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Ten years of forestry progress in Iraq

FAO Technical Assistance Officer

Just over ten years ago, the Director-General of Agriculture in Iraq drew my attention to a large map of Iraq on the wall of his office in Baghdad. He gestured to the far northern extremities of the country and said:

"The forests of this country are all up there in the mountains along the borders with Turkey and Iran. We do not know exactly how extensive they are or how rich they are. We are afraid they are all being cut down and turned into charcoal. We want to put the forests on the map. We want to know how best to preserve them, and we want a new Forest Law - quickly."

This was the situation in January 1947.¹ A day or so later I met the Forest Section up at Arbil, a small provincial town on the northern plains and well placed at the hub of the great arc of mountains to the north and east. In those days the Forest Section of the Department of Agriculture consisted of an agricultural official, an accountant and a clerk. Two or three junior officials with diplomas from the Agricultural School near Baghdad were attached to the section and stationed out in remoter forest centers. There were also some 50 or 60 Qolchis - picturesquely costumed Kurdish villagers, all armed to the teeth and swathed in bandoliers of cartridges-who made up the corps of forest guards. These were posted at strategic points along the few highways leading from the mountains and charged with the task of controlling the contraband charcoal trade which, in the absence of any effective forest law continued to flourish.

¹ See G. W. CHAPMAN. Forestry in Iraq, Unasylva, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1948

In those days there was never very much money to spare for forestry: the Forest Section's budget ran to about 15,000 diners 2 a year - 90 percent of it for salaries, allowances and office expenses. There was little left over for tree planting, or other forest activities. This was, of course, before the days of big oil revenue.

2 1 dinar = U.S. $2.80.

Language was another difficulty too. Arabic is a rich language, a language for poets, philosophers and theologians. But it was hard to fit forestry into Arabic. There were two words for "forests" - rabat and ahrash - but none which could exactly describe such expressions as "watershed," "silviculture," "selection coppice" or even "forester." Few people properly understood what forestry meant at all, though there was an increasing number of Iraqis who felt an uneasiness about the way the mountain forests of gnarled and branchy oaks were disappearing into the kilns of the charcoal burners. Many held the unshakeable conviction that the only way to preserve the forests was to ban all cutting of trees notwithstanding the age-old usages of the mountain villagers who cut whatever they needed whenever the need arose.

It was not to be wondered at that forestry was little understood in Iraq, for nine tenths of the people lived in the treeless plains of the Mesopotamian delta or roamed with their sheep and camels up and down the wide expanses of steppe which divide the delta from the deserts on either flank. To most of these a forest meant the groves of date palms which border the rivers and canals throughout the delta. The only forest produce known to the peasants came from the palm fronds, whose leaves they wove into mats and baskets and made latticed furniture from the tough and springy midribs. All lumber used in the country had to be imported at a cost that limited its use to the towns.

Ten years later

Ten years or so in terms of forestry is not a long time: trees grow slowly and governments, even in the most highly developed forestry countries, often seem to match their gradual pace to the incremental rate of the forests. But, returning to Iraq in 1958, I was astonished and gladdened to discover what progress had and was being made.

The insignificant Forest Section at Arbil had blossomed into a General Directorate in Baghdad under the Ministry of Agriculture, with forest sections established in nine of Iraq's fourteen provinces. Many new men had come in who had gone abroad to universities and rangers' colleges and had now come back, understanding forestry, talking forestry, anxious to translate academic into practical accomplishments. In the northern provinces, forest sections were putting out branches into subsidiary forest centers. The old-time Qolchis had been expanded into a forest police division, uniformed and working under the discipline of regular police officers seconded to the Forest Service. A new forest law, enacted a year or two previously, incorporated in its preamble a clear-cut statement of the objectives of a national forest policy. Even an Arabic language of forestry was beginning to evolve from the provisional Arabic forest terminology drafted by a group of foresters drawn from the region.

Shortage of money was no longer a problem. The annual forest budget had expanded by more than ten times its 1948 figure and, in addition, there is one million diners allocated for forestry development schemes in the National Development Plan. There is, in fact, ample money to keep a still relatively small Department employed to maximum capacity.

FIGURE 1. - Wattle fencing and thatching with grass and oak branches is used to stabilize erosion islands in the catchment forests of Northern Iraq.

