Syria is currently enduring one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world. Tragically, 90% of Syrians are living in poverty due to a multitude of issues including damaging natural disasters, widespread displacement, destruction of essential infrastructure and conflict that has decimated the country for over a decade. Driven by extreme poverty, truffle hunting in Syria has become a popular way to make money despite the recent shootings that have plagued the desert terrain.
What is Truffle Hunting?
Truffle hunting is an activity that involves collecting Middle Eastern black and white truffles otherwise known as Kama or desert truffles. These truffles are fatty fungi rich in protein and typically grow in desert regions of Syria and the Middle East. Desert truffles grow best in rainy weather, particularly in turbulent storms. For this reason, truffles are sometimes called “daughters of thunder,” as lightning has a special effect on the types and sizes of the fungi. After storms, truffle hunters prowl the deserts in search of Kama during the rainy season. Truffles are either hand-picked or dug up with simple tools and usually brought to various towns to be sold. There is no definitive way to price a truffle, as they are sold based on the size and estimated flavor.
Why is Truffle Hunting in Syria Dangerous?
Truffle hunting in Syria was a beloved spring tradition and leisurely pastime. Unfortunately, truffle hunting has recently become a deadly endeavor. More than 200 truffle hunters were killed in Syria over a 70-day hunting period this past spring. Some hunters were blindsided by landmines buried in the desert ground, while others were ambushed by assailants using high-caliber guns. The deadliest attack occurred on February 17, 2023, when 53 truffle hunters were shot dead according to Syrian state media. Though their involvement hasn’t been confirmed, the Syrian State suspects that the Islamic State or ISIS — a particularly violent Jihadist organization — is responsible for the killings. Instead of abandoning truffle hunting and the unpredictable desert landscape, many Syrians are continuing this practice despite the risk.
Why are Syrians Still Truffle Hunting?
Today, more than 90% of Syrian civilians are crippled by poverty. Many families lack essential resources including basic needs like food and clean water. This issue is compounded by the long-lasting turmoil that has depleted resources and infrastructure, increased inflation and limited employment opportunities. Currently, the average monthly wage in Syria is approximately $18 whereas truffles can sell for more than $25. Because of this socio-economic burden, many Syrians feel compelled to attempt truffle hunting in order to make ends meet.
How to Solve the Problem
The government of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has gained control of targeted areas. Other allied armed groups such as Iran-backed militias, National Defense Forces and the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army are also involved in the protection of Syrian truffle hunters.
Alongside defensive units, alleviating poverty would also protect Syrian civilians by reducing the need to truffle hunt altogether. Optimistically, there are several organizations working to combat poverty in Syria.
Oxfam is one of several initiatives responding to Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Oxfam aids more than 1.5 million people by providing safe water, sanitation, food resources and support towards securing life-saving jobs. Oxfam also assists farmers in growing and distributing food.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is another organization providing support to Syrians in need of help. The IRC has more than 1,000 staff members inside Syria working to provide necessities, create safe spaces for women and children, provide counseling and mental health services, build households and promote job stability through training, apprenticeships and small business support.
What Does the Future Hold?
While the Syrian government has stationed several defensive units in desert territories, some of these forces have taken advantage of desperate Syrians by using them as protection or coercing them into cutting profits. Moreover, the ongoing humanitarian crisis is continuing to financially cripple many Syrians. By tackling poverty in Syria head-on, the risks posed to truffle hunters can be mitigated and the Syrian population could benefit as a whole.
– Olivia Welling