I came back to Kurdistan two and a half years ago to act as an advisor in agriculture and food security to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. Accommodation was provided with the post and I was given a flat on the 8th floor of one of the Zaccharia buildings. There are several building blocks, each one of 13 floors, in the compound named after the famous Kurdish singer overlooking the Erbil airport on the Disht-erbil, i.e. the plain of Erbil. When I first arrived there was nothing between the compound and the airport but the land has disappeared under an ever-increasing number of newly built buildings and roads with more construction starting every day. The Erbil plain was one of the seven fertile plains in Kurdistan that were renowned for wheat and grain production but now its farms and fertile wheat fields have been replaced by concrete in the name of development, something that we and future generations will pay for.
The roofs of the Zaccharia buildings are the roosts of countless wild pigeons and, having kept pigeons, I watch the birds that I can see from the windows of my home. I first noticed that these birds were thin and scrawny but as the dry days of summer came and food for them would be even scarcer the Zaccharia pigeons began to put on weight and fattened out. The change in the birds’ body condition puzzled me, how could they gain weight when the countryside was dry and vegetation sparse, where was the source of food so abundant that the birds were now fat?
The mystery was solved when one day my work took me to Erbil’s wheat silo. This small silo, with a 30,000 ton capacity, was built over 40 years ago and, like many of the other small silos in the country, the lifting machinery was out of order. I had recommended that the government carried through a previous proposal to build 4 new silos, each of 200,000 ton capacity, to replace the old facilities but this was not done. The small capacity of the Erbil silo resulted in tons of wheat being piled in ‘wheat mountains’ in the silo’s open yards where the pigeons of Erbil feasted all day on the grain. This explained the fat pigeons of Zaccharia buildings but it also raised the question of what also fed here, how many rodents came by day and night to feed on the wheat? Clearly there was little in terms of hygiene or pest control in relation to the storage of grain.
Erbil’s silo is close to the centre of the city and at harvest time hundreds of trucks form daily queues in the road leading to the silo. Each open truck is loaded with un-bagged, uncovered wheat, just like building sand and the drivers must wait for the grain to be graded before it can be unloaded. There are three grades for wheat and the limited facilities of the silo results in a lengthy wait for the drivers and a truck may not be dealt with on the day of its arrival. So as night comes the queue disperses as the drivers look for somewhere in the vicinity of the silo where they can park up overnight before queuing the next day. A driver is paid between 50-100,000 ID per overnight stay and I was told that there are those who arrive late in the day to ensure that they get an overnight stay.
The owners of the wheat arriving at the silo fall into two categories. The first are the genuine farmers who have put a lot of time, effort into growing their produce and pay the costs of seed, fertiliser, herbicides, insecticides, fuel, labour, transport and the driver’s overnight stay in getting Kurdistan’s wheat harvest to the country’s silos and making a small profit for doing so. The majority of suppliers fall into the second category and are those who manipulate the system These are the individuals who import large quantities of wheat at a cost of 200-300$ before harvest time, and conceal it in storage until the local produce begins to arrive at the silos. Then, like the magician’s rabbit being pulled from a hat, their trucks of ‘local’ wheat swell the numbers in the queues for grading. The government pays 720,000ID per ton (1US$=1200 ID) for home grown Grade 1 wheat and 620.000ID and 520,000ID per ton of Grade 2 and Grade 3 respectively. So the unscrupulous dealers (Fat Cats) can make a healthy profit from their imported wheat while the government (Baghdad&Erbil) bases its wheat harvest statistics on the tonnage arriving in the silos at harvest! A simple analysis of the tonnage produced to the donums(2500 sq m) of land under wheat production each year would reveal the true figures.
This abuse of the current system has been going on for several years and each year the pigeons get fat, not only in Erbil but throughout the country. The only way to stop it is for the farmers to receive government support throughout the production process and not on the end result. They should have financial support for the costs of fuel. Fertilisers, pesticides etc, and in addition there should be extension services available to all our farmers. We have thousands of graduates in agriculture but how many are employed in supporting and developing Kurdistan’s and Iraq’s, agriculture from the grass roots upwards? Very few it seems.