Waterkeeper Helps Sets Up Program Where Saddam Destoyed Vital Wetland
In the fall of 2010, a sleepless night landed me in front of my computer, working as I listened to the radio. The BBC program I had turned to included a report on wetland restoration, which was so inspiring that I realized that I wasn’t going back to sleep. What shook me completely awake was the location of the project: Iraq.
These wetlands on the banks of the Euphrates River in Nasriyah had been drained under Saddam Hussein’s rule to create a military barrier, an undertaking that essentially wiped out one of the country’s most biologically diverse and historically rich areas. Now, I heard, a native of that area named Azzam Alwash was not only working to re-establish the natural environment, but also promoting eco-tourism along the Tigris River. To me, he sounded like a Waterkeeper.
Environmentalism and eco-tourism in Iraq aren't things we generally hear about, and the uniqueness of Alwash’s story convinced me to do something to encourage and support the effort. At the time, as Humboldt Baykeeper in Northern California and a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance board of directors, I felt this was a rare moment for connecting a person who could use some help and an organization that had the help to offer: Waterkeeper Alliance. So I tracked Alwash down on Facebook and began to discuss with him the possibility of establishing a Waterkeeper program in Iraq, which would be the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Working together, Waterkeeper members, Azzam and his very sophisticated staff at Nature Iraq developed the proposal for the Iraqi Upper Tigris River Waterkeeper. It was quickly approved, and its successful launch required only a site visit by a Waterkeeper board member to ascertain that the new program contained everything necessary to flourish. In April 2011, I made the trek to that war-torn country most Americans view as barren and dangerous.
Although Kurdistan in northern Iraq is relatively quite safe, I was a bit nervous as well as excited when I arrived there. But I found little anti-American sentiment and increasing tourism. I then became eager to see the parts of Iraq not usually shown on national news programs: the mountains and rivers, the “cradle of civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates.
Iraq faces many significant and daunting issues: poor water-quality and infrastructure, lack of planning for a democracy emerging under the undoubted influence of ‘westernization’. Quantity of water is also a problem. The headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates are located in Turkey, which has invested heavily in dams to stem the flow of the rivers as they enter Iraq. These legendary waterways provide a perfect setting for a Waterkeeper program.
As do the wetlands where Saddam’s destruction ruined thousands of people's lives, and where Azzam, Nature Iraq and Upper Tigris Waterkeeper Nabil Musa are relentlessly engaged in the job of restoration. They have seized the right moment to rebuild and protect this great natural resource, and the creation of Upper Tigris Waterkeeper couldn’t be better timed.
Over the next 10 years, Iraqi citizens will have the chance to develop and frame environmental regulations, and the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper and Nature Iraq are in a position to establish an environmental voice early in their emerging democracy. Creating an advocacy program such as theirs will help ensure that environmentalists have a seat at the table when relevant laws and policies are developed.
I hope to return to Iraq soon to work further with Azzam and the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper staff. When I returned to the U.S., I helped to start a philanthropic vehicle, the Nature Iraq Foundation, to raise funds for environmental work throughout the region. The Foundation’s mission is to tackle the many environmental issues that will inevitably face Iraq in the decades to come, including such critical steps as educating the Iraqi people about the value of clean water, arranging a ‘water summit’ with Turkey to discuss water-quantity issues, implementing water-conservation practices, and developing infrastructure to block the flow of pollutants, from raw sewage to toxics.
As I reflect on the adventurous and inspirational work of Azzam and his colleagues to reclaim nature from the awful legacy of a tyrant, I really believe that there is great hope for the environment of Iraq. I see great potential for additional Waterkeeper programs along the Euphrates and other rivers in Iraq—and throughout the Middle East.
Protecting and restoring the waters that in legend nurtured the Garden of Eden, that enabled the rise of agriculture and the invention of the wheel, and formed the ancient base of civilization, is a challenge ideally suited for a Waterkeeper, and I am proud to help move that vision forward.
Reprinted with permission from Waterkeeper Magazine. To read the winter issue of the Waterkeeper Magazine, click here.
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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