Occupation Strangles Farmers

BAQUBA — New plant diseases, attacks by occupation forces and escalating fuel prices are strangling farmers in Diyala province.

Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003, farmers in Baquba, the capital city of Diyala province 40 km northeast of Baghdad, struggled with plant diseases they believed were caused by bombs dropped during the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991.

Trees were infested with white fruit fly, aphids and plant louse, and there was a shortage of water for irrigation. The directorate-general of agriculture used helicopters to spread insecticide.

After the invasion, the situation has worsened. Helicopter spraying seems unthinkable.

“With helicopters large distances can be sprayed in one stroke,” Aboud Ibrahim, a 55-year-old local farmer told IPS. “In the case of white fruit fly, when a farmer sprays the insecticide, the disease can move back to his farm again from the neighbouring farm within six hours. This is why simultaneous treatment of all farms is so efficient.”

Helicopters now mean something else. “Helicopters and fighters of the coalition forces attack farmers who work at night on their farms,” said a local farmer who did not want to be named. “Due to the water quotas, farmers are forced to water their farms even at night. Some farmers have been shot in firing by coalition forces. Farmers would rather neglect their farms than risk death.”

The ministry of agriculture pays no attention to the array of problems.

“The spread of plant diseases has caused a shortage of crops, and this has a direct effect not only on the farmers but also on the Iraqi people in general,” a supervisor at the directorate-general of agriculture in Diyala province told IPS on condition of anonymity.

“Iraq now imports almost all its crops from neighbouring counties like Syria, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, after decades of exporting to these same countries.”

By now, the supervisor said, 90 percent of local farmers in Diyala have left their farms and orchards because “the farms have been severely attacked by diseases and the shortage of water.” Also, he said, the prices of imported vegetables and fruit have increased tremendously.

“We produce potato, tomato, cucumber, onion, celery, lettuce, and eggplant, in addition to all kinds of fruit, but now our product covers only 30 percent of the people’s needs, so they are forced to buy imported goods which are much more expensive,” a local agronomist, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “Farmers were living very comfortably before the invasion because they were doing their job freely.”

Lack of security stands in the way of agriculture. “The blocking of streets and the presence of the militants and sometimes coalition forces prevents farmers form marketing their produce,” Mahmod Mehdi, a local fruit shop vendor told IPS. Mehdi said that curfews, which are imposed on Baquba every night, and sometimes during the day, also cause losses to farmers, who are then unable to sell their fruits and vegetables.

“If there is a curfew, long lines of pickups loaded with different crops wait in the entryway of the highways to the city,” Mehdi added. “Sometimes, they have gone back dropping the crops on the streets, or they accept any trivial price. The number of farmers around is much fewer now.”

Many farmers have sought jobs in the police and army, about the only employment available now in Iraq. “We want our sons to be recruited in order to earn a living for the family,” Abdul-Kareem Abas, a local farmer, told IPS.

To cap it, many farmers have given up in the face of threats and violence. “I left tens of acres and went to another province because of the sectarian violence,” a local farmer whose son was killed by militiamen, told IPS. “My farm, which is worth hundreds of millions of Iraqi dinars, is ruined. We were forced to leave everything, otherwise we would all die.”

Many farmers have sold land, others have begun to divide their farms into pieces and use some of the land to offer housing. This area was once called the Fertile Crescent.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)