x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iraq looks to triple its palm trees in revival of date farming

Programme aims to increase the number and variety of trees in country famed for quality of dates after plantations have been badly affected by decades of war.

Farmers plant date palms on the outskirts of Baghdad. The number of date palms in Iraq dropped from 32 million about 50 years ago to 12 million as a result of decades of warfare. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
Farmers plant date palms on the outskirts of Baghdad. The number of date palms in Iraq dropped from 32 million about 50 years ago to 12 million as a result of decades of warfare. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

BAGHDAD // Iraqi officials are pushing re-planting programmes for the country's date palms, which are famed across the Middle East as the region's best but have suffered terrible losses in past decades.

The trees were celebrated during Babylonian times for their strength and majesty, but more than three decades of conflict, sanctions and mismanagement have seen their numbers plummet.

Kamel Al Dulaimi, the head of the date palm department at Iraq's agriculture ministry, aid: "In ancient times, people were heavily dependent on this tree," from which they derived not only food but wood for fashioning tools, furniture and baskets.

"It is a symbol [of Iraq] for many reasons," Mr Al Dulaimi said.

In response, the Iraqi government is pushing a US$150 million (Dh550.5m) project to triple the number of date palms by 2021.

The programme, which started in 2005, involved the ministry planting about 30 date palm farms. The government is courting private investors to cultivate additional sites in Iraq's western desert.

Thousands of seedlings have also been provided by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UAE.

It comes as part of a nationwide effort to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure, economy and culture, Mr Al Dulaimi said.

One of the sites being planted with the trees was the route connecting Baghdad's airport to the capital, he said, long infamous as the target of regular bombings and rocket attacks.

The government programme aims to increase the number of trees to 40 million in 10 years. Mr Al Dulaimi said that date palm trees numbered 32 million in the mid 20th century, but that figure dropped to 12 million by 2000.

He added that officials were hoping to increase the variety and quality of dates produced.

Authorities have so far collected 520 types of trees, and are looking to increase that number. Three quarters of date palm trees in Iraq now are of just one variety.

Before the 1980s, Iraq had more than 600 varieties of dates, also reputed in Iraq to be a source of virility for men.

The decline has come as a result of Iraq's numerous conflicts since 1980, before which time dates were the country's second-largest export revenue earner after oil.

The outskirts of Basra, the country's main commercial hub in the south and the most fertile land for the trees, are now littered with trunks, dubbed a "palm tree desert", which are a legacy of the 1980-1988 war with Iran. Just two million trees have survived.

The embargo that followed the 1990 invasion of Kuwait deprived farmers of modern agricultural equipment, while water has become increasingly scarce as dam-building in Turkey and Iran has reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.

The US-led invasion in 2003 also indirectly hurt the industry as aircraft that sprayed insecticides and other necessary chemicals were grounded for about two years for security reasons.

All those factors have combined with long-term soil salinisation, shortfalls of electricity and official negligence, according to date palm farmers, to slash date palm numbers and deeply harm their industry.

Despite the decline in numbers, the tree's fruit remains extremely popular among Iraqis, who need little prodding to trumpet it as the best of its type in the region.

A reduction in supply for sale, however, has put countless date palm farmers out of business, and of the ones who have survived, many are hanging on by a thread.

Nur Abbas Hashim, a plantation owner in Basra, said: "We used to produce tonnes, and now we produce dozens of kilograms." He said that because of a lack of updated equipment and shortfalls of nearly everything he required, the quality of the fruit had suffered.

Other farmers have fallen victim to the brutal violence that raged across Iraq from 2006 to 2008. Mizhar Uday, whose plantation lies in the northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Graiat, said he had lost a third of his 250 palm trees as a result of clashes between militants and US soldiers.

"All problems are because of the occupiers," Mr Uday, 45, said, referring to US forces. "They did not just kill men, they are the cause of the death of the trees."

Many of his trees were hit by bullets or shrapnel from explosions during the rampant violence that plagued the capital in the years following the invasion, and dozens of trunks litter his plantation.

One was even battered by a Katyusha rocket, but regarding that particular incident, Mr Uday is not complaining - the tree saved his house, metres away, from the force of the blast.

"I need financial help to rebuild my plantation - I cannot afford it on my own," Mr Uday said. "It is very sad, because these trees are very precious to us."