A Greener Planet

A story of Kurdistan Renaissance

Walking through the Kurdish forest, billowing oak trees young and old surrounding you, dry leaves underfoot crunch. It’s a sunny day in May; you feel the warm breeze soothing your face. Your eyes follow a bird and you look up to the sky; you feel that it is mirrored in the blue anemones carpeting the ground. Oh beautiful nature … It’s beautiful indeed! But to experience nature like this in Kurdistan you might have to travel back in time, or to the future perhaps…

Many hills which are currently bare in the Kurdistan region of Iraq used to be covered by woodland, home to many species of flora and fauna. Many species of oak grew across the mountains, but most prevalent was *Quercus brantii*, Brant’s Oak, its silver-grey leaves ideally suited to the altitude and the hot summer sun, its tough bark resisting grazers, and its tenacious roots literally holding the steep hillsides together.

2.2 million

Acres of woodland lost by
wildfires and deforestation

Devastatingly, more than 2.2 million acres of Kurdistan Region woodland was lost between 1999 and 2018, destroyed by wildfires and deforestation particularly linked to conflict in the region.

5000

Acres of land burned by
Turkish and Iranian bombs

Most recently, nearly 5,000 acres of land were burned in the Kurdistan Region by Turkish and Iranian bombs in the summer of 2020 alone GO TO SOURCE , and this has had a visible effect on the hills around the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. 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.

53°C

Maximum temperatures recently reached
due to global warming

Kurdistan sits at the boundaries of two climate systems, with the arid air of Iran on one side meeting the air from the arid regions of Iraq on the other. As much as 31% of Iraq is desert, with low rainfall and very high temperatures in the summer months, and in recent years the effects of climate change due to global warming have been amplified, with temperatures reaching 53 degrees Celsius.

Kurdistan sits at the boundaries of two climate systems, with the arid air of Iran on one side meeting the air from the arid regions of Iraq on the other. As much as 31% of Iraq is desert, with low rainfall and very high temperatures in the summer months, and in recent years the effects of climate change due to global warming have been amplified, with temperatures reaching 53 degrees Celsius.
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 a 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 needs to adapt to the increasing variability of its water supply, and this is 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 and thus stable food chains are almost impossible to maintain in such unpredictable, ever-changing weather conditions. Soil is rapidly eroded, and the result is extreme poverty and conflict among the farming community.
It’s also a geopolitical issue; currently, Iraq relies on precipitation falling outside its borders for more than half of its water. It is vulnerable to hydroelectric and water storage projects in Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Tigris and Euphrates, two massive rivers which allowed sophisticated civilisations to develop in the area over 6,000 years ago, have already fallen to less than a third of normal capacity and are expected to drop further in coming years.
Faced with these challenges, there is a solution. The sustainable 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.

What is Hasar Organisation?

Hasar Organisation aims to plant one million oak trees in the Kurdistan Region by 2025, nucleating the regeneration of the forests of Kurdistan, and allowing other trees to develop naturally. Hawkar Ali is its founder. A 34-year-old teacher at the University of Kurdistan Hewler in Erbil, Hawkar is an earth scientist who researched the erosion of the hills near the city, and in March 2019 co-founded the organisation to start to remedy the situation. Sowvital has teamed up with Hasar Organisation to support this amazing project through funding and links to UK research and institutions. It’s personal; one of our co-founders used to work in landmine clearance in Iraq, and witnessed the devastating affects of environmental degradation in the area.
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Why Oak Trees?

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.
In some cases, areas protected from over-grazing will regenerate by themselves, but more often the seed bank of acorns is depleted. The acorns are frequently eaten by insects or other wildlife, collected by villagers, or are unable to germinate in exposed conditions. Even after germination challenges remain; grazing animals are no friend to tender saplings, and without the shelter of mature oaks, saplings can find it tough to survive the hot summer.
In addition, many areas have been deforested through fire.  Forest fires not only burn through trees and undergrowth, they alter the chemical composition of the soil. The intense heat of a fire burns through organic matter and causes nitrogen, a critical nutrient for plant growth, to be lost to the air. Even after a fire is extinguished, the soil is less able to absorb water and is more prone to erosion. (not 100% sure this is necessary or appropriate?)
Hasar Organisation is therefore reforesting through planting trees in a process called assisted natural regeneration. 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 be enabled to spread and link up across the Kurdistan region.

Where to find these Oaks?

The young oaks have to be protected; from animals, from fires, and often from humans!  The first oaks in particular need to be monitored and notes on their growth and development need to be made. As a result, the Kasnazan forest was chosen as a suitable location for the first large scale plantings. This degraded forest is on the Koya Road, leading out of Erbil to the mountains, and it can be easily reached from Erbil, allowing Hasar Organisation volunteers and staff to inspect the trees regularly. Latterly trees have been planted in the city too, in land by the 150m road of the city.