An unknown white moth, about a centimetre long, called shoka by farmers, is damaging Smaquli’s pomegranate trees.
He is trying to combat the shoka on his own, washing the fruit and leaves in order to salvage as much of this year’s crop as possible, but he does not know anything about the moth or how to eradicate it. He has asked the Agriculture Ministry for help.
“They say the government is poor and can’t help,” said Sabir. He wants expert advice, not financial aid, he claims.
The shoka is now attacking his pomegranate trees that are flowering, putting his whole crop at risk. What fruit does grow is inedible. The situation is worse for farmers in the next valley over, according to Sabir.
“The government is sleeping,” Sabir said. “We rely on ourselves for everything.”
Farmer Mutalib Sabir, 60
Similar problems have arisen in Duhok province where farmers are calling on the government to help them deal with insects attacking their crops.
In Sangasar town in Duhok, more than 35 hectares of land planted with fruit trees have been damaged by grasshoppers and caterpillars.
"The product of a year is now gone. The age of these trees is 12 to 13 years and if they are dried, then we should again plant trees and it takes 24 years to bear fruits. So our efforts are all wasted," said a farmer.
He has used pesticides multiple times, unsuccessfully.
The government is aware of the problem. Dr. Anwar Omer, head of the planning and follow-ups department in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Rudaw that combating pests need a “major campaign” by both the government and farmers.
Omer noted, however, that the government cannot always be responsible to find solutions for all diseases and insects that damage farmers’ crops. “We cannot do it due to the budget crisis,” he said, noting that progress of some projects has been impeded by the ongoing financial crisis in the Kurdistan Region.
Smaquli valley is named for a legendary ruler known by locals as a brave man who ambushed and killed the first Muslims who came to spread Islam to the area.
Agriculture has been the primary industry for decades in the valley that is fed by several springs originating in the mountains. Today, the main crop is pomegranates, followed by apricots, peaches, and apples. Smaquli farmers also harvest sumac that grows wild on the hillsides where remnants of the area’s Jewish history can still be found.
Pomegranate, hannar in Kurdish, is the main crop in Smaquli valley
In another of the valley’s orchards, Sartip Fatah Mahmoud has 800 apple trees in addition to pomegranates. Four years ago, he could sell a kilo of apples for 600 IQD and his best quality fruit went for 1,100 IQD. Now, he gets half that.
Before the arrival of ISIS, Mahmoud’s main market was Mosul. After ISIS, he can only sell his product to markets in Erbil. He is also competing against imports from Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Add in damage from weather and he is struggling to survive.
In 2016, one ton of his apples were damaged by disease. He made 3.5 million IQD on his apples and nothing on his pomegranate crop after unusually cold weather.
Asked how he survives after such a bad year, Mahmoud said “We just thank God.”
Farmer Sartip Fatah Mahmoud, 32
He has asked for help from the government, but “The Agriculture Ministry is just a name, nothing else.”
Mahmoud’s apple trees were planted in 1986, but soon after the family had to flee the area. Smaquli valley was a Peshmerga hold out against the former Baath regime. Civilians fled in a mass exodus. When his family returned after 1991, Mahmoud said the orchard was overgrown with bushes that had to be cleared.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is trying to give a boost to local products by imposing tariffs on imported fruit. “But the main problem is that domestic products’ volume is high,” Omer of the Agriculture Ministry noted, adding it is hard to find markets for them all.
Amid rising difficulties to sell Kurdish fruits and vegetables to central and southern Iraq, Omer’s ministry is trying to find a way through which they can export internationally.
Agriculture used to be a primary industry in the Kurdistan Region, where an estimated 67 percent of the population farmed. That has declined over the past 20 years. The KRG is trying to reverse that trend and would like to see the agriculture sector’s share of the GDP rise to over 30 percent from its current 10 percent.
Shoppers prefer “pretty fruit,” said farmer Mutalib Sabir, not apricots like these damaged by weather. Apricot in Kurdish is qaisi