Date palms have always been one of Iraq’s national samples. It is the country’s national tree and its existence has been documented to the earliest periods of the country’s history. Named “The Black Land” due to the black horizontal line of millions of date palm trees located in southern Iraq, by the 1970s-80s, Iraq had about 30 million date palms, producing 1 million tons of dates yearly. However, over the past four decades production has fallen; largely due to Iraq's famous waterways been exposed to political and economic hardships.
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) vast agricultural lands suffered a great deal of damage. In the 1990s farmers were left to fend for themselves amid severe international economic sanctions against Iraq. Decades of wars, infrastructure neglect and the impact of climate change have all contributed to deteriorating agriculture output in Iraq. Today, the number of date palms have nearly halved. From 30 million to a mere 17 million, of which only 11 million are actually palm date-producing. To cover the increased domestic demand, date imports from neighbouring countries have witnessed a rise which has further influenced the local markets.
To diversify Iraq's economy, new governmental initiatives are pushing the private sector towards investing in agriculture. One of the recently established projects is Fadak Farms, located 160 kilometres south of Baghdad in the western desert of Najaf governorate.
Fadak Farms is a commercial endeavour established in 2011 by the Shia Endowment Authorities - Imam Ali Shrine’s foundation. Today, the Farms has cultivated 12,500,000 square meters (out of 20,000,000 square meters) of its total farms’ area. The project is boosting the local economy by providing employment and high-quality products, which, in turn contributing to the overall stability. Mr Mustafa Anber, the head of Fadak Farms said
“Our project does not only support economy but also provides stability, especially now with the oil prices drop and the pandemic, we need to rely on developing local economy”
Anber went on to say that the project is also aiming to reclaim larger areas of the desert in Najaf, by re-greening it with grassland. “We want to establish an integrated agricultural land in Najaf where we can expand our production to include fruits, vegetables, and fodder crops, besides date palms”. Animal husbandry is also included in the Farms expansion plans. The project also includes planting grain crops such as wheat, and they are smaller special farms for planting flowers and fruit and vegetable seedlings”.
According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Iraq is under increasing pressure to feed its population, which grows by 2.8 percent annually. To combat the pressure, Iraq will need much more than the current USD 5 billion to import basic food to meet the annual shortages. Sustainably cultivated domestic production is the solution.
Fighting desertification is one of the problems that Fadak Farms administration is working hard to combat. The farms are located in remote areas outside Najaf city. It is part of the desert that has been expanding for years because of loss of arable lands. The Endowment provided water to its project by drilling wells at depths of 150-200 meters This is particularly important as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers do not pass through Fadak Farms areas.
However, this approach is not risk-free, because groundwater is not always suitable for agricultural purposes. Thankfully, the water pumped up from the wells at the Fadak Farms proved fresh and usable. The Farms also introduced sustainable farming through the implementation of new irrigation technology like central sprinklers, linear sprinklers, and fixed sprinklers.
In 2020 unemployment rate in Iraq stood at 12.82 % compared to 9.12% in 2003. But this increase has been the case for decades. In last couple of years, unemployment reached unprecedented rates. This pushed Iraqis to take to the streets demanding grand reforms including more job opportunities for younger people. According to Anber, Fadark Farms is helping with local unemployment issues. Hundreds of employees have been recruited, and with the expansion plans, more positions will be open soon. The farm has employed veterinarians, engineers, administrators, accountants, workers, farmers, and guards most of them are from Najaf governorate.
“We give people who live nearby the propriety to work in our farms. This way we are fighting local unemployment at least”
More Fadak Farms
The Endowment is running several ‘Fadak’-projects. The direct supervision is under different religious authorities. For example, in Karbala governorates, there is another Fadak Farm around 5 million cubic meters, that is mainly designed for cultivating the finest species of date palms. This farm contains around 21,000 palms, and its production in 2020 was around25 tons of dates.
“Year after year we are becoming a well-known brand. There’s an increasing demand in our products, and we are working hard to supply the local markets” Fadak farms dates became a popular product in the local markets, especially cities around Karbala.
“That was not an easy work, it required patient but now our exceptional efforts are paying off. We also see that our hard work has motivated others to invest in agriculture in Iraq” Anber added.
Fadak Farms have opened the door for other agricultural investments in the desert. For example, a new project by a Kuwaiti businessman invested in planting date palms in the deep southern desert of Basra. The area was a battlefield during the first Gulf War in 1991 but now it is a flourishing farm; Al-Babtain. This first of its kind project is a big step towards maintaining peace with neighbours and strengthening economic relations and growth.
“The project reportedly plans to grow 80,000 date palms and build a nature reserve for deers and ostriches. So far the project cost is $58 million, and we have around 15,000 date palms”. Said the deputy investor.
Iraq authorities granted this project a business tax exemption to encourage more investors. Iraq hopes that by facilitating such investments, the economy will improve. Such projects are also playing a vital role in stability by providing jobs, improving the environment and rebuilding the country's crippling economy.
By/ photocredit: Azhar Al-Rubaie