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Forestry in Iraq


THE natural forests of Iraq are confined almost entirely to the northeast region of the country, in mountains occupied by Kurdish tribes. Here the forests clothe the mountain ranges, while the intervening valleys are mostly given up to cultivation or to grazing. Outside the mountain areas, forests exist only as small patches of river-bank scrub (akhrash) along the Euphrates and Tigris and their main tributaries. The remainder of the country is treeless.

The mountain forests have not yet been surveyed or delimited, so that their exact area is unknown. It is estimated that their area is around 20,000 km2, which is roughly two-thirds of the total mountain area in the Northeast region. About 50 percent of the mountain forests are of good stock and may be regarded as productive forests; the remainder represents degraded scrub with a sparse stock of bushes, or cutover forests not likely to become exploitable within the present generation. The lowland riverine forests have for the most part been surveyed during the course of land settlement and their total area is stated to be 80,538 donums, or a little over 200 km.2

Oak trees form the main species of the mountain forests. Quercus brantii (balut) has the widest range, with Q. infectoria commonly admixed, occurring more frequently on the more favorable sites. Q. libani (dindar) is found in the northern mountains above 1,500 meters elevation. The following tree species are found commonly mixed with the oak trees: Juniperus oxycedrus, Pistacia mutica, Pyrus syriaca, Cratoegus azarolus and P. monagyna, Acer monspessulanum. Along mountain stream banks willows, Salix purpurea and S. medemii, plane, Platanus orientalis, popular, Populus euphraca, and ash, Fraxinus rotundifolia, occur and in some places wild groves of walnut, Juglans regia. Pinus brutia occurs mixed with the oak forest in a restricted area of about 500 km2 in the Zawita-Atrush district of Mosul Liwa, and apart from the more widely occurring juniper represents the only coniferous forest found in Iraq.

The main species in the lowland forests are species of willow (Salix purpurea predominating in the northern parts and S. alba and S. acmophylila occurring in the south), Populus euphratica, and different species of Tamarix, the trees often forming thickets with brambles and creepers of such density as to be impenetrable except to the wild pigs which occupy these forests.

All forests in Iraq are used by the people for the production of firewood and charcoal. Villagers close to forest areas cut their own domestic supplies, while along the main road running through the mountains there has been heavy cutting in recent years to supply charcoal and wood to the urban markets of the plains. Many of the forests most accessible to these markets have been so heavily cut over that they have been rendered unproductive for many decades to come. It is estimated that the total yield from the forests annually is about 10,000 tons of charcoal and 20,000 tons of wood fuel, involving the felling of about, 2,000 hectares of mature forest every year. This yield is thought to be well within the capacity of the forests to supply, so long as a systematic program of forest road construction is carried out to enable forest areas at present inaccessible to be brought under economic exploitation.

The oak trees attain a height of 30 meters and a diameter of 25 centimeters at maturity and on favorable sites exceed these dimensions, though rarely producing boles long or straight enough to produce sawtimber of commercial sizes. However, oak trunks are frequently used for pillars or rafters in village huts, while the branches are used very extensively for covering the roofs and for the construction of summertime dwellings (kapras). Overmature oak trees are almost always attacked by heartrot, so that, generally speaking, the main value of these forests is for the fuel they can produce. It is proposed to develop the oak forests in future on a system of selective coppicing, with a utilization diameter of 10 to 15 cms, which would be attained by a rotation of 50 years.

With few exceptions all forest areas in the country are grazed over by flocks of sheep and goats and by herds of the hardy native Kurdish cattle. In many areas the villagers have the habit of pollarding the oak forest in a three-year rotation for the supply of foliage, used in winter as cattle fodder. In such areas, the villagers are careful to preserve the forests, for without them it would be impossible to provide sustenance for the flocks during winter when deep snow covers the ground. The forests, therefore, have an important function in relation to the animal husbandry industry, and it is important to safeguard this function in their future development. In the high mountains, the forest zone reaches as far as the 2,000 meter contour, above which lie the summer pastures, extensively grazed by the nomadic Kurdish tribes. It is estimated that these high pastures occupy about 2,000 km2 of the total forest area, and though they must remain predominantly grazing lands, such areas offer a high potential for afforestation of species of timber trees suitable to high elevations. It is also mainly in these areas that the tragacanth gum-producing species of Astragalus occur.

