Crop fires, a weapon of war, ruin Iraqi, Syrian harvests

1 / 2
This Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers trying to extinguish a fire in a field of crops, in Kfar Ain, the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria. (AP/Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets)
2 / 2
This Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, provided by the community service group, Together for Jarniyah, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians working to extinguish a fire in a field of crops, in Jaabar, Raqqa province, Syria. (AP/Together for Jarniyah)
Updated 30 May 2019

Crop fires, a weapon of war, ruin Iraqi, Syrian harvests

  • Daesh militants have a history of implementing a “scorched earth policy” in areas from which they retreat or where they are defeated
  • The blazes have been blamed alternately on defeated Daesh militants seeking to avenge their losses, or on Syrian government forces battling to rout other armed groups

IRBIL, Iraq: It was looking to be a good year for farmers across parts of Syria and Iraq. The wettest in generations, it brought rich, golden fields of wheat and barley, giving farmers in this war-torn region reason to rejoice.
But good news is short-lived in this part of the world, where residents of the two countries struggle to cope with seemingly never-ending violence and turmoil amid Syria’s civil war and attacks by remnants of the Daesh group. Now, even in areas where conflict has subsided, fires have been raging in farmers’ fields, depriving them of valuable crops.
The blazes have been blamed alternately on defeated Daesh militants seeking to avenge their losses, or on Syrian government forces battling to rout other armed groups. Thousands of acres of wheat and barley fields in both Syria and Iraq have been scorched by the fires during the harvest season, which runs until mid-June.
“The life that we live here is already bitter,” said Hussain Attiya, a farmer from Topzawa Kakayi in northern Iraq. “If the situation continues like this, I would say that no one will stay here. I plant 500 to 600 acres every year. Next year, I won’t be able to do that because I can’t stay here and guard the land day and night.”
Daesh militants have a history of implementing a “scorched earth policy” in areas from which they retreat or where they are defeated. It’s “a means of inflicting a collective punishment on those left behind,” said Emma Beals, an independent Syria researcher.
Daesh militants claimed responsibility for burning crops in their weekly newsletter, Al-Nabaa, saying they targeted farms belonging to senior officials in six Iraqi provinces and in Kurdish-administered eastern Syria, highlighting the persistent threat from the group even after its territorial defeat.
Daesh said it burned the farms of “the apostates in Iraq and the Levant” and called for more.
“It seems that it will be a hot summer that will burn the pockets of the apostates as well as their hearts as they burned the Muslims and their homes in the past years,” the article said.
Hundreds of acres of wheat fields around Kirkuk in northern Iraq were set on fire. Several wheat fields in the Daquq district in southern Kirkuk burned for three days straight last week.
Farmers in the village of Ali Saray, within Daquq’s borders, struggled to put out the blazes. The militants had laid land mines in the field, so when help arrived in the village of Topzawa Kakayi, the explosives went off and seriously wounded two people, according to the local agriculture department and farmers.
In eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, farmers battled raging fires with pieces of cloth, sacks and water trucks. Piles of hay burned and black smoke billowed above the fields.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of farmland in Hassakeh, Raqqa and all the way to Aleppo province to the west, were burned.
Activist Omar Abou Layla said local Kurdish-led forces failed to respond to the fires in the province of Deir Ezzor, where Daesh was uprooted from its last territory in March, deepening the crisis.
Other residents accuse the Syrian government, which used to earn millions from the wheat trade in eastern Syria, of sparking the fires to undermine the Kurdish-led administration, which now operates independently of the central government.
Kurdish authorities acknowledge they have few capabilities to deal with the arsons.
In Raqqa, where most of the residents rely on agriculture, farmers were preparing for a good harvest. Ahmed Al-Hashloum heads Inmaa, Arabic for Development, a local civil group that supports agriculture. He said rainfall levels were more than 200% higher than last year, causing many to return to farming.
But what promised to be a good year turned into a “black one,” said Al-Hashloum, who said western Raqqa was worst hit by the fires. All it takes is a cigarette butt to set haystacks on fire, he pointed out.
“It doesn’t need a bomb or fuel,” he said.
Estimates based on local farmers suggest that nearly 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) in Raqqa province were set on fire, valued at $9 million, he said.
In western Syria, a government military offensive against the country’s last rebel stronghold has also left thousands of acres of farms in ashes, in what activists and experts say is a calculated move to deny the locals livelihood and force them to leave the enclave, home to 3 million people.
Beals, the Syria expert, said the government used similar tactics when it besieged Daraya and eastern Ghouta, other rebel areas outside of the Syrian capital, Damascus, eventually forcing the fighters to surrender as early as 2015 and 2016. Throughout the conflict, various warring parties have used food crops as a way of controlling the population.
Beals said crop burning in rebel-held Idlib province in northern Syria is likely the latest chapter in this playbook and “will impact food security and the ability to eke out a small living for some.” She added that the scale of crop burning is much larger in Idlib than other areas.
One Idlib activist, Huthaifa Al-Khateeb, estimated that as much as 60% of 185,000 acres (75,000 hectares) of wheat and barley have been burned. Olive and pistachio groves have largely been spared, he said.
Satellite images provided by the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies show significant damage to crop fields in Idlib and Hama, calling it a “scorched earth campaign.”
The UN said the fires are threatening to disrupt normal food production cycles and potentially reduce food security for months to come. Whether intentional or collateral damage, crop burning on this scale will damage soil and have adverse effects on the health of civilians in the province, where respiratory diseases are already high in the overcrowded western Syrian enclave.
Syria had suffered a dire pre-war draught that left the country and the region that traded with it in a worsening food insecurity. The crop burning remains localized and can’t be compared to pre-war devastation, Beals said.
“However, it is only the beginning of the summer and if the fires continue it could lead to a crisis,” Beals said.


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 21 November 2019

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.