Iraq: Recovering a Garden of Paradise
For 10,000 years, farmers in northern Iraq have cultivated a wealth of native crops that spread throughout the world. Apricots, chickpeas, and onions flourished in the fields, wheat and barley in the foothills. Today, after years of wars, sanctions, and droughts, this portion of the Fertile Crescent is endangered. A team of colleagues and I traveled through northern Iraq, filming a documentary about the region’s efforts to recover its agricultural vitality. “It was truly the garden of paradise,” says Jamal Fouad, former minister of agriculture who now runs a teaching farm with his wife, Cathy. “There is nothing that cannot grow in this soil. But things must change for our farmers.”
The project was produced in conjunction with the educational initiative ‘The Iraqi Seed Project’ (dir. Emma Piper-Burket). Published in Garden Design, August 2012, online (excerpted) & pdf (full story).
For much of the region’s history, wheat and barley were primary exports; today, Iraq is one of the world’s largest grain importers. Compromised by lack of labor and contaminated grain, farmer Omar Ali’s harvest is inedible. It will become animal feed, and he will purchase wheat to feed his family. “In the past, our children would do the farming. Now, the young people are going to the cities for new jobs.”
Pastoral villages are disappearing as they struggle with food sovereignty. In Kani Sard, a village just two miles from Jarmo (where wheat was domesticated around 8,000 B.C.), women make bread with bags of flour marked “Switzerland.” Subsistence farming is increasingly difficult with dwindling local support and resources. Lack of water has driven more than half of Kani Sard’s population to the city in the past few years.
Jarmo, a neolithic farming site in northern Iraq’s foothills, is believed to be one of the world’s earliest farming villages. Archaeologists have found evidence of domesticated wheat and seed storage that date from around 8,000 B.C. Providing ancient farmers with security and stability, Jarmo’s proto-seed bank and cultivated wheat indicate that the region’s agriculture allowed for the birth of civilization. Today, whether by genetic modification or by law, farmers cannot save seeds from many crops.
A museum in Halabja commemorates the 5,000 people killed in 1998, when Saddam launched chemical attack designed to eradicate a population in northern Iraq. Today, uncertainties linger about persistent soil contamination: villages are abandoned, and farmers have been slow to re-cultivate the once-fertile region. Yet Halabja is hopeful, filling orchards with pomegranates and apricots, and weapons canisters with garlands of green.
In Iraq, melons are synonymous with summer; in a region where clean drinking water is scarce, watermelons are a good source of water, and vendors line every major roadway. The region’s variety of watermelon cultivars have been popularly exported (i.e. ‘Ali Baba,’ a favorite in the United States); today, only a few varieties remain. Along with the watermelon, many traditional crops to have suffered in the last decade, as farmers struggle to cultivate, transport, and competitively price their harvest.
Baziyan was once a well-known rice-growing region; now, the land is dry and many traditional rice varieties are nearly extinct. The First Lady of Iraq, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, has initiated this local effort, on paddies tended by a Baziyan rice farmer, to recultivate an heirloom variety of rice called Qush Qaya. The round, nutty rice is just one of the many native plants Mrs Talabani recalls from her childhood, many of which have disappeared.
There are efforts to preserve and document the region’s threatened botanic diversity. In collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, scientists at Nature Iraq, a local environmental group, collect specimens for the forthcoming Flora of Iraq, a comprehensive guide to regional plants. A botanist with Nature Iraq dissects Centaurea regia, a native thistle, collected in the Qara Dagh mountains.
Iraq’s national seed bank at Abu Ghraib was destroyed in 2003, jeopardizing the region’s botanic diversity. This woman, a leading scientist, buried a cache of seeds in her basement for safekeeping. Eight years later, she still devotes herself to preserving local plants, and attends a field workshop led by Nature Iraq and professors from the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh. An effort to recover Iraq’s wealth of botanic knowledge, Nature Iraq’s courses includes field identification, mapping red listed plants, and biodiversity conservation.
Walnuts are an ancient Iraqi crop that has become embedded in contemporary culture. Abundant groves once filled the mountainous region of Hawraman, whose soft-shelled walnuts are uniquely prized, and believed to endow the Hawrami people with a particular cleverness. Today, the harvest has dwindled as the region recovers from extensive bombing, and farmers migrate to the cities. Hewing to traditional harvesting methods, farmers still beat the trees with willow branches, and hope the famed groves will flourish again.
Since antiquity, local herbalists have prescribed the abundant, edible milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for many ailments. Modern Iraqi pharmacology research expands on traditional applications, identifying its seeds as an effective treatment for liver disease. Dr Ali Askari, a former professor at a College of Agriculture, predicts that its cultivation could be more profitable than wheat, a crop that is no longer generating revenue for the region.
If northern Iraq is an oasis of peace in a volatile region, then its urban parks—moments of green in the grey—provide an analogous respite in the concrete city. The locations of some are especially meaningful. Park Daik (Mother Park), a lush garden, is cultivated on soil previously occupied by a Saddam-directed prison. At the center is a monument to the future stands: a woman holding a baby, sculpted as if she were growing from a tree, surrounded by lavender. Nearby, in Park Azadi (Freedom Park), a landscape of orchards and ponds fills the footprint of a former execution field.
Chnar Hama Noori, a student at the College of Agriculture, harvests the seeds of different wheat varieties to compare the nutritional content and soil compatibility of both imported and domestic wheat. Incorporating modern methods with traditional practices, the school’s curricula prepares a young generation of farmers to inherit their land. Today, the numbers of matriculating students is dwindling, as young people reject their family’s farms.