FEATURE-Dates or oil? Iraq’s farmers fear gold rush

* Farmers fear oilfield development

* Oil is lifeline for Iraq

By Aref Mohammed

ZUBAIR, Iraq, Aug 18 (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 (BP.L: ), Russia’s Lukoil (LKOH.MM: ), Royal Dutch Shell
(RDSa.L: ), ExxonMobil (XOM.N: ) 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)

FEATURE-Dates or oil? Iraq’s farmers fear gold rush