Courtesy, R. Baltaxe

But it seemed to me that one of the most encouraging features of the new forestry situation was the interest people were taking in forestry and tree planting throughout the country. Each springtime, for instance, sees impressive tree festivals organized in Baghdad and in all the provincial and district towns. These festivals usually start with a tree-planting ceremony, at which the school children parade and, after the official opening, plant trees along the sidewalks of one of the town avenues. The ceremonies are well attended by the public and by high officers of the Government. Most of these roadside plantings are well maintained and, year by year, the rows of trees stretch out further into the countryside along the new highways being built to link the provincial towns with the capital.

Irrigated plantations

Most impressive of all are the new irrigated plantations which the Forest Service has begun to establish in the treeless lowlands-the first step in a long-term policy designed to make Iraq near self-supporting in wood products. Many new exotic species are being introduced, among them eucalypts and hybrid poplars and subtropical pines of the Mexican group, though indigenous species - notably the black poplar and the eastern plane - as well as long-established exotics such as the casuarina or the eucalypts, E. camaldulensis and E. microtheca, form the bulk of the present plantations. There are well laid out on sites which are first carefully leveled to permit efficient irrigation and divided into compartments of 25 hectares.

Under the hot, desert climate of Iraq, water for irrigation is applied on a lavish scale, usually by pump lift from rivers and canals, and applications totaling 1,000 to 1,500 millimeters a year are not unusual. The land available, though sometimes troubled with salinity, is usually of good agricultural quality, and tree growth on these rich sites with abundant water and plenty of sunshine is phenomenally rapid. Poplars and eucalypts grow in height from 4 to 6 meters a year and in some of the earlier pioneer plantations - none more than ten years old - many of the trees are already large enough to yield telephone poles or small sawlogs. Mean annual increment rates of 20 cubic meters per hectare and more are expected and, if present plans for establishing 20,000 hectares of plantations in the coming twenty years go through, Iraq should be well set on the road to self-sufficiency in wood.

Machines play an important role in the creation of these new plantations. Bulldozers, graders and levelers clear the brush, level the land and push up flood control bands or the raised channels which distribute the water from the pumps to the farthest corners of the plantations. Wheeled tractors are used for plowing tile planting sections, opening irrigation ditches and furrows and, after the trees are planted, for weeding, spraying and other tending operations until such time as the young trees have closed canopy. A noteworthy feature of these plantations is the exceptionally low casualty rate in new plantings, for it is rare that beating up operations exceed five percent. Trees are usually spaced at 3-meter intervals in lines 3 to 4 meters apart and quite often the interrow spaces are used as a nursery for poplar cuttings, for transplantation subsequently into the next year's planting areas. In fact, many new and interesting plantation techniques are being developed and it is good to note that the Forest Research Institute is laying out experimental blocks in many of the new plantations to observe and to record the developing phases of this new and exciting silviculture.

The costs of establishment are relatively high - as much as 200 diners per hectare - but this charge also covers the cost of machinery, vehicles, pumps, buildings and approach roads, and will doubtless fall as experience grows. The stumpage value on a 10- or 15-year rotation is expected to lie between 1,500 and 2,000 diners per hectare and even higher in the case of the more valuable species. These yields compare favorably with any of the agricultural cash crops at present grown, and it might well be said that these irrigated plantations in Iraq represent in reality a form of farming with trees as the main cash crop.

Though most of the work is being concentrated at present in blocks of plantations ranging in size from 400 to 1,000 hectares, future plans embody schemes for extensive row-planting in the irrigated deserts newly opened to farming. In the 75,000-hectare Musayib Canal Project, for example, the Forest Service has a 70,000 diner scheme for planting windbreaks along the banks of all the main and lateral canals and drains. These plantations are expected to serve as a demonstration and to give the initiative to settlers to plant tree rows and farm wood-lots in their own holdings. In fact, extensive and systematic windbreak planting is expected to have far-reaching effects on crop yields and may also lead to considerable economies in the use of irrigation water as a result of lowered evapo-transpiration rates. Such plantations open a rich field for experimental work and it is to be hoped that the Forest Research Institute will grasp the opportunity thus afforded for investigating the influence of these row plantations in the extreme climatic conditions of the Mesopotamian delta.

