Iraq’s Environmental Struggle against Foreign Rapacity and Local Greed
Ahwaris in Iraq have been through a series of tragedies over the decades. “We have lived a long history of displacement, oppression and racism. We have always opposed authoritarian governments and any form of authoritarianism. My family was active in opposition to Saddam Hussain. My uncle was killed resisting him in Hor Al-Huwaiza,” explains Ahwari activist and environmental and human rights defender Mustafa Hashim who is part of the “Ahwari Voice-The Ahwari Human Rights network”, one of several self-organized groups in the Marsh lands, the Ahwar (singular Hor), that spread through Southern Iraq and Iran. “But the current Iraqi government refuses to recognize this and give us our rights as a family of a martyr. I have two aunts that were killed due to mine explosions in Hor al-Huwaiza from the remnants of the Iran-Iraq war. Many others here have sustained severe injuries in the aftermath of the war. It is great suffering and sorrow that does not end.”1
According to a report by the International Organization on Migration (IOM), Iraq is not only the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change, but “we also have desertification, the soil is losing its organic material. We have a water crisis. We have a huge pollution increase, we have a housing crisis, and we have an energy crisis. People have to spend more money to sustain life, consuming more energy, for example, for cooling the air. It is a cycle. If we do not find solutions now, people will lose their livelihoods for generations to come,” says Baghdad-born Marwah Alnoaime, an environmental activist and entrepreneur in organic agriculture equipment.
Alnoaime and Hashim call for an understanding of the political economy of climate change and the factors fortifying it. Climate change needs to be understood in a holistic way, taking into account its intersection with a long history of targeted environmental destruction justified by racism and modernization projects, and the toxication of Iraq's environment by multiple wars.
The contamination dates back to the US-war against Iraq in 1991 when the highly toxic depleted uranium (DU)2 was used. The 2003 invasion witnessed the unprecedented waste abandonment and waste burning of the US military: discarded vehicles, excess weapons, trashed clothing and much more were all left in Iraq’s land, water or air. This toxication had a serious impact on reproduction, as women carried miscarriages in huge numbers.
Climate change needs to be understood in a holistic way, taking into account its intersection with a long history of targeted environmental destruction justified by racism and modernization projects, and the toxication of Iraq's environment by multiple wars
Instead of employing the “singular event” thesis and depoliticizing environmentalism, Alnoaime and Hashim point to the protracted injustices going on not only as a process but also as a decades-long structure that intersects with class and gender.
Oil and Environmental Destruction
While claiming the drained wetlands are caused mainly by climate change and the water policies of the neighboring countries (Iran and Turkey), the Iraqi government continues to provide licenses for foreign oil production companies in Hor Al-Huwaiza and elsewhere, opening new fields in the dried/drained areas of the Marsh lands. In Hashim’s village, they use hundreds of moving oil rigs that dig wells, produce oil for 5-6 months and then move to other spots within the village – leading to the destruction of the soil and the village, and rising cancer rates.3 Hashim works as a day-worker 12-hour shifts at the nearby oil field, making 20,000 IQD a day (approximately 15 USD). “I would never have thought of working in the oil company. Before the Ahwar was drained again, we had everything we needed to have a self-sustained life,” he says.
Iraqi politicians often try to avoid any reference to pollution by oil and gas production, although the International Energy Agency (IEA) asserts that Iraq is responsible for 8% of global methane emissions from oil and gas, ranking 33rd out of 220 countries that contribute around 63% of global greenhouse emissions. The oil production and refining has direct local effects: The north Rumaila oil field alone - one of the biggest oil fields worldwide ever discovered- has, since the 1950s, caused 800 km2 loss of the Marsh lands.
Iraqi politicians often try to avoid any reference to pollution by oil and gas production
In the face of such environmental destruction, Ahwaris have been self-organizing and protesting, as part of an Iraqi and global climate justice movement. At the beginning of March 2023, several Ahwari activists were arrested while protesting in Amara province against an oil company that had taken their land by force. “The companies started working, but the people of the marshes staged protests about two weeks ago against the establishment of this field. 10 people were suppressed and arrested, villages were raided,” Hashim says.
At the same time, the land the companies work on remains under constant threat of being submerged in water during the flood period, causing repeated environmental disasters.4 To avoid this, the government reduced the water share for the marshes, subsuming the environmental and cultural rights of the Ahwaris under its economic interests. Iraqi politicians and powerful local tribal sheikhs use every chance to make profit: another source for the water scarcity is the diversion of water by illegal canals to illegal fish farms.
