Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The National Park: Reviving Eden in Iraq's Marshes

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The National Park: Reviving Eden in Iraq's Marshes

Article excerpt

An Argument for Eden

Iraqi exiles planned to restore Iraq's southern marshes as the country's first national park well before US-led coalition forces invaded and occupied the country. By 2007 George Packer, a New Yorker reporter, told me Iraq's marsh restoration had become "the success story of the war."1 Since 2003 global news agencies have published more than seventy-five stories on Iraq's marsh revival. Headlines read: "Iraq's Eden: Reviving the Legendary Marshes," "Marshes a Vengeful Hussein Drained Stir Again," "Iraq's Marshlands: Resurrecting Eden," "Iraqi-American Seeks to Restore 'Garden of Eden.'"2 Zaid Kubra, an Iraqi exile living in the United States, was the founder of Green Iraq, the NGO leading the initiative. I met Kubra for the first time in 2004 at a conference entitled "Mesopotamian Marshes"3 We sat across from each other in a cafe during a break in proceedings and I asked about his efforts. Kubra started working on the project he called "New Eden" in 1999, when he was part of the Iraqi opposition movement in exile. Kubra was charming, but direct. He told me he came up with the Eden connection for "purely political purposes" to market wetland conservation in Iraq to a skeptical Western public by highlighting the region as the site of the biblical garden. Kubra told me that his experiences running a company taught him the value of marketing; Eden had market value, the utopia was "sexy."

In "post-war" reconstruction-era Iraq, Eden facilitated economic and political goals of the occupation. The environment has historically been an instrument of politics. The European quest for Eden in the fifteenth century facilitated colonial purchase over tropical islands of economic import.4 Nineteenth-century democracy building initiatives like the US national parks movement conserved nature for the republic by forcibly removing Native communities from indigenous lands.5 Contemporary biodiversity campaigns continue the imperial tradition by imposing international conservation policy unilaterally across the global south, enforcing new regimes of Western governance over non-aligned states.6 In nineteenth-century North Africa, French colonials cited the environment as a justification for colonial expansion that displaced indigenous communities. French officials argued that these communities ruined the "granary of Rome."7 Similarly, in early twentieth-century Iraq, Ottomans first referenced the draining of the marshes as crucial to the restoration of Eden, and with it the country's agricultural prosperity in the global market. British imperialists continued to champion the logic of draining as they encroached on Ottoman territory. In fact, it was British engineer Fred Haigh's 1951 wetland reclamation plans for Iraq's Irrigation Development Commission that served as the blueprint for Saddam Hussein's draining in the early 1990s.

For the United States and coalition partners, creating the Iraqi nation anew involved remaking its national environment. National parks commonly index national ideals. They are one way for nations to project images of themselves to their citizens and the world.8 Building Iraq's environmental capacity became part of the UN- and the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority's national reconstruction plans, which created the Iraqi Ministry of Environment after Hussein's fall in April 2003. The US government sup- ported Green Iraq's marsh restoration as integral to the war effort by citing the marshes at key political moments. President George W. Bush cited Hussein's draining of the marshes as part of his rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.9 When Iraq rewrote its constitution, the preamble remembered the marshes, equating post-Ba'th political participation with marsh memorialization.10 An Iraqi judge charged Hussein with seven crimes at his arraignment, including the draining of the marshes. Each of these acts validated the war as environmental redemption and made the deposed president a test case for the prosecution of world leaders on the basis of environmental crimes. …

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