Syria has also encouraged greater use of irrigated crop residues as grazing.

The changes which are taking place in the semi-nomadic bedouin flocks' feeding and migration patterns, and the historical reasons for these changes, will be the topic of this paper. Most of the discussion will focus on three steppe-based villages in northern Syria, where the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) undertook a three-year survey between 1978 and 1981 (THOMSON, BAHHADY and MARTIN, 1989), and where a follow-up study was done this year. However, this paper will also draw on studies centering on other villages in northern Syria, in order to fully explain the parallels between areas which were settled earlier and those currently being developed.

Marina Leybourne, Ronald Jaubert & Richard N. Tutwiler