To this day, no country on earth has ever prevented aggressions toward nature. Humans are responsible for countless damages perpetrated against the wilderness. Considered as the “lungs of the earth”, green spaces keep shrinking, mostly due to manmade fires. Here, in Iraqi Kurdistan, this reality is all the most tragic. In this small region of the world, forests and vegetation in general seems bound to destruction. Our natural environment is being destroyed from the skies and from the ground: nature is dying.

Welcome in the country where forests burn

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is part of the Iraqi state, located north of the country. East of it stands the Islamic Republic of Iran’s borders. To the North stands Turkey. Its size is about 38 000 square kilometer. According to a census from 1957, the Kurdish region accounted for five million hectares of forests, many of which have since been damaged or destroyed. Successive wars, damages caused by anti-personnel mines and weapons, and cross border military operations from Iran and Turkey are the main causes of this destruction. Climate change is also considerably affecting the natural environment, as the constant population growth adds pressure to it. 

Turkey is a threat for the Region’s environment

In the last ten years, about 1,030,000 hectares of forest have been damaged by fires in the KRG while 30 to 40 % of its soils have burnt or been completely destroyed. According to the Regional Agency for the Protection of the Environment (RAPE), about 90% of these fires have political or criminal motives. RAPE’s spokerson Mr. Ahmad Mohammed, lashed the neighboring countries who pursue a hostile policy toward the Kurdish region, which brought many prejudices to its environment. « About 35% of the forest’s surface has been burnt because of Turkish and Iranian bombings in KRG. The other fires have criminal motives while a few of them are caused by the negligence of tourists.» Other officials in the KRG corroborate such claims, as is Hussen Hama Karim, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources who considers the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) as the main cause of deforestation of the area. « Because of this war, most border areas between the two countries were mined. These weapons often explode during the summer’s intense heat as when cattle or wild animals pass through, which causes devastating wildfires in our forests. », he explained.

Duhok, a province shrouded in smoke

Around 50 to 60 fire incidents were reported in Duhok’s province (one of KRG’s three governorates). Located on the Turkish border, the province has suffered greatly from Turkish jet and artillery bombing from the Turkish military who is waging a forty year long war against the PKK, a Kurdish guerilla movement originating from Turkey. According to Mr. Fahim Ebdullah, president of Duhok’s provincial council, the level of vegetation in Duhok was once very high, but that due to the effects of bombing and military attacks, the area is desertifying. 

The official also condemned the usage of phosphorus bombs: « In all border areas, most forests suffered from fires. Even worse than aerial bombings, the Turkish state uses incendiary bombs similar to white phosphorus aiming at provoking large blazing of forests to destroy it as insurgents hide in it ». According to Zagros Hiwa, the spokesperson of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization gathering various movements inspired by the PKK’s ideology, forests have been burned by the Turkish army from Haftanin to Khwakork in Duhoks mountainous ranges over an area 300km wide and 20km deep.

Turkey’s modus operandi

On top of provoking fires, Turkey resorts to other means to deforest KRG’s mountains. Evidence shows that Turkey engaged in tree harvesting during its operations in order to facilitate the construction of military bases and military roads. This is confirmed to us by Kamaran Osman, a member of the Christian Peacemaker teams (CPT) NGO present in Iraqi Kurdistan to monitor human rights abuses: During the Hawk and Tiger claw military operations launched by Turkey in 2020 from Roboski city in Turkish Kurdistan all the way to Haftanin, the Turkish army deforested 12 square kilometers of mountains. From Haftanin to Kachan in Zakho district, the Turkish army severely damaged the natural environment. Recently, the Turkish military, which took control over the village of Kesta proceeded to cut down trees all the way to Nouzour village, chopping down between and shipping to Turkey between 300 and 400 tons of trees per day. This process extends to the regions of Tchali and Hakkari (Kurdish cities in Turkey, NDLR) all the way to Dwtaza village in Zakho (Iraqi Kurdistan NDLR) where the Turkish army also proceeded to chop down many trees. »

Forests exposed to axes

Beyond the external and geopolitical factors mentioned above, forests are also exposed to illegal cuts related to the coal trade and for local consumption (heating, construction etc…) In order to prevent illegal cuts, the KRG established specific fines. Law n°8 of 2008 in relation to the protection of environment stipulates: « damages caused toward a tree, its uprooting, chopping down or destruction by fire are punishable by a fine of 25 thousands to a hundred thousand Iraqi dinars (IQD) ». According to a census by the Regional Police Office for Forest and Environment (RPOFE) in collaboration with the RAPE, 2796 trees were illegally choped down in KRG in 2020, while 7310 trees were burnt down. During this same year, 1011 suspects were arrested and tried in justice courts. The RPOFE counted 1771 illegal cuts in 2021’s six first months. The Ministry of Agriculture’s spokesperson noted that the practice of cutting down moderate amounts of wood for personal consumption is legal: « villagers can cut down branches to provide their daily needs, but cannot cut down a whole tree. »

Souleymanieh’s fir trees threatened by real Estate promoters

In 2020, Sulaymanyeh’s beautiful pine forest at the entrance of the city was burnt. In order to weaken the trees, acid had been poured on their roots beforehand. Mr. Barzan Shaykh Mohammed, the vice-President of Sulaymanyeh’s province council links the destruction of these pine to the covetousness of real Estate promoters: « They wanted to destroy these trees because they got in the way of their construction projects. In order to enlarge the view of their site for the passersby, they destroyed the pines that cut the view of the buildings. They also planned to grab the land of the forest, and there was of course a top member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, the ruling party in Sulaymanyeh province) linked to the construction project. », explained Mr. Shaykh Mohammed. the former head of the council also led the investigation committee that tried to shed light on the pine forest fire. He opposed the construction plans with no success. « Aggressions against greenlands have highly multiplied in the last few years. Our institutions are incapable of protecting nature adequately, which explains why some dare to destroy it for commercial means. », he stated. In total, 200 pines were lost. After this malicious act, a reforestation project was organized in order to plant back around 2000 trees. But due to a lack of irrigation, these new plantations dried out. 

