Rida Yassin believes that if he were to farm for the rest of his life, he would never make the amount of money he recently received for the sale of one of his groves to a construction company in Karbala.
Yassin did not reveal the sum he received for selling his land but did admit that it helped him to pay the marriage expenses for one of his sons and to buy a taxi cab.
“I would never collect half the amount of money I got from selling the grove if I continued to work in agriculture,” the farmer told Niqash in a recent interview at his home in Karbala.
Yassin’s 13,000 sq. m grove is part of an area of groves extending for hundreds for hundreds of Iraqi Dunums (one Iraqi Dunum = 2,500 sq. m) that authorities say were sold during the last seven years for relatively high prices for construction purposes.
Each square metre of grove land in central Karbals is currently estimated to be worth 40,000 Iraqi Dinars (US$34), decreasing to an average of around 20,000 to 25,000 in suburban areas.
Where the trees in the groves around Karbala have been cut down, hotels, villas, workshops and markets have bgun to appear in the place, with farmers like Yassin claiming they can no longer afford to work in agriculture, as the sector has become less and less economically efficient. Iraq’s import of fruit and vegetables from its neighbours, like Syria, Turkey, Iran and Egypt since 2003 is at least partly to blame for the problem.
“All the fruit and veg we need now comes from abroad and they are sold for much cheaper prices than our products,” said Abbas Mahoud, another farmer who sold some groves in central Karbala.
He attributes the cheaper foreign imports to the different agricultural techniques used elsewhere, as well as the lower cost of essentials like fertiliser.
Ahmad Bahid Taqi, an economist does not see the changes as marking an economic crisis but rather as “an indicator for the growth in income across a spectrum of citizens.
“The income of those who buy the lands is already high and that of those who sold their lands has clearly increased, too,” he said, referring to the fact that many of the demolished groves have been turned into villas, hotels and stores.
Though some economists may see the developments positively, local authorities have announced ‘firm measures’ aimed at curbing the phenomenon, as they try to protect the agriculture sector.
In March, a ban on the import of fruit and vegetables from neighbouring countries was imposed in order to help boost farmers trying to work in the local market.
In Karbala, around the same time, a committee was formed with representatives from the province’s Agriculture and Environmental Directorates and other concerned departments, in a bid to find a solution to the issue.
The committee imposed a ban on all changes in ownership of land if it could be proven that the area was once a grove.
“Hundreds of Dunums of groves with fresh fruit and palm trees were demolished during the last seven years and these were turned into residential areas,” said Razzaq Ali Tai, Karbala’s Agriculture Director, adding that no precise, official statistics exist describing the developments.
Tai stresses that most demolished areas are located downtown but facts on the ground indicate that the cutting down of trees and removal of groves has reached suburban areas, including Bab Baghdad, al-Abbas and Aoun neighbourhood.
The total area planted with fruit and citrus trees was more than 80,000 Dunums, across the Karbala Province until 2008, according to estimates made by the Agriculture Directorate.
Across downtown Karbala, it is easy to see the many banners continuing to advertise groves for sale, with environmental activists and civil society groups harshly criticising the practice in the city.
The Iraqi Environment Association recently warned against the ‘dangerous’ hazards to the local area of demolishing groves.
“Removing the groves means turning Karbala into a desert with no green cover,” said the association’s spokesperson, Sabah Hilal Hussein.
The association demands that groves in Karbala are listed as officially ‘protected’ areas.