As the momentum of the Arab Spring continues to affect countries in North Africa and the Middle East the sovereignty of Iraqi Kurdistan region continues to be disregarded by its neighbours to the north and east. Turkish fighter planes enter Iraqi airspace, incidents of cross border gunfire occur, villages are damaged, livestock and range destroyed and recently a family of seven have been killed, yet the world in general takes little notice as yet again Kurds are threatened.
Reflecting on this state of affairs I was watching an Arab TV channel’s coverage of the demonstrations in Syria and spotted a demonstrator in the crowd with a banner carrying the slogan ‘Stop buying Chinese goods’. This man was stating his view that as China along with Russia, did not want the UN to take action against Assad then one should not purchase Chinese goods. The Syrians, as direct descendants of the Phoenician traders of biblical times, recognised that hitting someone in the pocket was as effective as a body blow. I found myself wishing that Kurds could follow the same logic and, as we cannot match Iran or Turkey in military power or political leverage, we should hit them financially. The majority of imports in to Kurdistan, and indeed Iraq, come from Iran and Turkey while we do not export to these countries, it is a one way trade. All they take from us is our money and in fact we have allowed ourselves to become dependent on these neighbouring states for our food and thus our nation’s food security. This is a critical situation to be in.
It has to be said that food security has not been a priority for Kurdistan and Iraq in general. The destruction of agricultural land, oil-for-food programme, the lack of investment and support to the agricultural sector combined with ‘open’ borders have combined to severely reduce the country’s agricultural production to a shadow of its former level, from an overflowing food basket to an empty bowl. Iraq’s politicians did not restrict food imports or support agriculture and overlooked the fact that our food security is tied to the politics of the region. The belief that an open market will find its own level may be possible when one is considering imports of cars or electrical goods that we do not produce but it cannot be considered when the imports are millions of litres of milk that have been reconstituted from milk powder in other countries. The extent to which we are dependent on imported food stuffs is such that if, like the Syrian demonstrator, I did not eat imported food, I would be hard pressed to find sufficient local food produce available to me.
If one goes to a greengrocer’s shop in Erbil or Suliemaniah and asks for locally produced fruit or vegetables then one may be offered a bunch of parsley or some tomatoes such is the overwhelming level of imported produce. Yet even this is threatened by Turkish traders protesting to the Ministry of Agriculture to increase the importation of Turkish tomatoes! The Ministry of Trade in Kurdistan seems to give the Turks a carte blanche on imports while the Ministry of Agriculture understands the situation and refuses to do so. While on the other hand, if the KRG Ministry of Agriculture seeks the exportation of a few bales of Kurdish wool to Turkey, the Turkish authorities insist that the central government in Baghdad provides veterinary service, government and Ministry of Trade certification before allowing the wool to be imported into Turkey. In essence the KRG is allowed to accept imports but only the central government can facilitate exports. When all the veterinary services in the region know that, in the case of small ruminants(sheep 7goats), Iraq, Iran and Turkey have the same health problems to deal with, The Turkish export trade to Kurdistan is in billions of dollars yet Turkey refuses to import few bales of wool from Kurdistan. Meanwhile Iran cuts the water flowing into Iraq while selling us the food that we could have grown with that water. Are these neighbourly actions?
Is it not time that we stand up on our feet and hit them in their pockets?
We should not sit back and let ourselves be reliant on others. We must take into account everything that is happening across our borders and not to be complacent and allow the status quo to continue. Can we really afford to rely on the ever increasing imports from our neighbours? They want us to import more of their produce. We need to look to our agriculture and food security and take action but definitely the 1.5% of the total investments in Kurdistan that is currently directed towards the agriculture sector is inadequate for the purpose. The fate of our agriculture must not be left to the land grabbers and opportunists and the government must be involved as the food security of the nation depends on it.
I have spent the last few years endeavouring to get this message across yet I think that all too often it falls on deaf ears. Yet I am not the only one concerned about Kurdistan and Iraq’s food security as revealed in an article in IRIN in 2009 in which Muna Turki Al-Mousawi, head of the state-run Centre for Market Research and Consumer Protection, was quoted as saying ‘domestic agricultural production - already affected by reduced rainfall - has also been hit by a lack of government support and lax controls on cheap food imports, with which farmers cannot compete in some cases,................After 2003... the borders were opened to random imports without real scrutiny, and government support for farmers diminished, adversely affecting domestic production, which could not compete with cheaper imports.’
We need to act and we need a Experts Council for Food Security in Kurdistan to determine a practical program towards agricultural development and food security.