Iraq decreed its first official national park last week, after years of planning and bargaining within its governmental council. The new title will help protect the central marshes of Iraq, which are currently threatened by the country’s increasing urbanization and development.
One integral part of the legislation’s passing was Nature Iraq, an environmental group whose founder and president Azzam Alwash was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize earlier this year for his work in Iraq’s marshlands. The group played a key role in developing the park’s management plans—along with the Ministries of Water Resources and Environment and the National Park Committee—and has also worked for several years to reflood the area’s drained marshes.
Alwash is the founder and president of the Board of Directors of Nature Iraq, and says the naming of a national park means a lot more for Iraq than just the recreational uses we associate with parks in the United States and Europe.
For one, the park will protect Iraqi marshlands, which Alwash calls “the cradle of civilization.” Noting that Iraq is believed to be the birthplace of agriculture, writing, monotheism, the wheel, and countless other human developments, he said:
“Preservation of this park means preservation of our link to our forefathers. Everyone in the world, in the West and the Middle East, are descended from this land.”
Alwash, who was born in Iraq and educated in the United States, also believes this recent legislation is a step in the right direction for Iraq’s environmental future as a whole. He explained that Iraq is home to some of the planet’s most diverse landscapes, which are now endangered by the region’s progression into modernity.
For thousands of years, he said, Iraq has been inhabited by humans who lived in harmony with the land. But now the building of infrastructure, roads, and water systems is threatening Iraq’s natural habitats, and could potentially ruin the ecosystems if proper regulation is not put in place.
“I don’t want this country to make the same mistakes that were made in the U.S. in the name of progress,” Alwash said. “I want progress, but I don’t want development to overtake the Iraqi tradition of living in harmony with nature.”
Indeed, in just the past century, Iraq’s land has endured a lot of abuse—in the 1990s the newly protected marshlands were drained and burned by Saddam Hussein. Alwash says that he is also seeing increasing encroachment of settlements into nature.
“I see areas that have been the same way for thousands of years being obstructed by roads,” he said. “Development is encroaching into the wildlife’s area and taking away habitats.”
For Alwash, the establishment of this national park, then, is just one step toward a system of parks, which he hopes to see established in Iraq in the future. Next year, he says, he and his colleagues are hoping to establish four more parks throughout the country: in the mountains, the deserts, and the wetlands alike.
“This park is not a destination,” he explained. “It’s just a piece in the roadway to protecting Iraq’s national and natural heritage.”
In the meantime, Alwash says he’s proud of the progress that has gone on so far. He calls it “an incredible accomplishment” for himself, something he’s dreamed of since he returned to Iraq from the United States in 2003.
“In the scheme of the global movement, [this park] is really nothing,” he said. “But for Iraq, the fact that we are willing to dedicate a portion of our land for nature is a wonderful step.”
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