Wednesday, September 1, 2010

courage and more....

Last year I read a story from Iraq that was said to have occurred in 2004 when US occupation made deals with transnational seed companies to bring in seeds for Iraqi farmers to purchase  - making it illegal to grow and save their own seeds. Skimming one article does not provide the necessary understanding of what occurred.  However... googling Iraq and the seed companies I found many stories covering this in far more detail. ... I hope to have quoted from a reliable source below. NB Apologies for the text in this post - it was not possible to correct it!

Grain farmers in Iraq

Given Iraq was part of the region I recall learning of at school as the Cradle of Civilisation the fact of this ancient culture having such an intervention placed on it struck me as critically shocking. 

This excerpt from tells something of the story;

With economic overhaul intended to legalize the Iraqi state’s dependency on foreign corporations came CPA Order 81. Beyond economic implications, this order also houses huge potential for environmental degradation in Iraq. Order 81, according to a jointly issued report  from Focus on the Global South and GRAIN, has “made it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law.” 
While it does not make illegal Iraqis’ use of traditional seed stocks they have already saved, in reality the paired devastation of drought and the war in the region may make holding onto these stored seeds more difficult. As time passes and these seeds disappear, Order 81’s intentions will manifest; a new seed market will emerge in Iraq in which every cropping season Iraqi farmers must purchase seeds from transnational corporations like Monsanto.

Fast facts about agricultural biodiversity: from Diversity for Life.

Reading this article below and one on the Russian Nikolai Vavilov here at Diversity for Life  recalls the post I added on the Vavilov institute in Russia last week. Seed Banks have their critics... and Im sure the people who work in them are highly aware of their limitations.  Research on this topic seems to point to the need for conservation at all levels of society and community as being necessary... not one without the other. 

Challenges today would seem to be too great to rely on any one method. The floods and devastation in Pakistan emphasise how great the vulnerability can be. Homes and lives lost....and with that no doubt the capacity of people to grow food and feed their families will prove to be dramatically affected for a significant time to come. Local seed saving initiatives by individuals and in communities are also likely to have been washed away.

As research for Homage to the Seed proceeds I am constantly reminded that the realm of botany, plants, seeds in 2010 is not what is was decades ago let alone centuries ago.  

Colonisation and slavery were tied up with the great age of discovery of the world's botanical bounty. Australia's troubling history in relation to indigenous people and the early convict settlements is not always recalled when we pour over the wonders  we associate with Joseph Banks and co. 

Contemporary issues are so complex and sobering that one can hardly remain a gardening enthusiast or gourmand without acknowledging the complexities that come with this realm. These enthusiasms are a privilege best acknowledged when so much is at risk. Below is an inspiring story I wished to share.

Mrs. Sanaa Abdul Wahab Al-Sheikh

by ADMIN on JULY 6, 2010

Mrs. Sanaa Abdul Wahab Al-Sheikh joined the Iraqi national genebank in Abu Ghraib in 1988. “This is when I discovered what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. By 1994, Mrs. Sanaa´s hard work had paid off and she was promoted to the position of Head of Plant Genetic Resources.

Aware of the growing tensions in the country, Mrs. Sanaa decided to take some precautions to ensure that the material conserved in the Abu Ghraib genebank would be kept safe in the event of war. “I took the most important accessions to my house and hid them in my fridge. I also buried accessions in the office garden. I prepared sealed bags of accessions and buried them in a hole and then covered the hole with grass and plants to ensure that they were well hidden.”
“During the war, things were very difficult. There was no fuel and no electricity, making it difficult for me to get to the office and to do my work, but I kept on going anyway. Then on the 9th April 2003, the security situation deteriorated to such an extent that I was forced to stay home for a whole week,” recounted Mrs. Sanaa.
When Mrs. Sanaa returned to the office a week later on foot, she was stunned to find that the genebank had been looted and destroyed. “I cried so much when I saw what they had done,” she recalled. “The first thing I did was rush to check that the accessions were still safely buried in the garden.” Fortunately they were, and Mrs. Sanaa made sure that they were safely hidden by covering them with more plants and grass.
By 2004, the State Board for Seed Testing and Certification began works to reconstruct the genebank. Mrs. Sanaa scoured farmers fields around the country collecting hundreds of accessions to rebuild the collection. Along with about a thousand accessions she had saved from the old collection, these now make up the new collection at the Iraqi national genebank at Abu Ghraib, where Mrs. Sanaa continues to work today.
NB: January 2013... a website no longer exists as DIVERSITY FOR LIFE. Instead go to the updated version: 

and on Facebook: 

Also look at these related links from Bioversity International:

Post altered January 5, 2013 by Sophie Munns. 

In rereading this story I am again struck by the courage of this woman and others like her in the course of carrying out their work.


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Sophie,

I thank you for this post. One cannot just read it once, as there is much to take in and I shall return.

Best wishes from Northern California where it is close to 100 today.


sophie munns said...

Thank you for your thoughts Egmont!

It is indeed quite dense this post. We are used to counting the costs to societies in terms of lives lost, homes lost, infrastructure devastated without considering the genebank of a country's food supply.

We both come from countries that went into Iraq. I do recall the news items on the ransacking of museum collections at the time... they made it out to the world as big stories!

However, reading this story from Iraq last year was one of the things that convinced me to pursue Homage to the Seed as a project. It occurred to me that the issue of seeds barely ever hits the radar beyond the interest groups that are critically advocating for attention.

One could say that there are so many issues why would this be any more important. I guess I wanted to champion seeds to say....think again....think how much they do matter and for how many singular and complex reasons.

One miracle of the seed is that, unlike an animal species that may become extinct, a seed can remain viable long after a plant species has died it the chance to be germinated and brought back into existence.

Much here to think on!

Keep cool over there in the heatwave Egmont!


Elaine said...

You have indeed given us much to think about, Sophie. I had no idea about this and thank you so much for writing about it. I am so glad that you started the Homage to the Seed project.

sophie munns said...

Hello Elaine,
lovely to hear from you again. It has been so worthwhile doing the homage project for the fact it has brought me in touch with so many people like yourself who care about this ... sharing stories brings good conversation and leads to people feeling
simple local steps are worthwhile... and passing things on so that others know!
best wishes,

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