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0709PD: Developing agricultural planning in Iraq

Mike Gangwer Published on 24 April 2009

I am standing near the stainless steel doors of Annex One. This is the office complex I work in at the U.S. Embassy Compound. The Chancery is next door. Annex Two is at the other end of the compound.

Today, my linguist, Dr. Muhsin Al Shabibi and I have two missions scheduled.

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I am dressed in slacks, a formal dress shirt and blue tie. I am wearing my dark blue blazer. I have my mission orders in hand, along with a couple other security items. I have my body armor on over my jacket, my fragmentary glasses and my helmet.

Al Shabibi is 75 years old, and like me, used to be a college professor. He is an Iraqi. Yet he lived much of his life in the U.S. He is my constant source of language and cultural interpretation. He is assigned to me for the duration of my tour.

We hear our mission team leader brief us. He is asking our blood type and medicine regime. We agree on the destination based on a military grid system (planimetric), and the Regional Security Office personnel are responsible for our trip, safety and logistics. Our destination is the Ministry of Agriculture in downtown Baghdad.

We seat ourselves in the back of a Chevy Suburban. We depart through one of the five compound gates. We drive through a portion of the Green Zone, or the International Zone as it is known by some. At our final checkpoint on the north end of a bridge crossing the Tigris River, we enter Baghdad proper, or what we call the Red Zone.

Our trip to the Ministry of Agriculture is just under 40 minutes. We do not go by direct route; rather, we snake our way through a more tortuous series of roads. The point: nothing is routine or predictable.

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We arrive at the Ministry, greet the Ministry bodyguards, and wait in the lobby for my host.

His name: Dr. Shawkat S. Jameel. He is head of the Section for Water Management and director of the Agro-Meteorological Program. He is 30 years old and the future of Iraq.

We are visiting about a collaborative effort. In Iraq, where relationships are essential, we are building ours today. He has many ideas about improving Iraqi agriculture, including improving irrigation water management, land reclamation based on land planning or leveling, and canal restoration by removing vegetation. He can obtain funding through the Iraqi Federal Treasury. This later point is hugely important from our perspective. Clearly the Iraqi people understand the limits of handouts from the U.S. Treasury. In fact, rarely do they ask for funding. Instead, Jameel is interested in something else – what is in my head.

In fact so earnest is this interest that we have written a formal memorandum of agreement, or MOA. That is, as a ministerial adviser for the USDA, I am tasked with providing guidance, insight and strategic policy development. In other words, I am building an Iraq Ministry of Agriculture that adheres to Rule of Law precepts, spends Iraqi federal treasury money wisely, and helps landowners and farmers in every governorate.

A tall order
Today, Jameel and I are talking about the procurement of nearly 100 weather stations, and multiple soil moisture sensors. Data from these instruments will be collected on a regional basis. What the good doctor has not yet figured out is how these data will be analyzed and distributed to the farming community. This is the realm of the Extension service, one of the many outreach programs of the U.S. land grant university system.

After two hours of relationship building, we plot a long-term strategy for meteorological data gathering, analyses and distribution. We will meet again in one month.

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Al Shabibi and I are taken back to the U.S. Embassy on a different route. We are very near the Tigris River, heading west. I am imagining that at one time many Arabs strolled along the river walk in complete safety. That day is once again coming to Baghdad. It has not arrived today, for I ride with armor on me and surrounding the vehicle. There are many weapons, weapon systems, and everywhere, watchful eyes. Yes, we are watched...every movement and every stop. We draw a crowd.

I am thinking now about what young people think as they see us.

We arrive back at the Embassy, shed our body armor, and climb into a Land Rover. This one is light armored. I drive through an ECP (entry control point) and enter a six-lane highway. I drive through two roundabouts, past Saddam Hussein’s palace. Everywhere there are blast walls and security checkpoints. We are in the Green Zone.

The government of Iraq is taking over more of the Green Zone. The takeover restricts some of our travel and travel protocol. Yet the sovereign transfer of Iraqi soil back to the Iraqi government is essential so we can come home.

We arrive at the Al Rasheed Hotel. This is a grand structure sitting in the Green Zone but adjacent to the Red Zone. I have been here many times now, meeting my Iraqi colleagues for discussions of policy and strategic development.

So it is today that I am meeting Dr. Ahmed S. Muhaimeed and Dr. Salloom B. Salim. They are faculty members of Baghdad University, College of Agriculture. Both are soil scientists. Both are my age and both of them have been to the U.S.

We are hovering over a grant proposal that has not yet been funded. They are asking for about $300,000 USD (this is an older quick response fund, or QRF, t submitted two years ago). The money will pay for soil laboratory equipment including installation, operation and maintenance. The scientists have not thought about a strategic plan; how will the updated soil laboratory fit into the bigger picture of helping Iraqi farmers?

I am here to help them. For instance, when and where can soil cores be taken, dried, transported to the laboratory, analyzed and then, importantly, the data interpreted at the farm level? We will model this answer by showing the grant reviewers how accurate soil analytical data, when interpreted, can help farmers make better fertilizer input decisions. And reduce the potential of over-application that could bring harm to surface or groundwater.

After a two-hour meeting we are done, and we say goodbye. We pose for a photo. Al Shabibi is on the left, followed by Muhaimeed, Salim, and me on the right.

We climb back in our Land Rover and drive to one of the Embassy ECP’s. We enter, park and walk upstairs to our USDA offices on the third floor.

I am thinking about our work here. We are, in sum, teaching the Iraqi central government officials how to build a representative government. One that respects Rule of Law. One that includes debate, input, foresight and planning. One that asks not for a handout, but for participation.

This is diplomacy and development at its very best. I am a scientist now in a diplomatic role. I love this work very much. In your service, In sha Allah. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service
Soil and Water Ministerial Adviser in Iraq

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