ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — On a brisk, sunny Friday morning, a group of about 50 environmentalists and volunteers spread out across a hillside on the outskirts of Erbil to plant 2,000 oak saplings. The event was put on by Hasar Organization, an Erbil-based group working to plant one million trees to help combat climate change.
Eyas Yusuf carefully cut off the plastic wrapping around the root ball of sapling and planted it into the ground. Originally from Latakia, Syria, he has been working in Erbil for almost two years and jumped at the chance to plant trees in his new home.
“Two weeks ago, there was a great fire in Latakia. All the trees, all the nature that I used to live in and enjoy was destroyed. So you realize the importance of this,” he explained as he worked.
The tree planters, men and women, young and old, came from near and far – Erbil, Syria, Britain. The youngest was three-and-a-half-year-old Arya. “I want her to know that all lives are interconnected and when we plant trees we are planting our lives,” said her mother Naz Bajgar. “We are part of nature… We should not forget that.”
The forest of Kasnazan on the slopes around Erbil Martyrs’ Monument and the zoo on the eastern edge of the city was first planted in 1998 and is a popular spot for picnickers and sightseers looking to spend a few hours surrounded by nature.
Picnicking has jokingly been called the Kurdish national sport. On sunny days, families dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothing, loaded with pots of spiced dolma, sticks of kebabs, and shisha pipes, set up blankets and barbeques on any available green spot to feast and dance. But all too often, these picnics end in disaster.
Early this summer, one visitor’s grilling fish sparked a fire that set the Kasnazan hillside ablaze. Strong winds sent flames raging through dry grasses and shrubs. Some 8,000 trees were burned.
So far this year, nearly 32.5 square kilometres (32,413 dunams) of land have been burned in Erbil governorate and 546 people have been arrested for cutting or burning trees, according to the provincial forestry police.
“It’s a culture,” said Fuad Ahmed, media officer of the Erbil forestry police. Every year he hands out brochures, attends conferences, meets with government officials and presses them on the need to protect the environment. “Every person must be the protector of the forest, not just me,” he said.
But he is not seeing the development of an environmental awareness. People on their picnics are still not careful.
And with winter approaching, the forests face a new threat from people chopping down trees to heat their homes. Ahmed has appealed to the government to make heating oil available and affordable so people won’t resort to wood heat, but “the government and people are the same – bad are the government, bad are the people,” he said.
Are the oaks planted in Kasnazan on Friday doomed to a similar deadly fate?
Gashbin Idrees, of Hasar Organization, said they have secured a commitment from the forestry police to minimize public access to the site while the fragile saplings establish themselves – though as we drove away on Friday, we passed a family setting up a picnic with an open fire.
Protecting our environment is a matter of personal responsibility, said Nawzad Bajger, founder of Cihan University, a sponsor of the tree planting event. “It’s a behaviour. We want to build this behaviour to protect the environment. This is not orders from the government. It must be self-education,” he said.
Raising public awareness about environmental issues is one of the goals of Hasar Organization, co-founded in 2019 by Hawkar Ali, a dreamer with a plan. When he returned to the Kurdistan Region from Budapest, a masters degree in earth science engineering in hand and a fascination with large scale geoengineering at heart, he was eager to work on environmental projects that are making a real difference on the ground – something he did not see in existing organisations. “So I said, I will do it,” he said in an interview in Hasar’s office at Cihan University.
The organization’s first major project took inspiration from Soran preacher Omar Bradosti, who started planting oak trees in 2017. They are now collaborating with him to plant a million oak trees grown from acorns collected across the Kurdistan Region and sprouted in a new greenhouse at Cihan University that has space for 50,000 saplings.
Careless picnickers, like the ones who started the Kasnazan fire, are just one of many threats to the Kurdistan Region’s forests. Fires are also started by Turkish and Iranian bombing campaigns against armed Kurdish groups that shelter in the mountains. And trees are being chopped down, cleared for agricultural lands or to make space for growing urban populations, while the government lacks the funds to protect them. Using satellite imagery, PAX, a Dutch organization, estimates 20 percent of Kurdistan Region’s vegetation has been lost to fires and logging since 2014 and 47 percent since 1999.
