ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – An official from the Netherlands told Kurdistan 24 on Monday that his government is actively trying to help strengthen a lasting stability in the Kurdistan Region by supporting its private sector, with a focus on agriculture.
Dutch Consul General in Iraq Willem Cosijn said that the creation of private employment opportunities is crucial to making any post-ISIS era work, saying it was “an integral part of our goal to defeat ISIS.”
Though he remarked, “The dark days are over,” Cosijin also stressed the importance of supporting a strong private sector in the region. “Otherwise,” he warned, ”within a few years you will have a new group with a different name.”
For this reason, the Dutch consulate organized a conference its Agri and Food Conference in Erbil on Monday which stressed the benefits of the “farm to the plate” movement that encourages the use of locally grown food in restaurants and markets, rather than imports.
During the conference, agriculture and food experts from Wageningen University presented the results of a Dutch-funded fact-finding mission to improve the local agricultural sector.
“Last year in June we did research in Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimani, and we have talked with a lot of people in the field,” Joost Jongerden, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology at the university, said. “There are a lot of opportunities [to invest] in the agricultural sector.”
A serious issue in the Kurdistan Region is its lack of so-called food independence, or near-total reliance on imports from neighboring countries. “Most products on the market are coming from Turkey and Iran,” Jongerden told Kurdistan 24.
As a result, local Kurdish farmers have to compete with the influx of cheap products and therefore, their products often do not end up in local markets. “This is because the market is flooded with cheap imports,” he said. “This needs to be fixed.”
One example he gave was that wheat productivity is managed and regulated by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) different than vegetable production, which is “comparable to Turkey,” one of the largest wheat producers in the region.
Nevertheless, he said, Kurdish farmers have shown their resilience after four decades of such competition and to continue to be “on their feet.”
The Kurdistan Region’s agricultural sector suffered from the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s and also later under the UN Oil-for-Food Program, established in 1995. Kurdish farms, however, are still producing.
KRG policymakers at the conference also made it clear that they support the Dutch goals to revitalize the agricultural sector and reduce the near total economic reliance on oil income.
Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister of Kurdistan, said in a speech at Monday's conference that stability created by strengthening the agricultural sector in the region “is the same as our natural security.”
“We live on very fertile land, but instead of becoming a good example for neighboring countries, we have become a consumer of our neighbor’s products,” he warned.
“It’s true we have other rich resources like oil, but this doesn’t mean we have a strong economy.”
Talabani said that the devastated economy of oil-rich Venezuela should be an example for the Kurds to learn from their mistakes. “We should replace foreign products with our local products, and should look for new ways to market out our products.”
The presenters from Wageningen University suggested that the Kurdistan region could follow the so-called Dutch “Golden Triangle” model, where government, private companies, and knowledge centers collaborate closely. As a result of this successful model, the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural produce in the world totaling some 65 billion euros ($75.5 billion) annually.
“There needs to be a dialogue between the government, knowledge [centers] and private companies,” Dr. Wouter Wolters, from Wageningen University told Kurdistan 24, adding that Dutch could help to bring much-needed expertise to the Kurdistan region.
One of the Dutch companies that took part in the conference, Horti XS, has the goal to support the development of the greenhouse industry in the Kurdistan Region. “We want to bring horticulture to Iraq and, with that, support the local food production to initiate food production in a sustainable way,” the company’s project manager, Dennis Flaton, said to Kurdistan 24.
“We want to bring here [the technology] to produce three times more with three times less water and energy.”
Consul General Cosijn also said that his government is ready and willing to connect local Kurdish businesses with Dutch partners if they present viable business plans, in which case they could also help to connect them to the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) for investment projects.
“We are for supporting local business. People can approach me for this.”
Editing by John J. Catherine