Parks Beyond Borders: Pioneer Of Iraq’s First National Park Wins Global Environmental Award

Azzam Alwash enjoying an early morning trip on the marsh he helped save and that is about to become Iraq's National Park of the Marshes. Alwash worked closely with the local marsh Arabs to rejuvenate the ecosystem, which before its destruction, was the source of an entire indigenous lifestyle that included an amazing style of construction derived entirely from the reeds that grow in this rich wetland. Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalism has been awarded to Iraqi Azzam Alwash for the impending creation of Iraq’s first national park. The National Park of the Marshes, the largest marshland in Southern Asia, is set to be named later this month.

The startling fact is that this soon-to-be realized national park in the Mesopotamian Marshland had to be recreated from scratch after being completely destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the mid-1990s. The marsh’s Shiite Arab residents had staged uprisings following the Kuwait invasion and fled to the marshes for refuge.

Hussein burned and poisoned this precious ecosystem, creating dust bowls in a place once known as the Garden of Eden. The massive destruction drove out the descendants of ancient Sumerians who had inhabited the area for thousands of years.

Iraq’s Best Idea

Enter Azzam Alwash, winner of one of six 2013 Goldman Environmental Prizes. After fleeing Iraq when Hussein rose to power, Alwash earned advanced degrees and established a successful career as a civil engineer. He married an American woman and raised two daughters in an affluent Los Angeles suburb.

Alwash remembered the marshes from childhood visits, and when the Hussein regime fell, he left California in 2003 to return to Iraq. He founded Nature Iraq, an Iraq-based non-profit, and has succeeded in restoring the Mesopotamian marshes to 50 percent of their original size.

Besides restoring the marshes and the local way of life, the 54-year old Alwash has spearheaded the April 2013 release of the Key Biodiversity Areas Survey, an atlas of 300+ Iraqi biodiversity sites intended to guide preservation and ultimately establish an Iraqi system of national parks.

On one of a handful of visits this year to the United States, National Parks Traveler interviewed Alwash about his inspiring story, motivation, and the future of Iraq’s national parks.

NPT: How does it feel to be the father of Iraq’s national parks?

Alwash: I am not going to be so egotistical to claim it is me. I will tell you it takes a village, that it takes a team, this is the effort of the entire team of Nature Iraq, and a combination of the desires of the locals. Yes I was instrumental in convincing the locals it was in their interests, but it is not the work of a single man.

NPT: Were you aware of national parks before coming to the United States?

Alwash: No, no, no, I didn’t even understand that I was an environmental conservationist before I came to the US. Two weeks after I arrived in the US I saw Yosemite and I was in awe. My god, I was in love. I saw Yellowstone, Zion, and so many national parks in the United States that the idea of national parks has become second nature. With those experiences, I decided this was the one way of making sure that Iraq, somehow, comes up with a plan to conserve these marshes, not only for Iraqis but for the rest of the world.

NPT: Why not just designate a mountain range instead of restoring a destroyed ecosystem?

Alwash: That’s a question that would need weeks to answer. First of all I didn’t know it couldn’t be done. I thought it would take me two or 3 years, to get things on the right track and come back to the good life in California. I didn’t realize that this was a lifetime commitment, a multi-generational commitment.

I chose the marshes because of my deep personal connection to them as a young boy in the 60s and early 70s. I was living nearby with my family and my father was a district irrigation engineer. I have very warm memories of my time with my father in boats going around these marshes in the spring as the area awaits the annual flood. I have very vivid memories of these times because it was one of the few times that I had my father all for myself...

NPT: How ironic it is that so many similar experiences link fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, in the US—often in national parks.

Alwash: I had those same experiences with my own daughters—in the United States! I haven’t visited the marshes yet with my daughters (they live in the US; he visits a handful of times a year)—but that will happen soon.

NPT: What is Nature Iraq?

Alwash: Nature Iraq is a not for profit corporation, an NGO. It is focused on the preservation of Iraq's environment and cultural heritage. And that’s not just in southern Iraq—but for example in the northern Iraqi mountains of Kurdistan (an ethnic area spanning Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq). Southern Iraq is a sedimentary plain. That means that the soil came from somewhere else, originating in the mountains of Kurdistan, borne in on the waters of the Tigrus and Euphrates. Few Iraqis understand that this organic connectivity between Southern Iraq and Kurdistan predates humanity.