In addition to the forest products already mentioned there are several secondary products of some importance. Gallnuts produced by Quercus infectoria are harvested in considerable quantity for tanning and are exported. In 1938 the value of this export item amounted to ID. 41,569 (about $203,000). The gum tragacanth sells for about ID. 1,200 (about $5,900) a ton locally, and quantities valued at about ID. 50,000 ($240,000) are exported annually. Acorns are collected and sold locally, and in times of poor harvests these are ground into flour and used extensively by the villagers. The seeds of the Pistacia mutica are also widely used.


Iraq produces very little timber, so that most of the requirements, especially in constructional timber and high-grade furniture wood, have to be imported. In 1938, the value of timber imports amounted to ID. 440,000 ($2,150,000) so it is evident that afforestation is needed in order to increase local production and to save import costs. Apart from a small amount of locally grown plane and walnut, most of the local timber consists of poplar, Populus nigra, which is cultivated by the villagers on irrigated plantations in the northern mountains. Owing to the intense demand, it is the custom to fell the poplar groves before the trees have attained timber dimensions for the supply of roofing poles and for rough construction work. The annual yield from these poplar groves is not known, but it is a profitable industry and one capable of considerable extension under private enterprise. Research is being undertaken by the Forest Section into methods of improving the methods of cultivation, aiming at improvement of quality and yield per donum. Mulberry, Morus alba, is also grown on irrigated plantations in many parts of the country, mainly for the sake of the fruit, but the trees also yield a useful supply of low-grade timber. Apart from these two instances, little attempt has been made to establish plantations of trees for timber or fuel, though useful experimental plantations have been established by the Department of Agriculture at Zafraniya and Abu Gharaib to try out various species of exotics.

It is the intention of the Government, as part of its forestry development program, to establish more extensive plantations to increase the supply of sawtimber, especially of softwoods for construction work, sleepers, and for box-shooks (for the date-packing industry), to augment the supply of fuel and light poles required in rural areas, and as preventative measures against wind and water erosion. A series of small-scale reafforestation projects have been started by the Forest Section in order to obtain data as to the best methods and the most suitable species for the establishment of new forests under a wide range of varying soil, climatic, and topographic conditions. It is realized that an increased production of all timber products is essential for the achievement of a higher standard of living for the people, especially in the rural areas.

In establishing these new forests, exotic species will play an important role, in addition to a wider cultivation of useful indigenous trees such as the walnut, plane, ash, mulberry, and pine. The most promising exotics under trial are:

High mountain areas: Pinus caramanica, Cedrus libani, C. deodora, Abies cillicica, Betula alba, Robinia, and poplars.

Medium mountain areas: Pinus halepensis (and P. brutia of local origin), Robinia, Alnus orientalis, Pinus pinea and P. canariensis, Cupressus sempervirens.

Low mountains and rain-land plains: Pinus halepensis, P. pinea, Cupressus sempervirens, Acacia cyanophylla, Alnus prientalis, Populus alba, Eucalyptus rostrata, E. coolabah and E. gomphocephalus, Melia azedorach, Thuja orientalist

Lowland irrigated plains: Eucalyptus species as above Acacia cyanophylla and A. farnesiana, Tamarix articulata, etc.

Plant nurseries

There is a constant and increasing demand for tree seedlings which existing plant nurseries find it difficult to supply. Large nurseries are maintained at Zafraniya near Bagdad and at Nineveh near. Mosul, as well as many other small nurseries scattered over the country. These nurseries are not devoted entirely to the production of tree-seedlings but supply a great variety of fruit-tree, vegetable, and flower seedlings, but it is the intention of the Government to establish large forest seedling nurseries in different parts of the country to supply the needs not only of private plantation work but to provide for the new afforestation plans under development by the Forest Section. The establishment of the first two forest nurseries at Shaqlawa and Arbil are under active consideration by the Government.

