Iraq races to save last of Middle East's forests from burning

Firefighters and police are up against illegal loggers, border guards—and ISIS.

By Peter Schwartzstein
Published 23 Jul 2019, 10:26 BST
The Middle East is little-forested – and now the forests that are there face threats from ...
The Middle East is little-forested – and now the forests that are there face threats from violence, logging and fire.
Photograph by Hawre Khalid

Iraq is on fire, and Aram Ismail has no idea how to extinguish the flames. As a 12-year veteran of the Iraqi Kurdish forest police, he and his unit are supposed to guard a Cornwall-sized slice of rugged wilderness. But the fires are too fierce and too numerous.

Iranian border guards have started scores of blazes along their shared frontier to clear their lines of sight along key cross-border smuggling routes. Turkish airstrikes on militant camps have reduced tracts of forest to cinder. Across the bone-dry mountains and flatlands, a potent combination of illegal logging and naturally occurring wildfires are consuming large chunks of whatever greenery bombs and bullets haven't torched.

Forest police patrol the mountains around Dukan, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Photograph by Hawre Khalid

On a recent day in Penjwen, the local district centre, Ismail and his unit were called out to three fires within an hour, none of which they were able to tame before the infernos swelled. Their counterparts to the south might have it even worse. Vengeful ISIS remnants have set thousands of acres alight, scorching swathes of prime agricultural land.

"We are few and the problems are many,” Ismail said. "God willing we'll protect the trees. It's our identity. Our homeland. But we need more help.”

Trees at risk

This year was meant to bring much-needed respite for Iraqis who have suffered through years of drought and extremist violence. But the environmental and security ramifications of such a loss of vegetation might be even bleaker in the long run. As some of the Middle East’s largest remaining contiguous woodland, the forests of northern Iraq are a vital sponge during sometimes debilitating winter floods.

And as increasingly rare patches of greenery, the trees and plant cover are an essential brake on deadly dust storms. At a time when ISIS is reconstituting itself across rural Iraq, officials fear the blazes might further destabilise many of the agriculture-dependent areas where the group once thrived.

“We fear anything that could make the lives of farmers even more difficult, including the fires,” said Hussein Rahim, head of forests and rangelands in the Iraqi Kurdish agriculture ministry. “This is the chaos [ISIS] thrives on.”

Since 2000, wildfires and tree cutters have claimed at least 2.5 million acres of woodland in the Kurdistan region alone, all part of a possible 20 percent reduction in vegetation there since 2014. At 1.7 percent forest cover, the Arab World has by far the least forest of any non-polar part of the planet, according to UN statistics. If the region continues to lose trees at its current pace, it might very soon have none.

A woman in Iraqi Kurdistan plays with the family dog in a village where wildfire recently broke out.
Photograph by Hawre Khalid

Overwhelmed firefighters

In his 15 years as a forest ranger in northern Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah governorate, Wahab Ahmed Hamid had grown used to fighting fires in unenviable conditions. There are the millions of mines left over from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which litter the border strip and often prevent response teams from reaching infernos before they spread—and sometimes even spark blazes when they detonate. There are the blistering summers, which can create tinder-like conditions. Most challengingly of all, there are the tribal, clan, and petty farmer rivalries that have descended into relentless tit-for-tat arson attacks in the past.

Never before, though, had Hamid and his unit had to contend with so many fire starters. Turkish jets have bombed the woods around the periphery of Iraq’s Kurdistan region with such regularity since 2015 that Abbas and his men are often too fearful to even venture near for fear of being accidentally targeted. Environmentalists suspect that some of these strikes are deliberately calculated to scorch the undergrowth, and thereby smoke out the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish militant group that operates extensive bases in Iraq.

“The situation is not good, but we are in no position to respond to the threats,” Hamid said. “We just pick up the pieces.”

In the isolated mountain villages, illegal loggers have stripped entire forests of trees, and sometimes torched the stumps to conceal their wrongdoing. Ever since local authorities cut fuel subsidies after the global oil price crash in 2014, residents of upland communities have fallen back on timber to sustain them through the chilly winters. Most log out of desperation.

“This is the consequence of big failures that someone like me must do this,” said Diyar, a logger who asked to withhold his surname because of the illegal nature of his work.

But politically protected business cartels appear to have muscled in on the charcoal industry, too.

And now, in the messy, war-ravaged areas ISIS left behind, an array of armed groups, including jihadi sleeper cells, are using fire to further their interests—sometimes extortion, sometimes revenge. In at least one instance, jihadists allegedly planted explosive devices to kill first responders. On many others, poorly-equipped authorities have tried to tackle fires with little more than jerry cans of water and wet blankets.

Desperate to salvage valuable land, firefighters are pleading for more assistance, but so far to no avail. “We’re watching our country on fire, but we lack everything you need to fight it,” said Zuhair Zaki, a civil defense officer in Tikrit, about two hours north of Baghdad. “We feel the pain too.”

Without enough oil and electricity, people take to the woods to obtain fuel for their stoves.
Photograph by Hawre Khalid

Flickers of hope

The devastation is already being felt far and wide. On the increasingly rare occasions when the rains really do fall in Iraq, like this year, the floods are destructive as there’s even less tree cover to soak up the waters or anchor the hillsides. Up to 70 people drowned in neighbouring Iran this spring. The dust storms are only getting worse, too, in large part because of the loss of vegetation. The country now experiences over 250 dusty days a year, according to the UN, which are cutting crop yields and contributing to a serious respiratory health crisis.

Worse yet, perhaps, is the terror these fires are inflicting on crumbling rural communities. The loss of vegetation is depriving shepherds of fodder for their livestock. The fear of investing large sums in planting fields only to lose the crops has been enough to persuade some farmers to leave their land fallow this season. For some farming families, who’ve struggled through years of subpar rainfall, increased input costs, and poor security, this could even be the final straw. Millions have already migrated to the cities. Millions more might join them.

“Like us, the trees have been genocided,” said Bandan Ata, a soldier who’s returned home to the mountains to convalesce after being shot in the head by an ISIS sniper. “We all need time to recover.”

But as desperate as the situation currently looks, there is some cause for optimism. Not least in the mountains. Resigned, it seems, to their limited resources, Iraqi Kurdish forest police are getting nimbler at making the best of what they’ve got. Rangers have set up informant networks to report back on loggers and fire starters in far-flung villages. They’ve successfully laid ambushes in notorious charcoal-producing spots. In lowland areas, too, farmers have realised there’s no help coming. Many have since organised themselves into neighbourhood fire watches.

Crucially, Iraqi civil society is also getting involved. As part of a growing youth environmentalist movement, a number of groups have taken it upon themselves to tackle logging and arsonists in the most vulnerable areas. In Penjwen district local NGO Milekawa has dispatched activists throughout the mountains. Some watch for fires. Others are training villagers to help tackle the flames. Despite routine threats from logging cartels, including an attack on the director’s house, the group is only expanding its work.

“We realised that if we don’t do this, no one will,” said Bakhtiyar Ali, a Milekawa activist. “We watch the forest disappear and it’s time we did something.”

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