Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bombs and Bugs Hit Once Lucrative Industry

A deadly combination of war, disease and negligence has killed 20 million Iraqi palm trees, severely damaging date production.
By Emad al-Shara

When Hadi Baqir, the head of Iraqi environmental protection group Green Peace, is tired, he lays down on a bed he has set up in the shade of a palm tree in the courtyard of the NGO’s office in Baghdad.

Since his childhood in Babil province’s Hilla, he has cherished the tree that once was a symbol and source of Iraqi wealth.

For decades Iraq’s palm orchards produced nearly 600 different types of dates, making it the world’s leading producer. The Fifties were a particularly golden era, and even today dates are the country’s second most important product behind oil.

Baqir remembers fondly the days when "one palm tree -with its fruits, branches and pastes - was sufficient to guarantee the living of a family”.

But that is no longer the case. Statistics from the University of Düsseldorf show that Iraq’s share of world date exports fell from 80 per cent in 1970 to 16 per cent by 2001.

War has been one of the major culprits, destroying an estimated 20 million trees countrywide. From 33 million in the Fifties, only ten million were left by 2003, according to Green Peace statistics.

Particularly hard hit has been the southern city of Basra where only four of 16 million trees survived. During the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties, orchards there were turned into battlefields.

Mohammed Hassan, a former Iraqi officer, said many were bombed and Iraqi military commands ordered soldiers to uproot the trees and set them on fire to have a clear sight of their enemies. As a result, many farmers and their families fled their villages and orchards to the cities.

Orchards suffered further damage during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the US-led mission of 2003 and through general neglect.

Recent plans to replant the orchards have failed, because many of the 20 million new trees earmarked to replenish them were stolen and sold abroad.

Meanwhile, the security situation remains grim in Iraq - more bad news for the palm trees and their owners.

“Palm trees need continuous care. But we have ongoing insurgency operations in the area which isolates us,” said Abdul-Aziz Ali Sahib, who owns a palm forest in Abu-Ghreib, a restive area west of Baghdad.

As well as the insurgency, the Dobas insect has been another serious problem for the palms in recent years. These tiny pests secrete a sticky liquid that prevents the photosynthesis process. If left uncontrolled they also multiply rapidly and consume the leaves of the tree.

Abbas al-Sultani, a farmer in Karbala, a holy city famous for its orange and date trees and religious tourism, buys pesticides on the black market at almost four times the government subsidised price in order to save his livelihood.

Hasan al-Masudi, a farmer from Karbala whose orchards were hard hit by the Dobas bugs, also opted to spray his trees but said the pesticides failed to reach the highest branches.

Aerial spraying against the pest stopped in 2003 due to security concerns, but the flights resumed again earlier this year when the ministry of agriculture sent privately chartered planes to eight major agricultural provinces, among them Karbala, Diyala, Babil and Baghdad.

Operation Barnstormer was carried out in conjunction with the American military to prevent the planes from being shot down by insurgents.

Ministry experts hope these sprayings will increase the date crop in Iraq by 20 to 40 per cent and help the battered Iraqi economy to regain some ground.

Emad al-Sharaa and Duraed Salman are IWPR trainees in Iraq.

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