Iraq’s date palms: rescuing a national icon

Thousands of young date palms, Iraq’s national symbol, form lines stretching from the edge of the desert near the central city of Karbala to the horizon.

Iraq’s prized trees are at the heart of an effort to preserve a long-threatened ancestral culture, the fruits of which have historically featured prosperity in the Arab world.

“The date palm is the symbol and the pride of Iraq”, explains Mohamed Abul-Maali, commercial director of the Fadak date plantation.

Once known as the “country of 30 million palm trees” and home to 600 varieties of fruit, Iraq’s date production has been blighted by decades of conflict and environmental challenges, including drought, desertification and salinization.

Fadak Plantation, named after a date-filled oasis in the heart of Islam’s origins, is a 500-hectare (1,235-acre) farm operated by the Imam Hussein Shrine in the nearby holy city of Karbala.

Abul-Maali hopes the project, launched in 2016, will “restore this culture to what it was”.

The grove is the repository of “more than 90 varieties of dates, Iraqi but also Arabic”, from the Gulf and North Africa, he adds.

The Iraqi varieties are among “the rarest and best” and have been collected throughout the country.

Of the 30,000 trees planted in Fadak, more than 6,000 are already bearing fruit, according to Abul-Maali.

He expects this year’s harvest to reach 60 tons, three times more than in 2021.

The rows of new trees at the Fadak farm contrast sharply with the state of the plantations in other parts of the country.

– ‘Like a cemetery’ –

Fadak’s scene with well-watered trees is a far cry from the Basra region, once a center of date production in southern Iraq.

Here, the landscape is marked by the slender trunks of decapitated palm trees.

In the Shatt al-Arab region, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet, Baghdad razed swaths of land during its 1980-88 war with Iran.

Often the trunks of felled date palms were used to fill and bury irrigation canals that had dried up and become unused.

“It looks like a cemetery,” says agricultural engineer Alaa al-Badran.

According to him, the number of palm trees in the region has fallen from six million before the Iraq-Iran war to less than three million today.

Today, “the salinization of the waters of the Shatt al-Arab and the land” poses an even greater challenge, Badran says.

“The solution would be drip irrigation and desalination systems. But that can be expensive,” says Ahmed al-Awad, whose family once owned 200 date palms in the area, but now there are only 50 trees.

The Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture claims progress in the fight against the decline in the production of date palms.

“Over the past 10 years, we have gone from 11 million palm trees to 17 million,” said Hadi al-Yasseri, spokesman for the minister.

A government program to save date palms was launched in 2010, but eight years later it was abandoned due to lack of funds, Yasseri says.

But he expects it to be revived as new funds are expected to be included in the next government budget.

– Diversions upstream –

According to official figures, Iraq exported nearly 600,000 tons of dates in 2021.

The fruit is the country’s second export product after oil, according to the World Bank.

“As global demand grows, ongoing initiatives in Iraq to improve quality should be continued,” said a recent World Bank report.

While exports bring the national economy $120 million a year, the organization laments that a large part of the Iraqi harvest is sold to the United Arab Emirates, where the dates are repackaged and re-exported at higher prices.

In the town of Badra, on Iraq’s eastern border with Iran, grievances are rife.

The scars of war are evident among the groves of decapitated palms.

For more than a decade, officials have complained about the scarcity of water supplies and accused Iran of diverting the Mirzabad River, known locally as the Al-Kalal, upstream.

“The Badra date is second to none,” says Mussa Mohsen who owns about 800 date palms.

“Before, we had water from Al-Kalal which came from Iran,” he recalls.

“Badra used to be like a sea, but now, to irrigate, we rely on wells.

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