ABU GHRAIB, Oct 18 – Iraq\’s once-flourishing honey industry is struggling to revive itself, hit by long-term environmental degradation and six years of unrest that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
"Honey production has fallen by almost half since the 1980s," when output of the prized sweet reached a peak of 80 tonnes a year, said sector specialist Kamila Mohammed, a lecturer at the faculty of Agriculture in Baghdad University.
Beekeeping "declined sharply after 2003 because of a lack of security in places where the hives were situated," she said as she showed AFP half a dozen groups of hives on fields belonging to the agricultural college at Abu Ghraib, 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of Baghdad.
Hives used to be widespread in the Abu Ghraib area, in Yusifiyah just south of Baghdad and in Diyala in the northeast, all former strongholds of Iraqi rebels and Al-Qaeda, where deadly attacks are still a regular occurrence.
The college had 250 hives in 1986 producing around five tonnes of honey a year. Now there are only 15 hives, from which around 150 kilograms of honey are collected, Mohammed said, noting that national output has slumped below 50 tonnes.
The war and related security operations have ravaged fields where the bees gathered pollen, and beekeepers face drought and a lack of financial help from the government to deal with sickness afflicting the swarms.
"Lack of development in the farming sector, cuts in water supply and inroads by desert have destroyed vegetation. What\’s more, we don\’t have laboratories for treatment of bee illnesses," Mohammed said.
Numerous priorities, from defence to culture, have struggled to obtain funding from the 58.9-billion-dollar (39.8-billion-euro) 2009 budget, as Baghdad seeks to rebuild its moribund economy and dated infrastructure.
Also the country\’s access to water has been hampered by a dispute with Turkey over flows along the Euphrates River. Iraq claimed in August that Istanbul was allowing only around 250 cubic metres per second, around a quarter of the minimum requirement for irrigation.
— \’It is a good treatment for illnesses\’ —
Turkey, which said in September that it would up the flow along the river for a month, argues that dams in its territory allow for better management, ensuring a constant flow of water downstream unaffected by seasonal changes.
The fields around the college are irrigated with water from the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, but now are parched.
"In the past we had two harvests a year, compared with only one now, in the spring," said Adnan Jumaa, who looks after the hives.
Hussein Saadi, a teacher in the nature protection department, said some beekeepers tried moving their hives "to find fields with more flowers … but insecurity became too great and they gave up."
While attacks have declined markedly in Iraq from last year, they remain high by international standards. More than 200 people were killed as a result of violence last month, the lowest figure since May.
To repopulate their hives, beekeepers are also short of bees, previously imported from Italy, Egypt or Syria. Egyptian bees were favoured in the centre of the country while Syrian ones kept northern hives well stocked.
Iraq produces four types of honey: lemon, all flowers, clover and eucalyptus. The eucalyptus honey is chiefly used as medication for wounds, burns, ulcers and asthma as well as in skincare.
"Kingdom of Bees," an old-style shop in northern Baghdad\’s Waziriyah district looks like a relic of a past age but the owner says Iraqis are still eager to buy honey despite the shortage.
"People want pure honey, whatever the price," says Muhannad Abdul Razzak. A kilo of the precious nectar sells for between 18,000 and 45,000 dinars (15 to 40 dollars).
"It is a good treatment for impotence, malign tumours and other illnesses," Razzak says, standing in front of shelves laden with honey-based creams and ointments.
Abbas Sabih, who has sold honey in the centre of Baghdad for more than 20 years, believes local people seek out Iraqi honey because "honey produced in Iraq is pure; people know where it comes from and they have no faith in imported honey."