‘Sponsor a Palm’ initiative for conserving Iraq’s famed dates

Three decades ago, Iraq had more than 30 million palm trees but there are approximately 12 million trees currently.
Sunday 05/05/2019
A man climbs a palm tree during date picking season in Iraq. (Oumayma Omar)
Hopes for revival. A man climbs a palm tree during date picking season in Iraq. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Tala, Habbaba, Kawkab and Lina are some of the nicknames for palm trees adopted by Iraqi families under the private initiative “Sponsor a Palm,” which was established to preserve Iraq’s palm trees and boost the once-booming date industry.

Iraq is famous for the quality of its dates. Palm trees are found in all Iraqi cities — on the streets, in private gardens, in farmlands and fields. Before its war with Iran in the 1980s, Iraq had 30 million date palms producing 1 million tonnes of dates annually. However, disastrous military campaigns and decades of neglect devastated the trees and damaged the date industry, which was second to oil in national export revenue.

“Since I was a child, I have a certain affinity and attachment to palm trees,” said Amina Sultani, 22, who started “Sponsor a Palm.” “Palms are associated with childhood memories when the whole family, relatives and neighbours used to gather under the trees at the time of date picking to get their share of the delicious fruit.”

“In my grandfather’s home garden there were many kinds of palm trees bearing different types of dates with different tastes. Iraqi dates are famous for their unique taste and they were abundant in the countryside, especially in Karbala and Najaf,” Sultani said.

She said the idea behind the initiative was inspired by a Saudi TV programme that showcased the importance of safeguarding palms through adoption to maintain ecological balance.

“I thought, ‘Why not implement a similar approach to Iraq’s palms,” said Sultani, who said she was distressed by the regression of palm trees caused by wars, government neglect and people’s lack of interest in cultivating the trees.

Backed by a UN Development Programme loan of $41,000, Sultani began “Sponsor a Palm” as part of an awareness campaign on the importance of preserving palms as a national treasure and valuable source of income.

“The campaign was disseminated through emotional letters titled ‘A Message from a Palm’ in which we exposed the plight of the tree and its degradation due to neglect and cutting,” Sultani said. “There was a viral spreading of the message. The public showed great response and support to the initiative, which I hope would encourage palm planting.”

Under the initiative, palm owners can offer their trees for adoption in return for relinquishing the crop. Depending on the size and type of the palm, sponsors pay an annual fee of $50-$77 for maintenance.

More than 500 trees were adopted in the first few months after the initiative’s introduction, mostly in Baghdad’s private gardens and farms near the city that are threatened by urbanisation.

Iraq once produced three-quarters of the world’s dates but now accounts for 5% after it switched its economic focus to oil and after decades of conflict devastated its farms. The country ranks sixth among world date producers and many people left date production and agriculture to find jobs in more prosperous industries.

Sultani said the idea behind naming the adopted trees was to create “kinship” with the sponsors.

“We all have people dear to our heart and naming the tree after that person makes it special. Sponsors name the trees after their fathers or mothers, especially if they are deceased, also after their daughters, wives or sweethearts,” she said.

Ahmad Jawadi, a student of agriculture and a main activist in the initiative, said the group gets a share of the crop in addition to the annual fees to help sustain the project.

“We have been able to produce date-based Iraqi sweets that we are selling at home but hope to export soon to Arab markets,” Jawadi said.

Three decades ago, Iraq had more than 30 million palm trees but there are approximately 12 million trees currently and only about 6 million produce fruit, agricultural expert Tahseen Moussawi said.

“Corruption, neglect and erroneous planning and urbanisation led to a systematic massacre of the trees, threatening Iraq’s wealth of dates, which once competed with the produce of neighbouring countries on international markets,” Moussawi said.

“The only way to save this wealth is by supporting farmers and palm growers financially and logistically,” he said, calling on the Iraqi government to buy the crops and repackage dates for exportation.

Last year, the Iraqi government began projects to revive the date industry by planting more palm trees and creating jobs. One project involved the planting of 70,000 palm trees south of Baghdad along with thousands of trees in Karbala, Najaf and other parts of southern Iraq.

Iraq bans the importation of dates to protect its farmers but, given its porous borders, the market is flooded with dates from neighbouring Iran.