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Date palm decline: Iraq looks to rebuild
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Sept 8, 2011

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 dramatically fall.

"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, said Kamel al-Dulaimi, head of the date palm department at Iraq's agriculture ministry.

"It is a symbol (of Iraq) for many reasons," he added.

In response, the Iraqi government is pushing a $150-million project to triple the number of date palm trees -- whose fruit are a popular and traditional fast-breaking ritual during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- by 2021.

The programme, which originally started in 2005, involved the ministry planting around 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 (FAO) and the United Arab Emirates.

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

He pointed out that one of the sites being planted with the trees was the route connecting Baghdad's airport to the capital, long infamous as the target of regular bombings and rocket attacks.

Overall, the government programme aims to increase the number of trees to 40 million in 10 years -- Dulaimi said that while date palm trees numbered 32 million in the mid-20th century, 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 right now, however, are of just one variety.

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

-- 'The death of the trees' --

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.

And 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 neighbouring Turkey and Iran has reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.

The US-led invasion of 2003 also indirectly hurt the industry as all aircraft that sprayed insecticides and other necessary chemicals were grounded for around 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 farmers out of the business, and of the ones who have survived, many are hanging on by a thread.

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

Others have fallen victim to the brutal confessional 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," the 45-year-old said, referring, as many Iraqis still do, to US forces as an occupying power. "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, Uday is not complaining -- the tree saved his house, metres (yards) away, from the force of the blast.

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

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