By Waheed Ghanim.
Basra’s farmers say the oil industry is “occupying” their land – and that the one thing the Iraqi government is forgetting in its race to get oil firms in and farmers out, is the rising cost of the food Iraq can no longer grow itself.
Just over a year ago, Saleh Mohammed was farming in the Qurna area, west of the southern Iraqi city of Basra. But then the oil companies came. And today the land that Mohammed once farmed belongs to international oil giant, Exxon Mobil. And Mohammed himself works as an employee on the periphery of one of the oil production facilities.
Mohammed is 30 and his field of expertise is agriculture; he knows the ways of nature. He worked on his 2.5 hectare property planting wheat, barley and dates and everything he knew, he learned from his parents and grandparents, who had farmed the land before him. He really doesn’t know much about the oil industry. Yet, like so many others here, he too now wears the grey overalls and cap of oil facility workers.
“When the American, Russian and British oil companies started to come here, the government just wanted us to disappear,” Mohammed says. “They even offered us financial compensation to do so. Now some of us work as watchmen, some of us as gardeners and some as labourers with the oil companies for around US$600 a month. And I didn’t really have a choice in this matter – I have a wife and four children to look after.”
Mohammed is not alone. It’s estimated that there are 43 billion barrels of oil under the ground in this region. Almost all of Iraq’s oil currently comes from here. All of which clearly means big business, not only for the oil companies, but also for the Iraqi government.