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setting karbala alight
locals burn trees to build houses

Mohammed Hamid al-Sawaf
In Karbala locals are finding ways to circumvent environmental laws. One of these ways is simply to burn land, to build houses on it. In doing so, they’re courting eco-disaster and killing Karbala’s…
26.04.2012  |  Karbala

His eyes fill with tears as he contemplates the flames burning through groves of citrus trees and palms; Saheb al-Mamalji, a geography teacher in the central Iraqi city of Karbala, is watching local fire fighters combat yet another wildfire from a safe distance.

“We can never compensate for this big loss,” al-Mamalji said, grieving for the loss of the greenery. “More and more of our beautiful green areas are disappearing every day. Wildfires, uncontrolled land clearance and the absence of any oversight on land usage are the main causes for this environmental disaster. People just don’t know understand the consequences of this kind of thing on their city.”

Al-Mamalji is not the only local lamenting the burning trees and greenery. The Husayniya area, north of Karbala central, has been particularly affected with continuous wildfires that have resulted in the destruction of much arable land.

Karbala’s department of Civil Defence reports wildfires in around 318 fields in the space of two years. “During the first three months of 2012, the number of orchards reporting fires were 123,” Hussein Numeh Mansour, the head of the department, said.

Husayniya’s orchards are well known for the fruit they produce, including dates, citrus, pomegranate and berries. The green areas, such as Husayniya, which surround Karbala are often described as the city’s lungs; they are also places where locals go for recreation and to experience the natural environment.

Happily the fires haven’t resulted in any deaths, just the steady devolution of the city’s green surrounds. “This city, once an oasis, will turn into a desert,” a local cleric, Murtada Maash, complained. “Husayniya was once a place of rest and recreation. But, sooner or later little by little, we will find ourselves living in a desert,” he warned.

And the fires that have plagued these areas are no unhappy accident of nature. The wildfires really began to proliferate in 2009 when the Iraqi Parliament passed Order 272, legislation that was supposed to prevent the desertification of Iraq. The new laws were supposed to prevent uncontrolled deforestation by placing limits on how trees and grasslands could be used and how agricultural land could be prepared as well as setting in place punishments for those who carried such activities out in an unlicensed way.

Now, instead of abiding by the laws and seeking permission to cut down trees the local government says land owners are setting their own property alight.

“Orchard owners are burning their lands because they don’t want to pay fines imposed on those who level their lands,” Sattar al-Adawi, head of the provincial security committee, said. “People are using devious methods – they set their land alight so they can level it and turn it into residential areas and then they also get insurance pay outs for the fire damage.”

As soon as they manage to gather enough evidence they will be prosecuting locals who set their own land alight, he added.

NIQASH managed to contact one of the land owners who had had a fire on his property. The man didn’t want to give his name and he said he didn’t know how the fire had started.

“It might have been unintentional act,” he mused. “Sometimes young people gather and make fires for fun.”

Selling agricultural lands for conversion into cheap housing has become commonplace in Karbala, which, like many other areas in Iraq, is suffering from a housing crisis. And up until now, the laws on this subject have not been enforced at all – because it seems there is very little choice for those seeking housing.

Local man, Ahmed al-Khalidi, told how he was forced to purchase a piece of empty land because he couldn’t find any land that was zoned residential. Like many other locals in similar situations he blamed the government for this.

“Either we and our children survive or the city’s trees survive,” al-Khalidi said. “I think this question is already being solved by the people.”