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Pest threatens to decimate Iraq's precious date palm industry

ABU AL KASSIB, Iraq—When Mondair Naim al Daoud's ancestral date plantation here was bombed and burned during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, so many trees were lost that his date company began buying other farmers' crops to meet demand.

Since then, the company has recovered and al Daoud has done a nice business, selling more than 300 tons of dates a year on Iraq's domestic market under the Ishtar Dates label. His profit margins are a healthy 25 percent, and other Iraqi producers also have done well despite the international embargo during Saddam Hussein's regime.

"It is very profitable," al Daoud said proudly, examining fruit buds on date palm trees by his factory south of Basra, once Iraq's traditional date heartland.

But after surviving the sanctions and three wars in two decades, date palms are facing a new peril: the dreaded dubas bug.

The dubas (Ommatissus binotatus), a close relative of the aphid, latches on to date palm trees and sucks the sweet sap out of cells in their transport systems, destroying their succulent brown fruit. The fly then excretes a sugar-rich substance that can attract fungus, blacken leaves and interfere with the trees' ability to convert light to energy. Left unchecked, large-scale dubas infestations weaken and kill the trees and also damage other agricultural products.

Dubas infestations have been largely controlled by aerial spraying of pesticides just before the larvae begin feeding on the fruit buds in the spring. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and with U.N. supervision, Iraqi farmers in past years sprayed from helicopters to avoid breaching no-fly zone restrictions in the north and south of the country.

But this year, the annual spraying didn't occur during the dangerous and chaotic period when Saddam's regime fell in April and major military conflicts subsided in May.

Iraq's newly restored Ministry of Agriculture and U.N. advisers have considered a $3.8 million proposal to spray 160,000 acres of date palm groves in 12 provinces with support from the U.S. military and the governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. But there are no plans go ahead with it because spraying this late would harm other fruit trees and bees.

Dates are Iraq's second largest industry, after oil, and they have an important cultural and historic significance for Arab societies. They are one of the world's oldest known fruits, mentioned in the Bible and the Koran.

Al Daoud said he suspected that many of the smaller date farmers near cities such as Hillah and Kut whose crops he bought might have stored enough pesticide to spray their own crops this year. Telephone outages have made it impossible to survey them, he said, but they may have already sprayed with manual atomizers, despite the extra work and expense.

Richard Thacker, a senior lecturer at the University of Paisley in Scotland who did a two-year study of the dubas bug in Oman, found that aerial spraying was much more effective than ground-based spraying.

But the larger plantations that make up the bulk of the industry face greater problems because they haven't been sprayed at all.

U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. John Underwood of the Humanitarian Operations Center in Kuwait City said the largest producers had agreed that aerial spraying so late in the season would have too many bad side effects on other sectors of agriculture, and gambled to let it go this year even though it puts their crop at risk.

Underwood found that as much as 220,000 tons of the 400,000 tons of dates that Iraq is expected to produce this year are vulnerable to attack by the dubas, representing a potential $62 million loss and the loss of jobs for tens of thousands of farm workers.

In addition, the bugs' excretions drop onto the fruit trees that often are planted beneath date palms, disrupting the fruit trees' photosynthesis. All the rotting fruit on the ground can attract screw worm flies, a parasite that feeds on domestic livestock including cattle, sheep and goats.

The screw worm fly has a range of more than 250 miles, making it a menace not only in Iraq but also in neighboring countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It chews into animals' skin wounds and navels, where it lays eggs that later burrow into flesh, causing ulcers and infections that can be fatal.

Since the dubas has two annual egg-laying cycles, a much bigger infestation could occur after the harvest in September or October and jeopardize the trees.

According to the October issue of the publication Economic Review, Iraq is the world's fifth largest producer of dates. Though it hasn't exported the fruit since 1990 because of U.N. sanctions, it turned out 400,000 tons of dates in 2001, down from an average of 600,000 tons a year in the 1990s. Egypt led the global date market with 1.2 million of the 5.5 million-ton worldwide total in 2001, followed by Iran's 900,000 tons.

Al Daoud accepts that it's too late to spray, but said it was regrettable. He predicted that the damage to Iraq's date industry could be grave: "If they do not do it, the dates will not be good. They will be discolored and taste bad. No one will buy them or eat them."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): datepalm+usiraq

Iraq

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