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Iraq needs rural investment

THE images of Iraq one sees on our TV screens are accurate. The streets are strewn with rubble and rubbish and war-damaged buildings are almost always in view. But once one engages with the Iraqi people, a completely different dimension emerges. The people may be poor, but they are proud and sophisticated, often well educated, and the depth of cultural heritage is very evident.

Eight thousand years ago, in the lands surrounding the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, settled agriculture was born, and in that area grew the world’s first great civilisation. Today, after more than 25 years of war, neglect, inappropriate investment and little support for improved technology or production methods, Iraqi farmers and agriculture urgently requires significant assistance just to remain viable, let alone regain international competitiveness.

The old regime of Saddam Hussein indulged in crony agriculture, with friends of the family granted huge concessions in land and equipment.

Fraud and corruption were rife, with fuels, machinery and fertiliser traded across the border rather than providing food for the Iraqi population.

International sanctions aimed at curbing the excesses of the Baathist government also had an impact on the availability of technology and other inputs.

Reconstruction of the sector is essential to prevent the dislocation of people to the cities and, potentially, the collapse of the vital rural sector.

Agrarian revival

There is great potential in Iraqi agriculture. There are productive areas in the north-east of the country, with dryland farming in the drier north-west. Much of the productive land south of Baghdad is located in the irrigated floodplains of the two rivers, and the lands here have high potential if the irrigation and management practices can be overhauled. Iraq has supplied the region’s markets with premium basmati rice in the past and a decade ago had a world-class date industry, now largely destroyed. These key agricultural industries can be rebuilt with investment in agronomic techniques, technology and education.

The role of government will be a key factor in rebuilding agriculture. Under the old regime, bureaucracies and officials operated in a climate of fear, critical information was routinely withheld and ministries were dysfunctional.

Dramatic cultural change must occur, but that will not happen overnight.

Government will need to facilitate investment in agricultural research and development. This should be matched with investment in the food-processing sector to meet the emerging opportunities in an increasing domestic marketplace. As the farm sector will take some years to become internationally competitive, it is likely that government support of some kind will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, the way forward for Iraqi agriculture is to introduce policies that allow the private sector to provide services and competition to improve economic efficiency and increase productivity in both the on-farm and off-farm sectors.

More immediately, the Coalition Provisional Authority is having some success in restoring order in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

Current terrorist activity, coupled with resistance by remnants of the old regime, has made the balancing act of stabilising the security situation while still moving forward with reform a delicate military and political task.

The meshing of these objectives understandably presents challenges, but is being achieved responsibly and effectively. The ability of people to go about their business securely and free from fear will be an immense contribution to rebuilding Iraq and Iraqi agriculture.

I am fortunate to have travelled to Iraq on many occasions over the past 10 years, and have witnessed the many changes that have taken place during that period. I believe that government and society in Iraq most certainly can be restored. Iraq has the social capital to rebuild their country and they haven’t forgotten the pains of the past.

The people have immense personal pride and integrity. However, everybody must recognise that the path ahead will be dangerous and the journey will in no way be easy.

Iraq can be the powerhouse of the Middle East in years to come. Agriculture will be a major driver in attaining this goal by providing a positive and stable contribution to the economy and employment.

But this will not happen without active engagement by countries such as Australia in providing both physical and technological support for capacity rebuilding.

p Trevor Flugge AO is working on behalf of the Australian Government in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. As leader of an international team of advisers, his role is to oversee the agricultural rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq.

 

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