Fouad Hassan came out of the pall of smoke that was covering his fields, wiping his eyes. A fire was ravaging his palm tree plantation and he had almost become lost in the clouds. He said he had gone into the smoke to urge on the fire fighters there and to help them if he could. But it was useless, he said. Almost all of his palm trees had been destroyed; even the ones that had survived, had turned black.
Like many other palm plantation owners near Khanaqin, a city in the north-eastern Iraqi province, Diyala, near the Iranian border, Hassan no longer has to worry about how he will water his trees in Iraq’s increasingly warm summers. During the past seven years, Khanaqin orchards have faced drought from April through to September because the Iranians over the border have been cutting down on water supplies once used to irrigate the farmland here. A dam has been built nearby to alleviate this problem. But none of that matters to farmers like Hassan anymore: now one of their biggest concerns is fire.
There have been a series of what have been described as “unnatural fires” destroying Khanaqin’s orchards. The climate here makes the area particularly suitable for growing date palms, pomegranates and oranges; the place is also famous for its exotic date varieties.
According to activists from the Committee for the Defence of Khanaqin’s Interests, more than 140 fires have broken out in orchards around the city over the past six years – and most of them happened over the past two months. As the number of fires have increased, so too have tensions between the activists and the city administrators. Both groups are accusing each other of everything from negligence to causing more chaos.
It does seem as though the environmental activists in Khanaqin are putting more effort in trying to find out the fires’ causes than any orchard owners. Whenever they hear about a fire, they go there, take pictures or videos and then distribute the information via their social networks. This has led to tense relations between themselves and the city officials – on social media the environmentalists have been demanding that the mayor resign.
One of the activists from the Committee for the Defence of Khanaqin’s Interests, Salam Abdallah, says that the number of fires is just suspicious. “And the city administrators have failed in any way to protect the environment or the city’s nature. That’s why we are demanding a resignation,” Abdallah explained.
“The reality of Khanaqin’s environment is this – there are thousands of tonnes of waste, old cars, mines and other explosives and discarded electrical appliances lying around,” Abdallah said.”It’s brutal. Unfortunately nobody is very environmentally aware here and the local administrators are useless.”
City officials believe a large part of the reason behind the fires is simply negligence on the part of the land owners. There are huge amounts of flammable material around these areas because the orchards have been neglected, Bakhtiar Mohammed, of the local Department of Agriculture, said. Plants are dead and drying up due to lack of water and care – what’s left behind burns easily.
Khanaqin’s mayor, Mohammed Mala Hassan, told local newspaper Rudaw that many owners had simply abandoned the orchards. “Some of these orchards are 150 years old,” he said. “They have been handed down from one generation to another, but the current generation can’t be bothered to look after their trees and they leave them to fires.”
Some say that the neglectful orchard owners are deliberately burning the trees so they can sell the land and have it re-zoned as residential. As yet though, there’s no proof of this. But Hassan agrees there’s something to this theory.
“Some of the land owners actually want the tress to die so they can sell the land. They can make good money this way,” Hassan confirmed to NIQASH. “There are no plans either locally or from Baghdad to provide any kinds of subsidies to the local farmers here. And when people figure out they are spending more money on maintaining their orchards than they are making, then you cannot force them to take care of the orchards. That’s why we can’t do anything about this problem,” Hassan concluded.
As for the orchardists and the plantation owners, they profess not to know who to blame: some believe the fires are deliberate but they don’t know who the arsonists are.
Ask Fouad Hassan, who sits staring at the burned remains of his trees and he can only tell you his own story. “It’s just not true at all,” he says. “My grandparents built this orchard and my family has taken care of it for over a century. Is it possible that we would just forget all that and burn our own orchard?” he asked grimly.