A life for the trees

It is getting hotter and hotter in Iraq. Fifty degrees or more is no longer a rarity. The state between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is now one of the hottest countries on earth. Muwafaq Mubareka from Baghdad is determined to fight global warming. Birgit Svensson paid the climate hero a visit

By Birgit Svensson

The photo he posts of himself is a dead giveaway: safari waistcoat and a cap, standing in front of a huge tree. A ranger, you would think. But Muwafaq Mubareka lives in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq with eight million people. He lives in a country where there are hardly any trees, where desert storms regularly kick up tons of sand and dust, and where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are so contaminated with pesticides that hardly anything grows.

Where droughts are rampant and are devastating more and more land. Where the soils in the south are becoming saline as tides drive the seawater from the Persian Gulf deep inland, because the Shatt al-Arab - the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris - carries too little water to hold it back. In a country known for its wars, for the terror of al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS). So there's a guy standing in front of a tree and smiling at the camera. How does that fit together?

Mubareka cannot say exactly how many trees he and his colleagues have already planted. But it could be close to a million. That is why the association of which he is a leading member is called the Millions of Trees Association, because it will take millions of trees to make the climate more bearable and save Iraq from total devastation.

It will take years to even slightly mitigate the environmental sins that have been committed here, let alone undo them. Iraq is one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, including temperature extremes and water scarcity. Bogged down by a volatile security situation, exhausting political manoeuvring and corruption, governments in Baghdad have so far failed to pay attention to the country's devastating environmental crisis.

Now, however, there is hope that things may be changing. On 22 September 2020, the parliament voted in favour of Iraq joining the Paris Climate Agreement. The legally binding agreement of 2015 aims to push global warming below two degrees Celsius. The 196 signatory states must do everything they can to reduce their greenhouse gases and avoid raising the temperature still further. Countries that lack the financial resources are to receive additional support.

Muwafaq Mubareka in seiner Baumschule im Süden von Bagdad. Hier probiert er aus, was im Irak wächst. Foto: Birgit Svensson
Muwafaq Mubareka is working to combat climate change in Iraq. Iraq, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change, is struggling with extreme temperatures and water shortages. Mubareka cannot say exactly how many trees he and his colleagues have already planted. But it could have been close to a million. That is why the association of which he is a leading member is called the Millions of Trees Association, because it is going to take millions of trees to make the climate more bearable and save Iraq from utter devastation

Authorities used to turn a deaf ear

Muwafaq Mubareka and his comrades-in-arms believe they are on the upswing. Until now, their appeals to the ministries and regional authorities had fallen on deaf ears. "No one wanted to listen to us," recalls Mubareka, who sees no shame in running the gauntlet for the trees.

They were always told there were other, more pressing problems. As yet, there is no plan on how to reach the climate goal in Iraq. But now everyone wants to plant trees. Along the corridors of power, trees are currently a hot topic.

"Keep calm" is what his German teacher in Goettingen taught him when Mubareka arrived in Germany equipped with an Iraqi scholarship to study forestry. He graduated in 1974 and intended to write his doctoral thesis at the Technical University of Braunschweig, specialising in wood research.

Then came the news from Baghdad that the scholarship had been cancelled, male members of his family had been killed and he too was suspected of acting against the regime. "Praying every day as a good Muslim and not being in the Baath Party was enough to get you labelled as an opponent of the regime."

After seizing power in 1963, Saddam Hussein used the Baath as an instrument to suppress all opposition.

Anyone who did not belong to the party was deemed an opponent. Iraqis studying abroad came under particular pressure to join the party. Muwafaq later learned that a fellow Iraqi student had denounced him to the intelligence service. "My family said don't come back, they will kill you."

A forestry graduate from Germany, he emigrated to Canada. Qualified people like him were wanted there. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein came to power and massacred hundreds of thousands of Shias and Kurds who were not loyal to him. Muwafaq is Shia, like the majority of Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was Sunni.

"But religion was not the main reason for the persecution," Mubareka comments about the former tyranny. It was unquestioning obedience, he says. The 77-year-old remained true to the motto of "keep calm" until the dictator's fall in 2003, despite being homesick for Baghdad.

Greening Basra

"We can do it": Mohamed Falih Abu Utaf is convinced. He is standing by a branch canal of the Shatt al-Arab in the middle of the southern metropolis of Basra and proudly points to the plantings that his initiative "For a green Basra" recently organised. Four hundred new trees along the canal, 16 different tree species. Most of them come from abroad, from the United Arab Emirates, from India, from Egypt. "Some have to be transplanted as soon as they come off the plane," says the agricultural engineer. He negotiated with the local authorities to help create the conditions for the saplings, drilling holes in the asphalt at ten-metre intervals and filling them with soil, laying irrigation hoses.