Marif Majid the director of the NGO Ainda that specializes in Environmental issues. He is also a member of the Environmental Organizations Council in Sulaymaniyah province. In his interview to The Red Line, he shared his dissatisfaction with the current situation. « Our organization was able to replant a hundred trees on its own to replace the burnt pines, even though they dried soon after due to lack of maintenance » He also condemned the systematic attacks against nature in the KRG. « It’s not only happening of forests in Gweyija, Penjwen and Chamchamal were also razed to build new housings. We can see this everywhere, but the regional government is not doing anything to stop this. », he added.

There are many regulatory rules in the KRG to protect the environment and forests. Yet, natural habitats are gradually being transformed to arable lands and being transformed into housing and commercial projects. According to RAPE’s spokesperson, law prevent the transformation of natural lands into constructible ones without an inquiry by the regional authorities. Without it, they cannot be built. We have regularly called upon promoters to expect these rules, with little success. » Mr. H. H. Karim, also confirms these abuses: « The multiplication of constructible lands has had a negative effect on forests who keep shrinking. But we generally sue those who exploit these lands without authorization. »

Cities yearn for green spaces

According to a census by the Ministry of Municipalities and Tourism in KRG,  there are about 1200 parks, gardens and green spaces. Mr. Kordo Chaban, the Ministry’s spokesperson considers this rate of green spaces to be too low. His departments has the project to increase those areas in cities : « Our projects include the creation of a green belt around Erbil and the creation of new green spaces in Sulaymaniyah. In 2021, the Regional Government invested 5,7 billion Iraqi dinars (about 4 million dollars) to maintain and increase green spaces in Sulaymaniyah city alone. », he declared. 

Normally, around the month of June every year, the municipality of Sulaymaniyah starts watering the parks of the city. But in 2021, water was not provided to the plants until the end of August. According to The Red Line’s investigation, around 300,000 square meters of grass dried out. In an exclusive interview, Mr, Kamaran Hama Salih, the Director General of parks and gardens in the city expressed his disarray: « Between June and October, we need 4 millions liters of water to supply our green spaces and trees on boulevards. But because of the delay in irrigation, three thousand trees face the lethal consequences of drought. Although the Regional Government decided to spend an additional 700 millions IQDto maintain green spaces in the city, we have yet to see this investment materialize. Until 2014, we had a budget of 3 billion IQD in order to cover our expenditures and manage our projects, but after 2014, our budget was reduced to 120 millions IQD per year. », he added. Meanwhile, Erbil municipality doesn’t have this problem. Watering of green spaces starts around April. Sulaymaniyah’s water shortages didn’t start in 2021. 

Between 2016 and 2017, 2000 trees dried out in the city due to lack of maintenance. According to Mr. Majid, this upshot is due to slow administrative processes that paralyze KRG institutions. Dysfunctional water supplies in Sulaymaniyeh’s green spaces occur every year. « We need to better anticipate these issues and request fundings from the government as soon as February as it takes several months for the government to release funds. While the KRG delivers a budget to municipalities, the latter must obtain authorizations from the KRG to use it in order to ensure a minimal of money tracking. « I don’t understand why we need the validation from the Prime minister from the Vice Prime minister or from the minister of Finance to use our budget. This is all symptomatic from the over-centralization of our administration. », lamented Marf Majid while lambasting political cleavages that fuel the local administration’s dysfunctionalities.

No one to protect nature

The KRG is highly vulnerable to forest fires and to water shortages. This reality is worsened by the presence of 1,860,000 cars, the exploitation of 172 oil fields and the usages of around 5500 fuel-powered electricity generators, all of which contribute to the degradation of the natural environment of Kurdistan, noted Mr. Hussen Hama Karim, startled. « I warned the authorities on multiple occasions on the issue of desertification of regions of our territory. Qaraj, Gwer and Makhmour in Erbil province come to my mind first, as do Garmyan in Sulaymaniyah. » Mr. Ahmad Mohammed, on his side, is worried by the quality  of air : « We still don’t know the quality of carbon dioxyde and other toxic gasses in the KRG. We collected samples and delivered them to European organizations and they are treating them with satellite imagery. It’s an ongoing project.», he added,noting that Iraq signed the PAris Agreement on climate in 2015 committing to reduce its greenhouse gasses emission in order to limit climate change in the coming years.

Mr. Hussen Hama Karim mentioned the three plans developed by his Ministry to enhance forest surface in the region: « Until 2014, the Ministry of Municipalities had three objectives : the protection of existing forests, the nursing and distribution of trees to citizens citoyens and the extension or creation  of green spaces and planted forests. But since 2014 our mission has been limited to one thing: the management and protection of what has been previously set up. » The president of Duhok’s provincial council admitted that most areas that should have been transformed into parks remained in a state of wilderness due to the absence of budget. Despite these difficulties, RAPE NGO spokesperson Mr. Ahmad Mohammed remains optimistic and calls for a serious plan to enhance the level of green spaces and forests in KRG by 30% in the coming years.