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Effort to Revitalize Iraq's Farm Economy to be Hampered by Years of War, Sanctions - 2003-04-10


The U.S. led military coalition in Iraq continues its apparently successful campaign to destroy the Hussein regime and liberate the country.

Of course, the war has disrupted normal life. There have been many hundreds of military and civilian casualties. There are shortages of water, food and medicine. But United Nations officials in Iraq report only pockets of humanitarian need, not a massive humanitarian crisis, resulting from the Iraq war. They see no significant movement of war refugees, nor evidence of famine or starvation.

The farmlands irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are some of the most fertile in the world. But, war and economic sanctions have taken their toll on the country's rich agricultural sector.

More Iraqis work as farmers than in the country's massive oil industry. Even today, Iraq is a net exporter of dates and other farm products. But since 1997, two-thirds of the country's 24.5 million people have depended on daily rations from the UN-administered Oil for Food Program.

The program was launched as a humanitarian response to economic sanctions, which the U.N. imposed after American-led forces expelled Iraq's army from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf war. The sanctions prevented Iraqi farmers from importing fertilizers, chemicals and certain types of machinery, products that could have been used for military purposes.

Laurent Thomas, head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Emergency Program Service for Iraq says in the coming days, as basic humanitarian health and food needs are addressed, attention must begin to focus on revitalizing Iraq's farm economy. To that end, he says, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has launched an $86 million campaign to meet the current food crisis and to jump-start Iraq's agricultural recovery.

"This year the harvest is estimated at 1.7 million tons of grain. We expect this harvest in the coming months," he said. "This is a top priority. It is a harvest of wheat and barley. We have to make sure that that this harvest takes place, and then we have to make sure that agriculture can resume. The farmers need seed, fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for the tractors.

"Don't forget that this is a very modern agriculture. You are in a very arid region of the world. You [need] sprinkler systems, water pumps and fuel for the water pumps. This is the type of help that is needed immediately to allow the farmers to resume production."

The U.N official described how these activities could be resumed. "Access will depend on what is going to happen in the coming days and weeks," he said. "We will be in a condition to work where we have minimum-security conditions. Right now in the north we are working with our national staff, although on a reduced basis. But, the minimum conditions of security exist. In the center and south of the country, for the time being the minimum security conditions are not restored, but we hope to be in the position to return as soon as possible." He said as the country is stabilized, other short-term agricultural needs must be dealt with. "We have to make sure that [we take care of] the spring planting, the maize, the rice and then the fall planting that takes place in September," he said. "We also have to make sure that the animals are in a healthy situation. We have to make sure that we control the spread of animal disease in the country and possibly outside of the borders of the country.

"Another important activity is to make sure that the commercial poultry production is continuing. In Iraq you have over 4,000 poultry farms. They have been instrumental in providing the protein, the meat requirement of the population. We have to make sure that these farms continue to produce. It means that they have the animal feed, the drugs in place to produce."

Mr. Thomas minimized any possible adverse impact of an end to the Oil for Food Program, even though two-thirds of the country depends on it. "The Oil for Food Program was approved by the [U.N.] Security Council as a measure to mitigate the impact of the embargo on the humanitarian situation of the population," he said. "This was really the objective of the program. The day the embargo is lifted I believe that the forces of the market and the forces of the economy will allow a relatively quick return to normal."

According to Gerald Martone, director for emergency response at the International Rescue Committee, "normal" would be an end to Iraq's economic isolation. Mr. Martone says Iraq must re-establish agricultural markets and international trade. He says Iraq must break its dependence on international handouts. "Food aid is not the answer in a food shortage," he said. "It needs to be studied closer. More often it is a market problem, an economic problem. There needs to be some type of price controls, some kind of monitoring where there are commodity surpluses, where there are commodity deficits and help the two interact with each other, bring those surpluses to deficit areas and vice versa and stimulate the markets.

"The other thing is that during food scarcity, people make decisions life decisions such as selling their oxen, selling their farmland, selling tools or leaving their farmlands to seek wage labor. You need to find out what the coping mechanism is that they have invoked and then try to reverse it.

"You need to find out what incentives they need to go back to farming. Do they need tools? Have they eaten their seeds? Do they need more farmland? Do they need more draft animals to pull the plough? (You need) to find out what that is and restore it."

Mr. Martone says the goal of emergency relief should be restoring livelihoods, not merely saving lives. "We have to be very intelligent and not perceive Iraqis as helpless people incapable of helping themselve," he said. "Iraq is a very exciting place to work in terms of humanitarian assistance because you have extraordinary rates of literacy, high rates of college matriculation, a lot of people with professional backgrounds and extremely competent workforce."

Iraq is an industrialized nation blessed with natural resources. Mr. Martone said Iraq is not a charity case, but a country that has "an abundance of virtues to recover."

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