KHANAQA, Erbil governorate — High in a mountain valley in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Star Ahmad Sleman’s field of tobacco is almost ready for harvest. As the summer heat breaks and autumn arrives, the pale green leaves begin to turn yellow. A high break of corn forms a border with the sesame plants growing in the next field over.
In just a few days, Sleman’s family and neighbors will spread out across the small plot, plucking the leaves and drying them on sharpened sticks.
Tobacco once formed a major part of the economy here. It supplied state-owned cigarette factories in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, which made famous local brands like Sumer and Al-Jumhuriya.
Now, just a few farmers plant tobacco on small farms in the mountains around Soran and Ranya. Sulaymaniyah’s cigarette factory rolled its last smoke in 2005, and the vast industrial complex is now an art gallery and culture space.
“We plant it because it is manageable and we know how to do it,” said Sleman, 40, who lives in Khanaqa, a village about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Erbil.
Last year, however, he only sold a fraction of his tobacco harvest because he could not get a good price from a wholesaler. The portion he did sell went for around 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($7.60) per kilogram. Bales of the unsold tobacco sit in a nearby shed. He does not know what price he might get this year.
Tobacco begins the traditional curing process used in Iraq's Kurdistan Region in Khanaqa, Erbil governorate on Sept. 2, 2023. (Credit: Winthrop Rodgers)
“You see all these fields, they all used to be tobacco, but now it is just one field,” Sleman said.
Nuri Ahmed, 63, remembers how tobacco used to be grown all over the Kurdistan Region. In the 1980s, he farmed the crop for a couple years on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah near land that is now occupied by Kurd City, an apartment complex.
“It was a very good area for agriculture, for growing tobacco. Many people were doing it, but not anymore” said Ahmed, who now runs a shop in the Sulaymaniyah bazaar.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) hopes to reinvigorate the agricultural sector as a way to diversify its economy and limit its dependence on oil, but the dynamics that destroyed wide-scale tobacco farming are still relevant.
Losing the foundation for agriculture
The 1988 Anfal genocide, which killed tens of thousands of Kurds, also destroyed at least 2,000 rural villages. Many of those killed and displaced were tobacco farmers.
Following the Gulf War, Iraq was hit hard with international sanctions. The Kurdistan Region suffered under the so-called “double embargo,” subject to both international trade restrictions and controls imposed by the Ba’athist government in Baghdad.
During this period, the two Kurdish ruling parties also fought a brutal civil war. In the chaos, corrupt party members looted factories. Unable to replace damaged and missing machinery, the Kurdistan Region no longer possessed the industrial capacity to process agricultural goods into value-added products.
After the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq reopened to the world. The cigarette market was flooded with imports full of additives to make a smoother and more pleasant smoke — an appealing change for consumers from the pure, but harsh, blends used by Iraq’s state-owned firms. Already feeble, the market for domestically grown tobacco collapsed.
For those in power, it was no great loss. Farming was the past, the booming oil industry was the future. People from rural areas began flocking to the major cities in search of jobs fueled by this new wealth.
Marketing versus actual reform
Farhang Abdulkader, 20, will help Sleman harvest his tobacco crop in a few days. During his young life, he has seen significant changes in what crops are planted around Khanaqa.
Leaning on a stick holding a few leaves that ripened early, he said that farms in the area used to grow many varieties of tobacco, from cheap filler to specialty plants that would fetch high prices on the specialty market.
Farhang Abdulkader, 20, shows off a bag of ground tobacco ready for packing personal cigarettes in Khanaqa, Erbil governorate on Sept. 2, 2023. (Credit: Winthrop Rodgers)
“But we are not growing them anymore. The government does not do anything for the local product and the local farmers,” Abdulkader said, referring to the KRG.
It is a common sentiment in the fields and markets. Cheaper imports from Iran and Turkey undercut locally grown food. On numerous occasions, farmers have dumped their produce on roadways in protest because, like Sleman’s unsold tobacco, they cannot get a good price for it.
In 2022, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani launched a highly publicized initiative to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil. A deal to sell pomegranates in supermarkets in Gulf countries was trumpeted as the harbinger of another new future.
“We need to help and support our farmers from the start so they can further develop the agriculture sector and turn their agricultural products into a source of income not only for themselves, but for the government and the Kurdistan Region,” Barzani said in a press release.
The program is in its infancy and is focused on a small range of fruits and vegetables that will be sold outside the Kurdistan Region. It is not yet clear how many farmers have benefitted from Barzani’s campaign because of the program’s lack of transparency.
However, the once-vibrant tobacco industry is unlikely to see support from the government anytime soon, despite its status as a major legacy crop. A spokesperson for the KRG Ministry of Agriculture told Al-Monitor that they had no information about plans to aid tobacco farmers.
Growing tobacco hardly seems like a productive — or healthy — way to prosperity, but understanding why this particular crop is no longer grown sheds light on the systemic challenges to rebuilding a once strong agricultural sector.
Processing capacity to make value-added products is limited. Cheaper imports undercut and displace local produce. Most farmers that grow staple crops do not receive enough support from the government. The workforce is now urban, rather than rural.
Sitting on a pallet in his shop, Ahmed mused that it would be hard to revitalize agriculture in the Kurdistan Region given the current challenges.
“Once a tree is pulled out, it does not grow again,” he said.