Dust Bowl Uncertainty Grows in Iraq

April 16th, 2006 - by admin

Doug Smith and Raheem Salman / Los Angeles Times – 2006-04-16 08:42:25


UMM AL GHAREEJ, Iraq (April 15, 2006) — Like hundreds of villages that dot the Tigris River south of Baghdad, this cluster of cinder block-and-mud dwellings draws its livelihood from small farming plots cultivated by hand and crude machinery.

This is the heart of Mesopotamia, the biblical land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where one of the world’s first civilizations thrived on the bounty of the land.

Today that land is sick.

Qassim Mohammed, 20, whose family has farmed here since 1980, has left more than half his 30 acres unplanted this year. The harvest was so poor last year, he said, that he couldn’t recoup the cost of seed and fertilizer.

“This land is weak,” he said, strolling in a flowing robe through a field where the salt-crusted earth offered only a scruff of dead weeds.

Mohammed’s acreage is typical of much of the farmland south of Baghdad. Reliable agricultural statistics have been unavailable since the US-led invasion in 2003. But the level of wheat imports, which surged during the United Nations oil-for-food program in the late 1990s, shows the extent of the decline of agricultural production.

Three years after the invasion, Iraq still imports about three-quarters of the wheat its population consumes, said Jamil Dabagh, economist for the Ministry of Agriculture.

The agricultural decline began under the centrally controlled economic system of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime. Neglect of the intricate system of irrigation canals that crisscross Iraq aggravated centuries-old problems with salt buildup and poor drainage. As the land deteriorated, free fertilizer and guaranteed prices kept farms going, Dabagh said.

Yet agriculture, which has provided the primary means of support for more than a third of Iraq’s population, was an afterthought in US rebuilding efforts, which concentrated on oil, electricity and municipal water systems. “Everybody looks at Iraq as an oil country,” said Col. Randy Fritz, the former agricultural counselor to the US military.

Three years after the ouster of Hussein, no coherent policy has emerged on resuscitating Iraq’s agricultural sector, and most indicators show the situation worsening. Much of Iraq’s degraded farmland could be restored, experts say, but there are sharp disagreements on how to do it.

US officials would like to increase the yield on farmland still in production and see Iraq move toward a free-market system. But Iraqi agricultural officials contend that crucial resources are too short for farmers to make a quick transition into the world market. The Ministry of Agriculture continues to pay more than $200 a ton for wheat, more than the price on international markets. Bahadli said the phaseout of price supports should be done over a 10-year period.

Iraq’s US-educated minister of Agriculture, Ali Bahadli, contends that the problem threatens both Iraq’s economic stability and cultural identity. “This is our life,” Bahadli said of farming. “If we cannot do it, our future will be very dark.”

A plant pathologist trained at UC Davis, Bahadli advocates massive expenditures for land reclamation, the slow and costly process of washing salt-laden soil. Such a program, centered in the south, could cost tens of billions of dollars, he estimated, far more than either the Iraqi budget or the US development program can support.

In contrast to such sweeping reform proposals, the US military has established some direct programs to assist Iraqi farmers. Many commanders have used discretionary funds to clean irrigation canals, set up co-ops and repair facilities. US Army civil affairs officers, who see the rural unemployed as a source of recruits for the insurgency, sometimes take issue with US agricultural officials who they say are in Iraq to open markets for US exports.

“How can you expect someone who represents Iowa wheat to give impartial advice to farmers in Iraq who could raise their own wheat?” one civil affairs officer told a visiting congressman last year. The Iraqis “need to grow some of their own, not import all of it” from the United States.

The USDA is fully committed to the development of Iraq’s agriculture, said James Smith, agricultural counselor in the US Embassy in Baghdad. But Smith said that the picture was complex, and that American feed exports, for example, could stimulate Iraqi’s depleted poultry industry. “If they prefer to import frozen chickens, we can meet their needs with high-quality, low-cost meat,” Smith said.

“If they prefer to grow their own poultry, we can provide them excellent corn and soybean meal. If they want to grow their own chicken feed, we can provide them the seeds.”

Yet another view is that the best course for Iraqi farmers is to shift away from wheat production, which has long been promoted as a national birthright.

Paul Savello, a senior US agriculture consultant in Iraq for the last two years, said Iraq’s farmers should be encouraged to shift to cash crops such as tomatoes with a combination of advanced farming techniques and old-fashioned manual labor.

This is happening on a small scale, especially in the south near Basra, where farmers grow winter tomatoes under long tubes of plastic lined up in the parched desert. The crops are watered by drip systems. The plastic retains the moisture and protects the fragile plants from the night chill. But it’s not cheap.