In winter, the new trees get water once a week, in summer two hours a day. To do the planting, Abu Utaf got volunteers from universities and other environmental groups. He showed them how to handle the saplings and also had flowers grouped around them. "It was all done in an orderly fashion," he points to a staff sheet. Everyone had to fill in their name, when they planted what, where, and how long it took. That way, he and his helpers could keep a statistical record of what had happened.

And they could determine what effect the trees had on the climate. "We already have temperatures below 50 degrees in the summer," he says with conviction, saying that this is already the first effect of their activities, which they have been engaged in for three years. When they started planting, it was still as hot as 53 degrees in summer, he says. The engineer is smart enough to know that this is far from enough and may not be sustainable. But his optimism is undiminished.

Abu Utaf's initiative is to Basra what Muwafaq Mubareka's association is nationwide. That said, the Millions of Trees Association was originally founded in Basra in 2012. A year later, it was registered as a non-governmental organisation in Baghdad and spread across the country at lightning speed. Abu Utaf has been a member since the beginning. Then, in 2017, he launched his own campaign for Basra.

"Many people who want a tree give me a call," the 61-year-old says. "We have greened schoolyards, the entrance to the courthouse," he points behind him. He would also like to green the burnt-out provincial council building in front of him, which housed the people's representatives and caught fire in September 2018, so that it no longer looks so dreary. At the time, thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets to vent their anger at corruption, poor living conditions, unemployment and hopelessness, setting fire to party offices, MPs' houses and the provincial council building, not to mention the government-owned TV station Iraqia.

Since then, the council has been dissolved, yet the governor remains and the living situation of the four million inhabitants has not really changed, apart from some roads that have been resurfaced and Abu Utaf's green trees.

Combatting environmental pollution by degrees

He and his many helpers realise their work is just a drop in the ocean. "But eventually, a lot of little steps will bring big progress," he says confidently. The canal alone, on the banks of which Abu Utaf's trees now grow, has become cleaner. It is now regularly cleaned by the local council, and the sewage that still flows into Basra's canals due to the lack of a sewage treatment plant no longer stinks as much as it used to. Abu Utaf believes the trees play a role.

He points to his favourite tree species, the neem, which comes from India and is growing magnificently in Basra. "You'd think nothing would grow here with all the pollution. Heavy metals, lead, everything imaginable is in the air, soil and water - in the highest concentrations." It is a miracle that anything thrives there.

Basra was particularly badly affected by the eight-year war against Iran from 1980 to 1988. The damage continues to have an impact today. Millions of trees were felled at the Shatt al-Arab to enable the Iraqi army to have a clear view of the enemy on the other side. Hundreds of thousands more fell victim to the fighting. "Imagine," says Abu Utaf knowledgeably, "there used to be palm forests around Basra." Now there is only desert.

Then came the Second and Third Gulf Wars and the Americans with uranium weapons, which were also used on Basra. The consequences are still visible today in the hospitals, where deformed babies are still being born. "But the worst polluter," says Abu Utaf, "is the oil industry." What gets into the ground and the atmosphere during extraction will pollute the environment for decades to come. "Please write that," the agricultural engineer adds, "because it never gets mentioned."

Buchcover Marc Engelhardt (Hrsg,) "Die Klimakämpfer" Verlag Penguin; Quelle: Verlag Penguin
„Die Klimaretter“ ist ein Buch über Menschen, die sich überall auf der Welt für den Klimaschutz engagieren. Weltreporter wie Birgit Svensson haben diese heimlichen Heldinnen und Helden auf dem ganzen Globus gefunden, besucht und begleitet.

With Obama to Baghdad

We drive a black Chrysler from Basra 550 kilometres to Baghdad. "Actually, it's racist," Hussein answers somewhat ashamedly when asked why his car is popularly called "Obama". In the meantime, the fat limousines are also painted yellow and white and drive in droves on the motorway between Iraq's largest and second-largest city. You don't see black ones so often any more. But the name "Obama" has stuck, even beyond the term of the first black president of the USA. Order a car from a rental service and you'll be asked: "Obama or GMC?"

Three hours of desert everywhere you look. Briefly interrupted by flare stacks, the gas shooting into the sky as oil is extracted. The Iraqi government has only recently awarded contracts to international companies to collect and process this gas.

But in most oil fields it is still simply burnt off. What remains in the ground and in the groundwater cannot be seen from the road and the extraction companies are reticent about providing information.

Crude oil consists of more than 500 components, including hydrocarbons, napthenic acids, phenols, resins, aldehydes and organic sulphur compounds. Just outside Basra lies the largest oil field in the world: Rumaila.

It stretches for kilometres on both sides of the highway north and south, into Kuwait. Rumaila served as Saddam Hussein's justification for invading Kuwait in 1990. He accused the emirate of illegally extracting oil from the field.