FIGURE 2. - Watering Pinus brutia seedlings in a mountain afforestation area. The seedlings require watering for the first two or three summers, after which they become established and thrive on the winter rainfall. Watering is both difficult and costly, which rather limits the scope of the work out, nevertheless, a number of promising small plantations are springing up at different places in the mountain zones.

Courtesy, R Baltaxe

Natural forests

While progress in the lowlands is perhaps more spectacular, there has been steady development in the indigenous mountain forests. These have been mapped and divided into broad categories based on the quality and density of the stocking. Of the 1,700,000 hectares of forestry land shown on the forest maps, about 900,000 hectares consist of exploitable oak forest, the remainder being alpine pastures and open parkland. Land settlement is well advanced in the mountain zone and systematic forest reservation has just begun. Excellent topographic maps on the 20,000 scale and a complete air-photo cover is available for the more detailed inventory of the forests which will follow reservation. More attention is being given to problem of watershed management, especially in the catchments of the huge new flood storage reservoirs planned or under construction in the mountains.

The Forest Service is certainly leading the field in this direction and has started several interesting forest development schemes in the mountain forests. Most of these have the dual object of reducing erosion and flash runoff and of enriching the oak forest by the introduction of coniferous species (mostly Pinus brutia, Cupressus sempervirens and C. arizonica).

Seedlings of these species require watering for the first two or three summers, after which they become established and survive on the winter rainfall. Watering is both difficult and costly, which rather limits the scope of the work, but nevertheless a number of promising small plantations are springing up at different places in the mountain zones.

The strict protection against grazing secured in all these projects has, however, produced a startling response in the rapid growth of native grasses covering the forest floor as well as a vigorous regrowth of cutover and previously browsed oak coppice. Release from grazing alone is sufficient to secure a very marked improvement in erosion control, and since the forests are all more or less heavily grazed, it would seem that the improved management of forest range is likely to become the most important aspect of future forest policy in the mountain catchments.

Regulating the cutting of forests for fuel and charcoal still remains a problem. The charcoal trade, with its urban centers in the lowlands, has been prohibited altogether for the past three years and, though the Forest Service still cannot prevent entirely the flow of contraband charcoal, there is little doubt that a considerable reduction in charcoal consumption has ensued. Compared with ten years ago, there has been a substantial increase in the use of alternative fuels, such as kerosene, and the once ubiquitous charcoal brazier is becoming a rarity.

The Government has under consideration a scheme for rationalizing forest exploitation through the establishment of a charcoal monopoly operated directly by the Forest Department. This scheme offers a better means of controlling the illicit trade and would at the same time provide more regular employment for the forest communities. Recently a decision was taken to clear the forests lying below the high-water mark of the new Darhend-i-Khan reservoir by direct departmental action as a kind of pilot scheme to gain experience before embarking on the bigger project.

FIGURE 3. - Forest police protect the limited Pinus brutia forests near Zawita in Northern Iraq.

Courtesy, R. Baltaxe

The future

Perhaps one of the most astonishing factors in the development of Iraq forestry is the relative smallness of the forest staff which has carried progress forward so successfully in so many varied directions. The lack of trained foresters is about the most important factor restraining the impetus of forest development at the present time, and the obvious solution is both to take advantage of available schools elsewhere and to set up training facilities in Iraq.

This matter, too, has received careful consideration, and quite recently the Ministry of Agriculture has given the green light to plans for establishing a forestry faculty at the Agricultural College, which is to become part of the new University of Baghdad, and for building forester and forest ranger training schools. When these plans become a reality, the Forest Service will be able to get on a level with the ambitious development program lying before it, as recommended by the reports of FAO's Mediterranean Development Project.

Looking back over the last ten years, there can be no doubt that the Iraqi Forest Service has made a most promising start in the task of implementing the national forest policy. It is, however, only a start, and an immense amount of energy perseveringly applied is needed to preserve the forests in the vital mountain catchments and to build up by afforestation the wood supplies so badly needed by a rapidly-growing nation. Many more decades must elapse before these goals are achieved, but the auguries all seem to be most favorable for the future of forestry in Iraq.

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