Dates or oil? Iraq’s farmers fear gold rush

By Aref Mohammed

ZUBAIR, Iraq (BestGrowthStock) – Jaleel Jabr al-Fartusi has worked his acreage near the oil hub of Basra since 1970 but could lose it in Iraq’s post-war rush for the black gold that lies below the plot he harvests for tomatoes and cucumbers.

Contracts awarded to global oil firms that could boost Iraq’s production capacity to 12 million barrels per day from 2.5 million now are a possible lifeline for a country left in ruins by decades of war, sanctions and economic decline.

But they might be a misfortune for farmers like Fartusi, whose fields lie over the 4-billion-barrel Zubair oilfield.

“I have been growing on this land for 40 years, since I was a child. If they do it (take our lands), I will be like a naked person in public, having nothing to live off,” said Fartusi, 55, who works five farms in Zubair.

Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said the government would offer compensation of cash or other land in some cases but the state was the rightful owner of the oilfields.

“Any spot or land, whether agricultural or not, that falls within the oilfields, of course these are off limits. They are the property of the state,” he said. “The international companies and the government won’t allow any party to hinder the work of developing the oilfields.”

The fertile acreage atop some of the world’s largest oilfields has been farmed for dates, melons and vegetables for centuries but the tribes that work the land fear they are being pushed aside in the rush to develop Iraq’s vast reserves.

A tribal sheikh in southern Maysan province has been suing Iraq’s state oil sector since before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion over the loss of farmland, demanding around $2 million in compensation.

That could be a test case for disputes over oilfields assigned to foreign oil giants in two bidding rounds last year.

The allure of more than quadrupled oil output is irresistible. Capacity of 12 million bpd would rival oil power Saudi Arabia.

It would allow Iraq, which has the world’s third-largest reserves, to raise the cash it needs to rebuild, and attain the level of prosperity perhaps needed to halt a stubborn insurgency that continues to kill and maim hundreds every month.

The OPEC producer is counting on majors like Britain’s BP Plc, Russia’s Lukoil, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and others to bring the needed investment and expertise to its oilfields.

The failure of Iraqi political factions to agree on a coalition government since an inconclusive March election is hampering their work but has not so far stopped the oil firms from laying the groundwork for the development projects.

TRIBES WANT COMPENSATION

When the U.S.-led invasion force ousted Saddam Hussein, oil platforms at the West Qurna oilfields to the north of Zubair were protected from looters by the Mehyyat tribe.

Wasmi Fayyad al-Mehyyat, a leader in Ebra village about 110 km (70 miles) north of Basra, said his tribe had lived in the area for 600 years, but the state-run South Oil Company was trying to drive his people away.

They have offered to move if the Oil Ministry will compensate them and give them some other land nearby, he said, but four years of talks have yet to yield a result.

The urgency to reach an agreement increased after West Qurna Phase One and Phase Two, two of the world’s largest oil projects, were awarded to the international firms last year.

“We are asking to be guards at the oil facilities, and have residential compounds and to be compensated like other people,” he said. “If we get our demands met, we will move to the other area. If not, we will not leave.”

During Saddam’s 24-year reign, the government allowed farmers to plant the land within oilfields under annual lease contracts from the Oil Ministry. Now, the farmers say, they are being stalled when they ask for renewals of their leases.

The farmers are being supported by local politicians.

“We don’t object to the fact that the SOC needs the lands but they (farmers) should be compensated,” Ahmed al-Sulaiti, deputy head of the Basra provincial council said. “The provincial council will stand by the rights of the farmers.”

(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, editing by Jim Loney)

Dates or oil? Iraq’s farmers fear gold rush