The result was the Second Gulf War with Operation Desert Storm – a U.S.-led alliance that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Suddenly, a battlefield appears on the left side of the road with rusted military vehicles, burnt-out tankers, broken doors of Humvees, steering wheels and hubcaps. This is where the Americans came in 1991 when they drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, says driver Hussein. Actually, they wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein even then. But the Arab allies of the coalition for the liberation of Kuwait did not cooperate. Bush senior ordered the retreat. The last battle took place in the middle of the desert – 250 kilometres from Baghdad.

The first major project: a contiguous forest

Things begin to get greener around Babylon. Traders stand on the side of the motorway and sell straight from the fields. Tomatoes, fresh garlic, onions, cucumbers, okra, melons, oranges, lemons. In Salman Pak, 25 kilometres outside Baghdad, the Millions of Trees Association planted a contiguous forest in April 2019, the association's first major project. The town is located near a peninsula formed by a wide eastern bend of the Tigris River. Ideal conditions for the Paulownia trees that have been planted there. The tree grows quickly and prefers moderately dry soils.

A warm, wind-protected location is also important. Muwafaq Mubareka got the seeds from Romania and tested them together with his cousin Ali in his tree nursery, like all the trees the association gives out. Sapling after sapling is lined up over ten thousand square metres, tiny trees that have found their way from all over the world to Baghdad's southernmost district of Safaranija. "Everyone brings something," says Mubareka, explaining the workings of the association, which is well connected on social media and has up to 4,000 permanent followers. "And we are waiting to see if it is going to grow any further". The results of their research are published on the Internet as a guide to planting, detailing which plants thrive best where.

The thousands of saplings are irrigated by the Tigris River or the well they have drilled themselves. The two permanent staff members are financed by donations and membership fees. In the past, orange plantations stood on the nursery's property, but now trees from all over the world grow here. Muwafaq and his cousin Ali have no shortage of water at the moment. In spring 2021, the Tigris has more water than it has had for a long time. "A positive effect of climate change," says forester Mubareka, commenting on the surprising development.

Turkey and Iran, which feed the Tigris, have seen heavy flooding and the water is now arriving in Iraq. Muwafaq is happy that more crops can now be grown again. The summer, however, will be extremely hot. For weeks, the thermometer will be at 50 degrees and above. Water levels will drop dramatically, drought conditions spread.

Baghdad, a dirty bride

In January 2004, the forestry worker returned to Iraq after over 30 years to see his family again, "or what was left of them". He stayed only a few weeks. "I was shocked." When he left Iraq to study in the early 1970s, the economy was booming, oil was creating wealth for the people and the dinar was worth three U.S. dollars. When he returned, he found barbed wire everywhere, concrete walls, bullet holes from three wars, bombed buildings, rubble - and one U.S. dollar bought 1,200 dinars.

"To me, Baghdad was like a bride in a very dirty dress," Mubareka recalls his first reaction. "I had to clean it." However, it was to be another five years before the Iraqi took the final step from Canada back to his homeland "to give something back to my country". His wife and three grown-up daughters decided to stay.

In the beginning, his association only planted trees in the cities - in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Karbala, but also Ramadi and Fallujah, which were severely affected by the terror of IS. But the timber expert actually wants to plant forests. Forests are the green lungs of the planet. Trees extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow and release oxygen.

Agriculture ministry full of pen pushers

Forests are therefore gigantic carbon dioxide reservoirs. Exactly how much they store depends on the tree species and local conditions. The reforestation of Salman Pak in the south of Baghdad was supposed to be just the beginning, a trial run, so to speak. It is not easy to find out what grows best where. Iraq is so complex. Deserts in the south, mountains and snow in the north. Mubareka knows you have to be specific. Here, too, his problem is the Iraqi authorities. There is not one forester in the forestry department of the Ministry of Agriculture. "Just pen pushers."

But Mubareka is not giving up. His next goal is to plant a hundred-hectare forest: "That's it!" He already knows where, too. In northern Iraq, in Kirkuk province. "There is a forest there near the village of Dibis that was almost completely destroyed by the fierce fighting between the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and IS."

The terrorist militia left scorched earth as they retreated, many trees were engulfed in flames and burnt to a cinder. A devastating picture, like an inferno, presented itself to Muwafaq when he went there to see it a few months after IS was defeated. A 50-year-old eucalyptus tree survived the fighting, 1.20 metres in diameter, "beautiful". Mubareka had his picture taken in front of this one surviving specimen, full of admiration, and has been posting the photo like a business card ever since.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2021

The text is an excerpt from a book showcasing people who are committed to climate protection all over the world. Reporters have located, visited and accompanied these secret heroines and heroes around the globe. "Die Klimakämpfer: Wer unseren Planeten wirklich rettet und wie du selbst zum Klimahelden werden kannst", edited by Marc Engelhardt, was published in German by Penguin on 9 November 2021.