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clash in the desert
karbala’s tomato farmers versus iraq’s biggest airport.

Abbas Sarhan
The authorities in the religious boom town of Karbala plan to build the country’s biggest airport on the city’s outskirts. But to do so, they will have to confiscate land from hundreds of farmers, who…

They are poetically known as the “farms of the desert” and there are hundreds of them on the outskirts of Karbala, in southern Iraq. They stretch from the outskirts of Karbala to the outskirts of the nearby city of Najaf and most of the farmers living and working on them have fairly basic lifestyles.

An estimated 300 families, many of them refugees from Iraq’s decimated southern marshes, work on this 60 kilometre by 12 kilometre stretch and they are proud of what they eke out of the desert. They are also proud of their own self reliance in an area where there are barely any paved roads, schools or even electricity in the houses.

“We produce this food all by ourselves,” says one of the farmers, Ammar, who is 40. “We do not receive government support or subsidies in any form, neither seeds, nor fuel nor infrastructure. We live a fairly primitive life out here but we are not complaining. We are happy with our lives. We don’t want salaries or government jobs or public services. We just want to government not to be hostile towards us.”

Unfortunately Ammar is unlikely to have that wish granted. In 2009 the local government and the federal Ministry of Transport laid a foundation stone nearby that was to be the start of a new airport for Karbala. The Imam Hussein airport – named after the Muslim icon that draws many visitors and pilgrims to his Karbala shrine – will cost an estimated US$2.5 billion to build and should serve around 20 million passengers a year. Plans have been drawn up and the Iraqi government has invited contractors to tender for the construction work.

However the airport, which would be Iraq’s biggest, will also require the land that many of the farms of the desert currently occupy and authorities told the farmers they would need to leave their land by Oct. 1 this year. There were signs put up urging the farmers to respect this date. And if they did not, authorities said that bulldozers would come in and simply start working.

However the farmers here have organised many protests and after the most recent ones, during which dozens of angry farmers confronted local officials, blocked roads and interrupted ceremonies, it was decided to delay the evacuation of the farmlands until Jan. 1 next year. That would be the final date, officials warned.

Ammar says he is deeply disappointed by the fact that local authorities are willing to just ignore the desert farmers. He says he and his fellow agrarians have supported the local economy with their work – for example, the area produces an estimated 2,000 tons of tomatoes per day – and provided goods that would otherwise have had to be imported. The farms here must rely on groundwater and they have banded together to build wells without any support from the local government.

In fact, Ammar says, they’ve been waiting for local authorities to do something for them, anything in fact - like build roads that would facilitate the transport of vegetables or build schools so their children could get an education. Now Ammar says he doesn’t believe the government’s messages about how the Iraqi agricultural sector should be supported.

“When nobody did anything we just thought we would deal with things ourselves and accept the realities of our situation,” Ammar explains. “But this is worse. They won’t even leave us alone and they’re planning to displace us and take away our children’s future.”

The farmers have been demanding some sort of compensation for their properties but this has led to further friction. There are more than 200 farmers demanding compensation but only 80 had the right credentials for any official compensation. Authorities say the others are camping out on state owned land so they don’t have any right to compensation – nor are they owed anything for the wells they helped dig on the land.

Some of the farmers have insisted that they bought the land off Karbala locals more than two decades ago but authorities say the sellers had no right to dispose of the land so the property deals were worthless.

The new airport must be built, Karbala governor Aqeel al-Turaihi said, adding that this was a strategic project for the region that couldn’t be abandoned because it would bring hundreds of jobs and much revenue - but that it should be done legally. And after the last demonstrations which saw protestors from the farms blocking the road connecting Karbala and Najaf, al-Turaihi announced that all the farmers would be compensated. “We have provided them with farmlands,” he said. “And we will contribute toward the cost of digging new wells. We will also compensate them with money for the facilities they have to leave behind on their farms.”

Some locals are still not convinced though – they believe the farmers may have a point about how important their work is to the region that is worth looking into. “The airport is an important project and it could bring many benefits to the region,” local politician Jawad Al-Attar told NIQASH. “But it would be important to conduct a feasibility study first, to ascertain which is actually more important: the farms or the airport?”