A single spark takes just a moment to turn into a raging fire, but recovery of a burned area takes years. Forest fires not only burn through trees and undergrowth, they alter the chemical composition of the soil, leaving it less acidic and nutritious, explained Hassan Najman Muhamed, head of the forestry department at the University of Duhok. The intense heat of a fire burns through organic matter and vaporizes nitrogen, a critical nutrient for plant growth. For weeks after a fire is extinguished, the soil is less able to absorb water and is more prone to erosion.
The length of time it takes a forest to regenerate depends on what trees were growing before the fire and the external pressures on the area. Oaks ranging in age from 70 to 100 years old, with established root systems, sprout back the best after damage, according to a recent study published in the journal Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. New trees grown from acorns in the wild are rare – the acorns are frequently attacked by insects, eaten by wildlife, or collected by villagers. And grazing animals are no friend to tender saplings.
According to Muhamed, oak forests grow back best with a little nudge from humans, in a process called assisted natural regeneration. He compares it to a stalled car that needs a push to get going.
“The method aims to accelerate, rather than replace, natural succession processes by removing or reducing barriers to natural forest regeneration (for example promotion of natural seed sources, fire breaks, weed control) on existing forests and woodlands that have been depleted, usually through deforestation or accidentally destroyed due to natural disturbances as storms, extreme heat events and fires,” he explained.
With this limited human assistance, an oak forest can return to life, with trees averaging two metres in height within four to six years.
More than 70 percent of the Kurdistan Region’s forests are oak trees, meaning their survival is vital to preserving the ecosystem. “Oak is one of the most important species in our forest. It is a keystone species,” said Dr. Saman Abdulrahman Ahmad, plant taxonomist and president of the Kurdistan Botanical Foundation. He is working on a National Geographic Society-funded project to study Kurdistan Region’s wild oak forests, survey and map their existing range, and collect, conserve, and replant critically endangered species.
Oaks are hardy trees. Even as the earth erodes away beneath it, an oak tree will cling to a mountainside, roots exposed, but alive. Their range, however, has steadily reduced over the past 50 years because of human activity and global warming. At least one species, the Caucasian oak, is critically endangered. Ahmad has found it growing only in the Rawanduz area.
Oak trees used to grow in the foothills and further south – Chamchamal, Darbandikhan, towards Kirkuk, and down to Kalar. But now, because of water shortages and rising temperatures, “it is back to [just] the mountains, especially the rare species,” said Ahmad.
The decline of oak trees will have a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Birds, insects, reptiles, and other plants depend on the oak for food and an environment in which they can thrive. “If the oak is removed from our forest, the biodiversity will be lost – so many different species in the Kurdistan Region,” said Ahmad.
Hasar’s Ali said they are often asked why they chose to plant oaks, instead of a more typically beautiful species or fruit trees. “Really we are doing this for the ecosystem, not humans,” he said. “We selected oak because oak is the fittest tree for the ecosystem… It’s not for me, it’s for a snake, it’s for the ecosystem.”
The world’s forests are on the frontline of the climate crisis. Forests help to stabilize the climate, protect biodiversity, regulate ecosystems and, every year, they absorb about a third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels. But they need protection and restoration.
Between 1990 and 2020, the world lost 178 million hectares of forest, an area about the size of Libya. The rate of loss has decreased but is still alarming, and we are not on track to meet a United Nations goal of increasing forest cover by three percent by 2030.
Reforestation has been a popular undertaking worldwide to tackle climate change, whether in individual efforts like that of Indian farmer Jadav Payeng, who has single-handedly planted tens of thousands of trees, or the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of forest land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.
There are financial advantages too. Every dollar spent on planting trees reaps nine dollars in economic benefits. People living near forests in rural areas derive nearly a quarter of their income from forests and their products.
Forests provide habitat for insects and animals that pollinate crops. They regulate water resources and clean the air, improving our health. Healthy trees mean healthy people and a healthy environment. At Hasar Organization, they are building a strategy betting that people will make that connection. Engaging the public is key to their campaign through a pledging program. A thousand dinars, the price of ten pieces of samoon bread, will buy you a tree. Ten thousand of the saplings growing in their greenhouse this winter will be planted on Mount Goizha, bringing green back to the blackened hill that rises over Sulaimani city after a devastating fire this summer.
With every tree planted, Ali is confident his organization will grow and reach its one million goal. “We have a plan… sticky notes are on the wall. I know that the people will join us,” he said.