From Nonstate to Colonial and State spaces
There is a historical continuity of the powers controlling Iraq wanting to economically exploit the Ahwar areas of the mid-Euphrates while managing and controlling its population. “For much of the recorded history, the Iraqi marshes served as a ‘nonstate space’ where centralized polities had difficulty establishing authority due to geographic obstacles,” writes the environmental historian Faisal Husain.5 The Ottomans and the British colonial powers - after the end of WWII - intervened to take control of the area, drawing a trajectory that has its effects until today. Most importantly, the different political powers that came and went, applied extractivist policies to the Marshes, wanting to either better use its water resources or drain it in order to recover more arable land.6
There is a historical continuity of the powers controlling Iraq wanting to economically exploit the Ahwar areas of the mid-Euphrates while managing and controlling its population
British colonial powers implemented social changes to control Iraq, which caused pauperization of huge parts of the Southern farmers population especially in the areas of the Ahwar. Thousands of people migrated to Baghdad, often with their animals, living in poor self-constructed housing and forming a new urban underclass,7 thus transforming Iraqi history from their new position. “Throughout the past eight decades, [they have] collectively organized local and mass political movements whose demands led to better wages, urban planning, and housing projects,” writes lecturer Huma Gupta in a 2021 article in Middle East Brief.8 It’s almost as if history is repeating itself: people who now flee from the Ahwar come again mainly to the huge city centers. Between 2018 and 2021, around 19,000 have been displaced due to the drought conditions.
Rural-Urban Migration and Baghdad’s Housing Crisis
Baghdad’s housing crisis is embarking on the green crescent left around the city. On Nawroz (March 21) Marwah Alnoaime initiated a campaign to spread crops seeds and raise people's awareness about everyone's ability to grow food. For her, environmental issues, local food production and the growth machine of the real estate market are intersected. “Some politicians have bought large agricultural lands, turned them into residential areas or malls. They are afraid that Iraq will no longer import if we activate the agricultural sector in a sustainable way,” she explains. “They fear that people will actually respect the green areas. The green spaces left around Baghdad are the only lungs for the people. If people not only plant trees, but then also vegetables and subsistence should come about, then this will affect their greed for profit and the money they want to squeeze out of the Iraqis.”
The high profits from new housing projects compared to the low return from agriculture accelerate this trend. This devaluation of agricultural land is caused by a purely neoliberal view on land: assessing its value in purely economist terms, and thus, not only ignoring that the shrinking green spaces will not only amplify the effects of climate change on Baghdad's inhabitants, but also destroy the spaces that are considered the bearer of Iraqi identity, its palm groves.
Iraq’s long palm trees not only absorb carbon during photosynthesis and store it for the life of the tree and provide food, but they also cool the climate and provide shade for other plants growing below them. Furthermore, they mitigate the increasing problem of dust storms.
Meanwhile, the picture of the Iraqi rural women and the nature she is inhabiting is romanticized in Iraqi TV series,9 clearly showing the contradiction of Iraqi self-conception and the extractivist practices.
The Disaster: Ecocide and its Effects on Gender Relations
The Baath party, at war with Iran since 1980, considered the Marshes spreading between Iran and Iraq a huge security threat, as the ecological geography allowed for an easy disappearance in the Marshes. Against this background, the regime started in 1983 a large-scale operation to deport parts of the population and indiscriminately kill and arrest other parts.
The picture of the Iraqi rural women and the nature she is inhabiting is romanticized in Iraqi TV series, clearly showing the contradiction of Iraqi self-conception and the extractivist practices
Following the attack and loss of the Iraqi army to Kuwait, a popular mass uprising spread throughout the country in March 1991 with the Marshes having a prominent role due to its strategic environment. Saddam Hussain responded by launching a systematic campaign against the Ahwar, burning villages, removing the population and building a new hydraulic infrastructure that would divert water from the Marshes and facilitate the military’s expansion in the area.10 The government officially justified these policies as necessary modernization measurements of the Ahwar,11 while using the diverted water to improve the agricultural system in Iraq12 and claiming that the Turkish dams upstream caused the drought.13
Simultaneously, the government ran a campaign depicting the Ahwari population as un-Iraqi and primitive,14 comparing them to monkeys,15 thus underlining the intersection of political suppression and agricultural policies with racism in Iraq. 90% of the marches were dried out and most of the population became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees exiled to other countries while its population diminished from 500,000 in the 1950s to 20,000 in 2003.
Schluwa Sama, political economist and active within the Iraqi food sovereignty network “Guez u Nakhl” (Kurdish Arabic mix to say “Walnut and Palm tree”) explains how these policies affected not only gender relations but also the devaluation of agriculture as a whole. “There lies a mobility and freedom in farming in the fields for many women. They consider agriculture to be their contribution to society,” she says. “It has a value in itself. Losing this means that they are pushed into the domestic sphere. For men, it's also not easy, but they can do very different jobs. This then leads to the reappearance of the ‘traditional family model.’”16 Managing rural populations, therefore, was also a tool to restrict and control women's movements. “This is also a class question. Many women in the rural villages in Kurdistan weren’t veiled until the 2000s, this was also a demarcation of working women and considered morally improper by the urban population”, explains Sama.
The repeated “socioecological uprooting” – detaching people from their natural resources – does not only cause multigenerational trauma, but also has deep gendered implications: it's women who transfer the knowledge and skills to the next generations. Their cultural memory is lost, if it cannot be practiced anymore. Knowledge loss makes return an impossible endeavor. Consequently, relationships and networks are destroyed. However, there is another power relation, as more than 17% of the workforce in agriculture are women. “Like in other regions, they don't have the land titles, nor the control over the means of production,” underlines Sama. “So while they are seen as the ‘bearer of the culture,’ they are completely subordinated.”
