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Wasit Reconstruction Team Aims to Empower Iraqi Farmers

By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2008 – U.S. led economic-development programs for Iraq’s Wasit province are based largely on providing local farmers with the tools and knowledge needed to build profitable and sustainable agribusinesses, an official said in a teleconference with online journalists and “bloggers” yesterday.

Wasit’s provincial council estimates that agricultural production accounts for about 30 percent of the province’s economy, and the major industry there is agricultural processing, said Mark Wilt, the U.S. Agency for International Development economic representative for the Wasit provincial reconstruction team.

Iraq’s agricultural provinces suffered when farmers lost heavy subsidies they received under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Wilt said. The farming industry is heavily subsidized by the new government and through humanitarian aid, he said, but “that’s not sustainable,” he added.

“[The farmers are] trained that the government gives them feed and fertilizer largely for free,” he said. “It’s not really a market mentality.”

Wilt said he hopes a forthcoming agricultural-extension program, similar to land-grant university extension programs in the United States, will help farmers in Wasit become self-sufficient and profitable.

The agricultural-extension program, developed in conjunction with the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry, will enlist native and foreign experts to teach Iraqis how to farm more sustainably and more profitably, Wilt said. For example, he said, Texas A&M University has agreed to send some of its experts to Wasit for three to six months to assist with the extension program.

“Through extension,” Wilt said, “we’re hoping to work with farmers who have the right mentality, who want to make a profit.”

Additionally, Wilt said, the Wasit PRT is working with Iraqi banks on a loan-guarantee program for farmers to purchase equipment.

“One of the hardest things for an agricultural community to purchase is hardware,” he said. Traditionally, Iraqi banks were not willing to loan money to farmers because they were too poor and the risk was too high, he said. Banks have been more willing to give loans to farmers under the loan-guarantee program, Wilt said, which includes low-collateral lending and an interest subsidy.

Ten loans for tractors already have been granted under the program, he said.

Maintaining these programs after U.S. and coalition forces draw down, Wilt acknowledged, is a difficult situation to assess at this point.

The Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture recently finished a long process of creating a provincial development strategy for agriculture, he noted, and the Wasit PRT is assessing the budget and approved projects laid out in the strategy for applicability to the needs of the people.

“We’ll look at … whether or not it’s transparent and in the best interest of the people it serves,” Wilt said.

(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of the American Forces Information Service.)

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