Waleed Mamoon, a wealthy business executive, owns such a farm. Mamoon, who bought 40 acres as a way to “make myself happy,” is purchasing a reverse-osmosis filter from an Australian company to purify the salty water from his well. He also plans to replace the belt-driven diesel pump. Each crop requires the purchase of seed, plastic sheeting and fertilizer.

Mamoon employs an elderly man and his nine daughters to do the hand labor. The man, Abdul Ali Mani, said he abandoned his own farm, which he had been working since 1962, because he could no longer afford the upfront costs.

Several of Ali Mani’s daughters, wearing head-to-toe coverings called abayas, worked in the field, raising the plastic sheets to apply fertilizer to the plants.

Across much of Iraq, the practice of agriculture today has the look of Dust Bowl-era desperation.

World War II-era pumps smoke and clatter as they suck water from canals that are clogged or drying up. Irrigation ditches are filled with muck that barefoot farmhands remove with shovels. Tractors and harvesters are few and antiquated. Women in black robes bundle harvested crops to carry home on their heads or on donkeys’ backs.

Irrigation water is often tainted by sewage and industrial pollutants. Upstream dams in Turkey and intensified farming have reduced the flow in the Tigris River and elevated its salt content. With no access to capital or new technology, farmers make matters worse by flooding their poorly drained fields, a practice that deposits more salt and further degrades the soil to the point that it becomes too muddy to till.

These conditions are partly the natural heritage of the low-lying Tigris and Euphrates valleys south of Baghdad, but they grew worse under Hussein. Technological advances came to a standstill, capital investment dwindled and subsidies encouraged short-term practices over sustainable production. Hussein’s Sunni Arab regime clamped down on the Shiite majority, and funds were cut for the upkeep of irrigation canals.

But most analysts agree that the slide has continued, or even accelerated, since the 2003 invasion.

The damage is especially severe in the south, where a US contractor estimates that 10,000 additional acres a year are becoming too salty or waterlogged to farm.

The south’s date farms, once the source of Iraq’s only export crop, are also in decline. Many date palms were felled by Hussein to punish Shiites. The trees that survived are suffering because of the poor land quality and the suspension of aerial pesticide spraying. Competitors in neighboring Jordan and other countries have seized the date export market through advanced production techniques.

Sunni areas in the north and west are also affected by low yields and competition from superior imports. From Tall Afar to Tikrit, a heavily Sunni region in the north, wheat land that had been tilled as recently as two years ago has been abandoned.

In its $20-billion reconstruction budget, the US government has committed only $100 million for agriculture.

“It’s a very small amount, considering the size of the agriculture sector in Iraq,” said Savello, the US agriculture consultant.

The money was used for a single USAID contract to Development Alternatives Inc., a global consulting firm based in Washington that specializes in social and economic development, including agriculture.

In a bleak 2004 report in which it noted that Iraq’s farm production had fallen below prewar levels, the consulting firm issued a blueprint for a quick transition to market-based policies. “To move agriculture forward, the government must cede control of production decisions and focus on regulation, supervision and certification of private sector activities,” it said.

The plan called for the elimination of the food basket program initiated by Hussein that still delivers free staple foods to every Iraqi family. Most of the giveaway food is imported. Development Alternatives said the program distorts the economy, reducing farmers’ incentive to produce.

Company executives declined to speak to The Times. A USAID spokesman, in response to written questions, listed numerous programs it said Development Alternatives had underway or had completed, including the rehabilitation of irrigation systems reaching 321,000 acres, training of farmers and government officials in advanced agriculture methods and the repair of 42 veterinary clinics.

Now, as the program enters its final year, no new appropriation for the reconstruction program has been proposed. Instead, US officials are urging radical reform of Iraqi economic policy to attract private investment. In Umm Al Ghareej, the farmers say they rent their land from the government. They fear a future of uncertainty and privation.

“Just imagine that in this village, the people are making their lives out of this agriculture and this is what is planted,” Mohammed said, pointing to his fallow fields.

Several young men said they were forced to look for work, but couldn’t find anything.

“We tried even to work with the government, to be police, soldiers,” one said. “Nothing.”

The men professed to have no interest in politics or the sectarian rifts that have kept Iraq on the brink of civil war. They’re just poor farmers, they said. “We are suffering financially because nothing is supplied to us,” villager Salem Mohammed said.

He had just returned from a visit to the regional Ministry of Agriculture in Basra where, he said, he paid about $9 for enough fertilizer to plant 8 acres.

He sees few options.”We have to be patient and wait,” he said. “We were patient during the regime. We will wait.”

Times staff writer Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.

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