Iraq is a West Asian Arabic-speaking country. It has about a 36 mile coastline in the Northern Persian Gulf. Two rivers namely Tigris and Euphrates flow through the center of this country, which has given Iraq some fertile agricultural land, but a major area of this country is desert. The northern, autonomous region is mountainous, known as Kurdistan, and has its own government. Iraq’s capital is Baghdad and the total country’s population was estimated at 32 million people in 2011.
Iraq is the second largest oil producer in the world, but frequent wars have not allowed it to fully benefit from this valuable resource. Its economy has been drained and at least two million people have fled the country. Iraq was involved in a eight-year long war with Iran, which ended in 1988. In reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was invaded by the USA and allies in 1990 (the First Gulf War), and again in 2003 (the Second Gulf War). It should be noted that the occupying troops remained in Iraq until the end of 2011, but were then pulled out.
With the exception of the northern mountainous region, which faces bitter cold and heavy snows during winter, most of Iraq has a hot arid climate. Summers in Iraq are very hot while winters are relatively mild. The country is sometimes hit by major sand storms and there is about 250 mm of annual rains that fall during the winter months. Iraq is administratively divided into 18 provinces (called governorates), which are sub-divided into districts. In addition, the Kurdistan Region comprises three provinces, namely Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimaniyah.
The agricultural sector of Iraq is small but it has been vital for the economy. The sector has suffered both from the impact of frequent wars and increasing soil salinity during the last two decades. In the mid-1980s, the agricultural sector contributed about 14 percent to the national GDP. Although post-war agricultural re-habilitation efforts continue, this contribution has steadily declined from about 9 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in 2008, threatening national food security. The northern part of the country is mainly rain-fed and under cereal crops while the irrigated central and southern parts are mostly under fruits and vegetables. Common field crops cultivated include cereals (such as wheat, barley, rice and corn), pulses, fruit and vegetables. Cotton is also cultivated, and tree crops like figs, grapes, olives and dates are also grown. Among animals, sheep, goats, camels, cattle and poultry are common.
The agricultural crisis in Iraq caused by wars and civil strife is not over yet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, major factors that hinder the development of the agricultural sector in Iraq include high salinity of soil, antiquated and inefficient irrigation and drainage system, lack of supplementary irrigation for rain-fed crops, weak rural infrastructure, and the unavailability of necessary agricultural inputs like equipment, fertilizers and improved seed.
Although the USA led the coalition forces that invaded Iraq, it initiated major activities to rebuild the agriculture sector during the occupation period. The activities covered Cochran Fellowship Program for agricultural education and extension training of Iraqis (2005), technical assistance and training in Avian Flu (2006), food aid in the amount of $10.8 million (2005), placement of American agricultural experts in Iraq (2004), and exports of agricultural commodities to Iraq in the amount of $67.5 million (2004). The assistance activities of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq included distribution of agricultural equipment, rehabilitation of veterinary clinics, vaccinations of sheep, training of mostly women in zoonotic disease awareness, expansion of date palm mother orchards, provision of equipment and training to bee-keepers, etc.
The implementation of the Agricultural Extension Revitalization Project, funded by the USAID and the US Department of Agriculture, was started in 2007. Several American land-grant universities led by the Texas A&M University participated in the project implementation. Project activities almost entirely focused on capacity building of the national extension staff. Short training courses and study tours were organized, and a significant number of Iraqis were sent overseas for degree programs in agricultural extension. The project ended in 2011, and it is expected that the Iraqis trained under the project would be able to apply the new knowledge and skills towards strengthening agricultural extension in Iraq.
Another five-year project, “The Harmonized Support for Agricultural Development”was recently approved by USAID and is being implemented by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and a consoritum of U.S. universities. The project will work with the Ministry of Agriculture and the private sector to generate higher incomes for farmers and employees in agribusiness. The overall objective of the project is to create more competitive agricultural value chains, where final product costs are at or below regional or world averages. One of the planned activities of the project focuses on strengthening the delivery of public extension services.
Some of the constraints related to agricultural extension and training in Iraq, identified by FAO, are as follows:
- A lack of effective, medium or long term extension and training approach
- A lack of qualified manpower
- Over reliance on extension through mass media approach
- Low extension coverage rate, that is, one extension worker covering 840 households or 6,000 hectares of cultivated land
- Low operating budgets of extension staff
- Weak linkages between extension and agricultural research and educational institutions
- Insufficient support to rural women and youth that are intensively involved in farming
- Reliance on academic staff from universities for conducting training activities
- Limited application of basic adult education principles, methods and techniques by the training resource persons
FAO carried out significant activities, within the framework of the Oil-for-Food Program, for rehabilitation, renovation, construction and activation of agricultural extension and training centers, agricultural research stations and the district agricultural offices that were damaged during the wars. Although the war has ended and civilian government is ruling Iraq, a lot of rehabilitation work is still needed for setting up a meaningful agricultural extension system. The technical and financial assistance coming from a large number of donor countries for the re-habilitation and development of Iraqi agriculture has been immense. However, the ongoing militancy has been disrupting the development work being done by various institutions including agricultural extension. Proper fieldwork in extension is possible only if the peace is fully restored.