In Iraq, preservation of the date palm, national symbol and economic treasure

Karbala (Iraq) (AFP) – At the gates of the Iraqi desert, thousands of young date palms line up as far as the eye can see. They are at the center of a great challenge: to preserve this national symbol and to develop a once threatened ancestral culture.

It is an understatement to say that this mega-project, funded and managed by a reputable religious institution in Karbala (centre), stands in contrast to the rest of Iraq’s palm groves.

In the past, the land of “30 million palm trees”, as Iraq was also known, produced more than 600 varieties of dates.

But repeated conflicts, in particular the war with neighboring Iran (1980-88), then environmental problems (droughts, salinity, etc.) have affected the sector, which has to reinvent itself.

Near Karbala, seen from the sky, date palms are planted at regular intervals on plots dotted with water reservoirs. Despite the small size of the trees, bouquets of green dates are already hanging in the middle of the branches.

“The date palm is the symbol and pride of Iraq,” boasts the commercial director of the Fadak Palm Grove, Mohamed Aboul-Maali. The aim of the project launched in 2016: “to bring this culture back to where it once was”.

Date palms in Basra, southern Iraq, June 7, 2022 Hussein FALEH AFP

Its palm grove hosts “more than 90 species of date palms, Iraqi but also Arabic species”, from Gulf or Maghreb countries.

The Iraqi varieties, which are among the “rarest and finest,” have been collected “in most provinces” of the country, he explains.

Of the 30,000 trees, more than 6,000 are already bearing fruit, adds Mr. Aboul-Maali. “This season we expect a harvest of more than 60 tons,” he adds, 40 tons more than in 2021.

“Cemetery”

In a country plagued by desertification and drought, a drip irrigation system — fed by a Euphrates tributary and ten wells — has replaced traditional copious irrigation.

Cut date palms in Badra, eastern Iraq, July 5, 2022
Cut date palms in Badra, eastern Iraq, July 5, 2022 Asaad NIAZI AFP

The contrast with the Basra region, which borders Iran, in Iraq’s far south is striking. Here the slender trunks of decapitated palm trees stretch for miles. Withered branches on the ground.

However, we are on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad leveled entire areas to prevent enemy infiltration. No longer needed, irrigation canals were blocked – often with trunks cut off.

“It looks like a graveyard,” says agricultural engineer Alaa al-Badran. The number of palm trees has fallen from six million before the conflict to less than three million today, he says.

And according to the engineer, another challenge takes precedence: “The salinization of the waters of Shatt al-Arab and the country.”

“The solution would be drip irrigation and desalination systems. But that can be expensive,” admits Ahmed al-Awad. His family once owned 200 date palms. Today only 50 trees remain.

Ahmed al-Awad selects dates in Basra, eastern Iraq, July 9, 2022.
Ahmed al-Awad selects dates in Basra, eastern Iraq, July 9, 2022. Hussein FALEH AFP

However, the Ministry of Agriculture defended its actions.

“In the last ten years we have grown from 11 million to 17 million palm trees,” said the minister’s spokesman, Hadi al-Yasseri, referring to a program to promote plantations.

The initiative, launched in 2010, was paused in 2018 due to a lack of budgetary provisions, he concedes, promising that the next government budget – yet to be adopted – would include funding.

“Incomparable Date”

According to its own figures, Iraq exported almost 600,000 tons of dates in 2021. This fruit is the second largest export product after oil, bringing in more than $120 million annually, according to the World Bank.

Appointments in Karbala, Central Iraq, May 20, 2022
Appointments in Karbala, Central Iraq, May 20, 2022 Mohammed SAWAF AFP

“As global demand increases, quality improvement initiatives underway in Iraq must continue,” the institution recently ruled, calling for diversification of species produced.

“Almost half of the dates from Iraq are exported to the United Arab Emirates (…). They are then packaged and re-exported at a higher price,” the organization lamented.

In eastern Iraq, still on the Iranian border, Badra has no shortage of grievances. Decapitated trees swarm among the palm trees. Here too the turmoil of war.

Local officials have complained of a difficult water supply for more than a decade, with the Iranian neighbor accused of diverting the watercourse that irrigated Badra: the Mirzabad River, locally called al-Kalal, upstream.

Date palms near Basra, southern Iraq, July 7, 2022
Date palms near Basra, southern Iraq, July 7, 2022 Hussein FALEH AFP

“The date of Badra is incomparable,” sighs Moussa Mohsen, a Badra resident who owns about 800 palm trees.

“Before, we had water from Kalal that came from Iran,” recalls Mr. Mohsen. “Badra was like a sea,” he says. “We now mainly use wells for irrigation.”

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