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oil versus tomatoes
basra’s farmers continue to protest

Waheed Ghanim
Basra’s farmers say the oil industry is “occupying” their land – and that the one thing the Iraqi government is forgetting in its race to get oil firms in and farmers out, is the rising cost…
27.09.2012  |  Basra

Just over a year ago, Saleh Mohammed was farming in the Qurna area, west of the southern Iraqi city of Basra. But then the oil companies came. And today the land that Mohammed once farmed belongs to international oil giant, Exxon Mobil. And Mohammed himself works as an employee on the periphery of one of the oil production facilities.

Mohammed is 30 and his field of expertise is agriculture; he knows the ways of nature. He worked on his 2.5 hectare property planting wheat, barley and dates and everything he knew, he learned from his parents and grandparents, who had farmed the land before him. He really doesn’t know much about the oil industry. Yet, like so many others here, he too now wears the grey overalls and cap of oil facility workers.

“When the American, Russian and British oil companies started to come here, the government just wanted us to disappear,” Mohammed says. “They even offered us financial compensation to do so. Now some of us work as watchmen, some of us as gardeners and some as labourers with the oil companies for around US$600 a month. And I didn’t really have a choice in this matter – I have a wife and four children to look after.”

Mohammed is not alone. It’s estimated that there are 43 billion barrels of oil under the ground in this region. Almost all of Iraq’s oil currently comes from here. All of which clearly means big business, not only for the oil companies, but also for the Iraqi government.

Multinational oil company Exxon Mobil now runs the West Qurna 1 oil field and the Russian firm Lukoil runs West Qurna 2. Other oil companies, like Shell, BP and the Italian oil company Eni, are also working in the area and very likely to buy up or lease more land for oil exploration in Basra.

Mohammed was lucky though. Many of the other farmers in the area only received a one-off payout, financial compensation for their land.

“What are we going to do afterwards though? The payout isn’t that much,” comments Khalaf Sharhan, another local farmer who is preparing to leave his land. “The whole region seems to be reserved for the oil men. If each piece of pipeline needs at least 150 meters of ground, as well as a few meters on either side, then where is the farm land for us?” Sharhan argues. In fact, the farmers that have been able to hang onto some of their land often find that it is not enough to earn them a decent living.

In reality nobody knows exactly how much land the oil work will consume. They will definitely encompass the areas north of Basra, like Qurna, Howeir and the area around Thaghar and Madinah. West of Basra, the affected areas include Safwan, Rafidiya, Raha and Zubair.

Recently a good harvest increased the farmers’ antipathy toward the oil companies that would occupy, or that are occupying, their arable land. North of Basra, the barley crops did particularly well this year. In the areas north of Basra not yet signed over to oil exploration, the local department of agriculture estimates that around 28,000 tonnes of barley were harvested. If these areas are signed over to the oil firms, that number is likely to halve.

And this may well happen, according to Abbas Nasser al-Fadhli, adviser to Basra’s local authorities on tribal affairs. “There is oil under about70 percent of Basra’s ground and the agricultural land definitely overlaps with the areas where oil companies want to work,” he explains.

Locals can’t expect any help from the state oil concern, South Oil. “Their only concern is making the international oil companies happy,” al-Fadhli says. He suggests that while the federal authorities are focussed on increasing Iraq’s income through oil earnings, one thing they haven’t considered is the cost of the loss of farming land that will result in increased spending on importing food supplies for locals.

While the barley farmers may have done well this year, the tomato farmers had plenty of problems. In Zubair, west of Basra, there are now only 2,000 tomato plants left. There used to be 6,000 tomato plants here. Because of a reduction in state subsidies and a market flooded with cheap tomato imports, the tomato farmers who are left find it hard to make a living.

“More than a hundred farming businesses situated inside the oil companies’ areas, have closed. Each of these would have produced between 80 and 100 tonnes of tomatoes a year,” the head of Zubair’s regional agricultural department, Saleh Jabbar, said. “Additionally farms in the areas of Raha, Rafidiya, Barjasiya and Rumaila north and south, where over 7,000 farmers worked, have also closed – they would have been producing around 600,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year.”

As a result of all of this, Basra’s farmers have started to protest further against what they see as an “occupation” of Basra by international oil firms.

“Protests are the result of demands by various interest groups here who feel they have been treated unfairly,” explained Sayed Hani, the organiser of the protest group. “We have submitted various petitions to both the local and the federal government. And we have also chosen not to accept the financial settlements for farmers because they are not enough. About 70 tribal leaders from northern and western Basra are calling for a revaluation of the agricultural land here, but according to more realistic guidelines.”

According to national law, if the Iraqi state requires the farmer’s land for its own purpose, it may simply take it, and without paying any financial compensation. But this law dates back to 1980, when Saddam Hussein was in power; a new Oil and Gas Law is supposed to be being written but it has already been debated in the Iraqi Parliament for a long time with no firm conclusions.

Which is why the financial reparations being offered to the farmers are currently, in legal terms anyway, voluntary. The valuation of the land is based on other legislation, formulated in 2011, and is decided by a committee consisting of locals, state officials and representatives of South Oil.

The compensatory payout is calculated according to what is on the land as well as the land itself – this includes buildings and planted fields, and allegedly also takes into account what the work that’s been put in and what farmer will lose financially in the following year.

“Basically the area of Qurna – the city and its surrounding area – is really equivalent to an oil field. That’s why the actual oil field has the same name,” reasons one oil company employee, off the record. “There are old privileges at work here and high expectations of investment from the oil sector. The compensation payments are just being made out of humanitarian grounds.”

And even here there are difficulties. The committee must also discern between those farmers working their land officially and those who are squatter farmers. “A lot of the properties are run by farmers who have never had any documents saying they own the land,” committee member for the West Qurna oil fields and local mayor, Basem Saleh Radhban, points out.

Radhban also has his doubts about the protests against the payouts. “Certainly some farmers are happy enough with them,” he said. “We know this because of how many enquiries we keep getting from farmers who want to have their properties investigated for oil potential as quickly as possible.”

This story was first published by WPI Iraq.