NPT: Sounds like you have the makings of a cross-border national park.

Alwash: We have 25 million land mines along the border between Iraq and Iran, and I have plans for what I call a series of peace parks in those areas. Once we declare the National Park in the Marshes we have a series of ten places we want to focus on to create these new parks.

Instead of spending the money on clearing the mines, let’s declare it as national park, blaze trails for hiking and various activities—but keep the mines in place. I want to preserve nature and one unique aspect of having mined area in the mountains of Kurdistan is that people have left nature alone! Yes we have a few mines that go off every now and then, that kill a rabbit, but by and large, these mines have protected the mountains from development.

NPT: That puts a whole spin on environmental regulations—and “peace park” too!

Alwash: It may sound crazy (says, Alwash, breaking into laughter), but you have to think outside the box.

NPT: I can see the signs now—“Stay on the trail or you'll get blown up!” Speaking of fun in the sun, will Iraqis look to national parks for recreation?

Alwash: Southern Iraq is not a picnic area. People don’t go to the marshes to picnic. The tradition of picnicking or going out in the park is not something that is normal, at least not yet. I’m hoping the National Park in the Marshes will eventually become a site for ecotourism and that the marsh arabs will move from using the marshes for their livelihood to protecting the marshes as a new way to benefit from ecotourism.

On the other hand, in Northern Iraq, the tradition of picnicking is entrenched and woven into society. Every Friday and Saturday, people go out in the mountains, they picnic in the open air, barbecue, dance, and drink, all year, except when it’s too damn cold in the snow-covered mountains. (Editor’s note: There are of course countries where cold weather picnicking is a way of life—check out this video from Finland.)

In the north, I presume park usage will be totally different from the south—different park models. In the north I can see parks collecting fees for entrance and use of picnic areas. In the south we’re gonna have 40,000 oil workers working within 20 minutes of the marshes, so instead of flying off to Dubai for recreation, they can visit the marshes for birding or fishing...

NPT: Are there any environmental controversies lurking in Iraq’s future?

Alwash: Dams upstream will be a hindrance to the survival of the marshes, so we need to work on resolving water issues. If Iraq doesn’t address the salinity of water coming in from Turkey we will have a loss of agriculture in the land where it was born. Over the horizon, we will need to work with Turkey and Iran to resolve water issues before it becomes too big of a problem.

NPT: The marshes sound as dependent on the flow of water as the Everglades National Park in the United States.

Alwash: Yes. I have a few ideas that I can put forward, but we need to convert the discussion with Iraq and Turkey from “whose water is this” to “how can we change this to an economic question, how can Turkey make money for water, how can we in Iraq get water without paying for it." We need to start entertaining trade-offs to make an economic model that benefits all our countries.

NPT: There are many historical national parks in the United States, but having a park in “The Cradle of Western Civilization” seems pretty distinctive.

Alwash: Yes, indeed. There are seven historical sites in the marshes national park. On top of that, we have 25,000 archeological sites in the country. Iraq is the Cradle of Civilization—so, do the marshes belong to Iraq? I don’t think so. They belong to the entire world. That was where writing was invented. Where agriculture was invented. Where Abraham was born. Let’s call it the birthplace of Western civilization. It’s not only Iraq that needs to preserve this. I think it is the world that needs to help Iraq preserve these marshes.

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The Goldman Prize was envisioned as a way to demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems, and reward ordinary individuals for outstanding grassroots environmental achievement. The first Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony took place in 1990 when winners received a $60,000 cash award with no strings attached (the award has since grown to $150,000). The prize has since become a global force of significant impact. In 2001, jailed environmental activist Rodolfo Montiel Flores (Mexico, 2000) was released, in part because Goldman Prize winners and jurors traveled to Mexico to demand his release. In 2003, Marina Silva (Brazil, 1996), a former rubber tapper, became Minister of the Environment in Brazil. In 2004, Goldman Prize recipient Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 1991) received the Nobel Peace Prize, the first environmentalist to win the prestigious prize.