Making the Means of Production Available for Women
Since 2003 Iraq has been turned into a “warehouse for Turkish and Iranian food products”, making it very vulnerable to oil price fluctuations as seen during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and to global food price fluxes as seen during the start of the war against Ukraine in 2022. “The imports without any state regulation or support17 for small scale farming, renders the latter unproductive in a capitalist sense,” criticizes Sama.
The mass uprising in Iraq in 2019, through its strong female presence, not only challenged gender and social hierarchies, but was also accompanied by a call for clear materialist changes
Although in many areas of Kurdistand and central Iraq it is part of the self-sustenance of rural families and sustained through female labor, the farming itself organizes village space and village time, considering the agricultural seasons. In this sense, this mainly female labor reproduces village life. “Community life is not acknowledged by state and society as well as by newly emerging agro-businesses and researchers of Iraq's political economy since it does not fit the capitalist logic,” explains Sama, addressing the feminist value of local food production and the invisibility of female labor.18
The mass uprising in Iraq in 2019, through its strong female presence, not only challenged gender and social hierarchies, but was also accompanied by a call for clear materialist changes through boycotting Iranian products and turning to more local production. This is also envisioned by the activists of the Iraqi food sovereignty network “Guez u Nakhl”, for whom agroecological practices are part of the struggle for a just future, which can be only accomplished through the struggle for Food Sovereignty, which is a feminist struggle.
In the context of Iraq, this means making the means of production available for women through, for example, the work Wafa Hamadi, who is reviving the knowledge on seed reproduction, e.g. the open pollinated old varieties of seeds that are not only more resistant to the ramifications of climate change, but also make the rural communities less reliant on the capitalist market. Furthermore, the maintenance of Iraqi varieties of vegetables and fruits fosters the preservation of the Iraqi kitchen.
Creating a Different Reality
For Ryan Mana, a member of the “Ahwari Voice-The Ahwari Human Rights network”, seeking justice means being able to make decisions for themselves in order to benefit local society, all the more so in light of the dire consequences of displacement and environmental destruction on women. “We have no power to change reality. That's why we founded the collective to become a movement and to change this reality,” he explains. “We propose a system of democratic self-governance through councils or other forms or local governance that brings justice to every individual. Our people deserve to be brought up on their soil instead of being constantly displaced.”
Seeking justice means being able to make decisions in order to benefit local society, all the more so in light of the dire consequences of displacement and environmental destruction on women
For Marwah Alnoaime, contributing to a better environmental reality so people can have better food is part of her understanding of justice. “I wish for and I fight for using our agricultural land in Iraq in the right way. We need to bring good soil back,” she says. “One of the simplest rights is to eat clean food and live in a community that is able to use its natural resources. That would be a just life for humans and nature.”
Their voices need to be included in the global climate justice movement and their analyses of the reasons of environmental destruction need to be employed as a narrative, while abandoning an apolitical view on climate realities in Iraq. The Marshes have been the natural ally against the Iraqi state(s). By preserving them, the Marshes can also be the biggest ally against climate change in Iraq, the wider region and the global ecology.
Note: This article was produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Middle East Office. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Middle East Office.
- 1. Interview via WhatsApp, 25/03/2023.
- 2. In 1991, an estimated 782,414 rounds of DU are believed to have been fired, primarily by US forces.
- 3. Interview via WhatsApp, 25/03/2023.
- 4. Interview via WhatsApp, 25/03/2023.
- 5. Faisal Husain, “In the Bellies of the Marshes: Water and Power in the Countryside of Ottoman Baghdad”, Environmental History 19 (4), 2014, p. 639.
- 6. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 457-458.
- 7. Huma Gupta, “The Birth of Sadr City and Popular Protest in Iraq”, Middle East Brief, September (144), 2021, p. 1.
- 8. Huma Gupta, “The Birth of Sadr City and Popular Protest in Iraq”, Middle East Brief, September (144), 2021, p. 1.
- 9. See, for example, “Broken Diamond” (Almas Maksour) (2022) and “Taiba” (2021) for series picturing a romanticized vision of the countryside of Baghdad, and “Dreams of Years” (Ahlam As-Sinin) (2020) on the Marshlands of Southern Iraq.
- 10. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 457-458.
- 11. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 457-458.
- 12. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 457-458.
- 13. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 458.
- 14. Ariel I. Ahram, “Development, Counterinsurgency, and the Destruction of the Iraqi Marshes”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (3), 2015, p. 456.
- 15. WhatsApp Interview, 25/03/2023.
- 16. WhatsApp Interview, 27/03/2023.
- 17. This is the case mainly for vegetables and fruits, there still is a working guaranty from the state to buy farmer´s wheat production.
- 18. WhatsApp Interview 11/04/2023.