• Sowvital in Kurdistan: One Day, One Million Oaks


    You’re in Iraq, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains...

    On one side is the desert plain of Mosul, on the other the arid land around Tabriz in Iran. You, however, find yourself in a wood, where the oak trees over your head protect the spring flowers under your feet: anemones, tulips, and scilla. Birds sing, and you think you catch a glimpse of the Persian leopard. Sadly, to experience this you might have to travel back in time…. Or perhaps, to the future….

    Many hills which are currently bare in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq used to be covered by woodland, home to a vibrant ecosystem.

    Many species of oak grew across the mountains, but most prevalent was Quercus brantii, Brant’s Oak, its silver-grey leaves being ideally suited to the altitude and the hot summer sun, with its tough bark resisting grazers and its tenacious roots literally holding the steep hillsides together.

    Devastatingly, more than 2.2 million acres of Kurdistan Region woodland were lost between 1999 and 2018, destroyed by wildfires and deforestation particularly linked to conflict in the region [1].
    Most recently, nearly 5,000 acres of land in the Kurdistan Region were burned by Turkish and Iranian bombs in the summer of 2020 alone, and this has had a visible effect on the hills around the Kurdistan capital, Erbil [2]. Without tree roots holding the earth together, erosion is visibly accelerating; small gullies thread the hillsides and the soil that remains is friable and degraded.

    Years of unsustainable farming practices and conflict over water resources have exacerbated the effects of an already dry climate and contributed to increasing rates of desertification. As a result of declining soil structure and lack of vegetative cover, recent years have witnessed an increase in the frequency of vast dust and sand storms, which start in Western Iraq and engulf Baghdad and other cities.

    To remedy this desertification, Iraq will need to adapt to variability of water supply and it’s an enormous challenge. In the past ten years, the weather pattern has meant that two-year-long droughts have been followed by sudden heavy rainfalls and storms. Agricultural cycles are almost impossible to maintain in such unpredictable, ever-changing weather conditions, soil is rapidly eroded, and the result is extreme poverty and conflict amongst the farming community [3].
    Faced with these challenges, there is a solution. Reforesting the hills of the Kurdistan Region will lower temperatures and encourage more regular rain to fall. It will prevent erosion, stabilise ecosystems, and form a refuge for biodiversity, allowing climate resilience in even the hardest times.

    The Hasar Organisation aims to plant one million oak trees in the Kurdistan Region by 2025, nucleating the sustainable regeneration of the forests of Kurdistan and allowing other trees to develop naturally. More than 70% of the Kurdistan Region’s forests are oak trees, specifically Quercus brantii. As the keystone species, their survival is vital to preserving and regenerating all parts of the ecosystem.
    The Hasar Organisation, in collaboration with Sowvital, has started reforesting by planting trees in a process called ‘assisted natural regeneration’ (assisted natural regeneration - ANR - is the human protection and preservation of natural tree seedlings in forested areas).

    Like a stalled car that needs a push to get going, the organisation grows acorns collected from trees that remain nearby in a nursery, then plants them out in patches where they would not otherwise grow, and protects them; once established, these little nuclei of biodiversity will enable the spread of these oak trees across the Kurdistan Region.

    Sowvital has been supporting this amazing project, through funding and links to UK research and institutions, since 2020. We are proud, as a company and as a team, to support this initiative and to not just dream of ‘one day’, but plan for ‘THE day’ when there will be one million oaks in the Kurdistan Region.
    References
    [1] Crisp, W. (2020, June 20). "Last chance for the Persian leopard: the fight to save Iraqi Kurdistan’s forests". The Guardian.

    [2] PAX. (2020, November 13). "Violence and wildfires driving people from their lands in Iraqi Kurdistan." PAX.

    [3] Schwartzstein, P. (2017, November 14). "Climate Change and Water Woes Drove ISIS Recruiting in Iraq." National Geographic.