Forest protection

The natural forests of Iraq are of importance no less for their outturn of useful products than for the protection of the mountainsides against the forces of erosion and in checking the runoff of winter rains and snow-melt. The river floods coming down the Tigris in spring are of vital importance to the country, in one sense because of their irrigation value and in another because of the danger of the floods getting out of control and causing great damage by inundation. The mountain forests forming the catchment areas of the Tigris and its principal tributaries exercise a most important function in flood control and in reducing the silting up of river beds, reservoirs, and irrigation canals. It is very necessary, therefore, to maintain and to improve forest cover in the mountains so that its function in relation to flood control and erosion should not be further impaired.

Uncontrolled or badly regulated cutting of the forest is at present a prevalent form of damage, especially in areas within economic exploitation of the urban markets. With an ever-growing population there is also considerable pressure on the forest land by cultivators, and a tendency has been noticed for temporary cultivation to encroach upon cutover forest, which prevents recovery of the forest after cutting, and leads to accelerated soil erosion and runoff. Fire in summer is widespread in the mountain forests and imposes annually a loss on the forests which must exceed the loss by cutting. Grazing is another form of forest exploitation which, if uncontrolled, can do great harm, especially in burned- or cut-over areas, where the constant browsing and trampling of the flocks tend to retard forest recovery and to increase the rate of erosion. These four destructive agencies - cutting, shifting cultivation, forest fires, and grazing - all the work of man - far outweigh in importance the damage by natural causes, such as fungal decay, insect attack, grazing by wild animals, climatic accidents, etc.

In order to obtain a proper degree of forest protection, three things are essential:

a. Adequate forest laws,
b. The systematic delimitation of forest areas within which forest law may be applied, and
c. An adequate staff of trained foresters.

The present forest law in Iraq was promulgated long ago and is no longer adequate for modern conditions. A new ordinance has been drafted and will shortly be enacted. The draft law provides for the regulated control of all forms of forest exploitation under permit, for the prevention of damage, and creates conditions under which existing forests can be developed and new forests created. Under this law forest areas will be properly demarcated and divided into state forests and village forests, the latter being managed especially in the interests of the villages particularly concerned and in which the village authorities will be encouraged to take over in large measure their protection and development.

The demarcation of the forests presents a difficulty insofar as cadastral surveys and land settlement have not yet reached the mountains in which most of the forests occur. It is the intention of the Government to push ahead with forest surveys, if necessary in advance of land settlement, and with this object in view a project for an aerial survey of about 3,000 km2 of the mountain forests is now under consideration. The Forest Section is also recruiting staff in preparation for the demarcation of forests. As each forest unit area is demarcated it will be manned by forest staff and the law can then be applied in full to that section. It is hoped that forest demarcation work will be completed in about ten years, and, as the work progresses, intensive forest protection will be applied.

The Forest Section of the Agriculture Department was established a few years ago and is gradually gaining in strength and experience. The Government has embarked on a program of training forest officers at foreign universities, and selected subordinate staff will shortly be sent overseas on training courses, to augment the elementary training gained locally. It must be admitted, however, that the existing forest staff is inadequate, both in number and caliber, for the tasks awaiting it when the new forest law is promulgated and intensive forest protection, as well as new programs of afforestation, add new and untried burdens. For this reason the Government has decided to recruit a number of foreign foresters to strengthen the Iraqi forest staff until such time as suitable numbers can be trained.

In the meantime, the supply of firewood and charcoal from the forests must continue to meet local demands, and the problem of arranging this supply in a manner less harmful to the forests is a matter of the greatest present urgency. Among other schemes suggested for securing better control of the cutting one is under consideration envisaging a kind of Government monopoly for the extraction and wholesale distribution of firewood and charcoal in the main urban markets. This scheme presents certain administrative difficulties and may not prove feasible in operation. But whatever method is finally adopted, this problem remains the first and most urgent need in applying forest protection.

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