Fertile Grounds for Change

Mar 12, 2022 · Ryan Copeland

When you land in Taiwan it has a way of changing you, as I suspect it has for the many readers that still currently live there.  It seeps into you in so many unexpected ways, which are carried forth in your life.  For me it was a place that acted as an ideal setting for my own self to develop in so many ways I couldn't predict.  Though I do not live there any longer I still keep an eye on it from wherever I am, with perennial plans to be there again in my present capacity as a regenerative ecological designer and carry a bit of it in me wherever I go.  

During my time in Taiwan I started a journey to equip myself with the skills to work in my current work.  I was taking online courses, and saving for a trip to Australia where I went to study with the more respected names in my field.  When I returned to Texas I was able to start to dig into my native soil, and put some of these practices into action.  

There is plenty of arm chair, or Family Mart, philosophizing from the expat community on the ails of the world, and what they would have done in the world and also change they want in Taiwan- ranking right up there in popular chat with talk of poor driving and poorer air quality.  I know my perspective changed greatly from the rich array of perspectives that were available to me during my many years in Taiwan.  A time must come to move past criticism and find your own particular contribution to a better way.  Of the many gifts Taiwan so generously gives to the expatriate community, being a springboard for us might be one of the top from my experience.  

The Birthplace of Modern Agriculture  

Agriculture has gained notoriety in the world for its contributions to many of the global issues that face humanity: the 6th great extinction, ocean acidification from carbon emissions, dead spots in oceans from agricultural chemical runoff, and massive losses of top soil- with the UN declaring 60 years of soil left for farming, all the usual suspects society has nearly been desensitized to.   When we look around though it’s pretty apparent that something is most definitely wrong with how we make food.  My personal calling has led me to use agricultural design as the lever to pull for my greatest capacity to affect change.

My most recent work had me at the ground zero for agriculture.  The once fertile crescent, the birthplace of modern agriculture.  Ten thousand years ago wheat and goats were domesticated in the region, and would mark the start of a long boiling of the frog for a way for food production that would bring about catastrophic consequences for our planet.  For reference, other places independently developed  later on with similar forms of agriculture, in China with the domestication of rice and pigs, and Central America with corn and beans.  Keep in mind that these peoples of the region did not develop in a vacuum, and did not invent many elements of agriculture that they were using.  The knowledge that plants produced seeds and that it would benefit your people had not eluded to the 100,000’s of years of humans preceding this time.  Those peoples had used agriculture as a supplement to their hunting, and gathering.  The notable features that this method brought to the human stage was a massive surplus of calories, at the cost of a lot more work, and the privatization of land.  Most anthropologists agree that the preceding cultures of hunter gatherers ate a more nutritious diet, in just a few hours of what we would call a “work”  day.  If it stopped there with just the people of that region adopting that system of food production that would be a much different outcome for us today.  What these new farmers did with this farming system, and additional calories, was to grow in number and grow beyond the capacity of their land to sustain themselves.  Leading them to push outwards to expand to the lands of other people, bringing on the wars for resources. They had come upon a novel idea that their way of living was the only right way of living and started a long long road towards the subjugation of all they encountered to forcibly adapt.  

Mixing the cover crop seeds for broadcast, to protect the soil, hold in moisture, and bring more life back.
Mixing the cover crop seeds for broadcast, to protect the soil, hold in moisture, and bring more life back.

Fast forward to today and the fertile crescent is fertile in name only.  The region is inhabited by the Kurdish peoples in modern day.   The largest people group in the world without its own country, and split between four countries (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran).  At a population of 30-45 million people this seems unbelievable. These borders can most directly be traced back to the end of WW1 when the British and French unilaterally laid out national boundaries for their own interest, with no input from the people inhabiting the region.  An action that keeps having disastrous results on the region till this day.  The  Iraqi Kurdish region is rich in oil, but not much other industry to speak of beyond that.  The region's political unrest has led to additional environmental degradation, leading to additional destabilization of people’s ability to make a livelihood from farming, and back again to additional political unrest in a frightening feedback loop.  

My work brought me in contact with another segment of the Kurdish population, the Syrian refugees that have fled their own country.  I was brought to the country via an American NGO organization that had been working in the region for some time, seeing some success in other humanitarian roles, and looking to branch out into  regenerative agriculture as a long term solution for increased stability in the area.

Flying into Iraq days after the official Afghanistan takeover, and exodus of so many fleeing the country, was a dramatic change from the safeties of Taiwan.  In 2021 I would travel there twice.  Once for a site inspection, and a second time to install the design which was created with my design team at United Designers.  Fortunately for me Amsterdam is a common layover for trips from the U.S. to the region, so I was able to stop by and enjoy the city and see my coworker working on the project who lives in the Netherlands on my way to Iraq.  

The process for designing goes along a set of steps: a step one of making a map of the existing land and site observation with client interviews to understand their needs, some concept mapping and reports to respond to your understanding of the clients needs in conjunction with the lands capacities and discussions on those possibilities, finished with a final report and design presenting the client with your design proposals.  This process is occasionally followed by an install of the design, which was the case for this project.   

I stayed in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the country's Kurdish region during my time there.  I flew in from the U.S., stopping in Amsterdam, and then having my final layover in Istanbul.  Once on the ground where I met my clients for the first time face to face, I was taken by them to my accommodation.  When US workers work with their NGO they put them up in a private, walled, and guarded apartment complex.  The armed guards are pretty normal for the region, but would likely give the reader a very skewed view of the area's safety.  The country has not had a terrorist attach since 2014, making it safer than London and Paris in that respect.  Even though Kurdish Iraq is a very safe place, the region is unstable, and one must be constantly aware of changing conditions when traveling there.  The state department was recommending no travel to Iraq during the time of my travels, but did concede that  the Kurdish region was a reasonably safe option for my trip.  

My initial visit I spent most of my time on the land where we  would be designing an agriculture space.  I would be picked up at the apartment complex every morning, where we would drive to the farm that was around a half an hour drive away, at the refugee camp.  The drive offered a lot of time to see the metro areas, large modern apartment buildings, large shopping malls that  you could expect to see in the West, and relatively no usage of the lanes still faintly on the road, as they acted as all but the merest suggestion of how to drive.  The drive outside of town brought us past a lot of cinder block constructed houses, large oil industrial parks, and rolling dirt plains, bare as they were not in the planting season.  The fields ending at treeless mountains to the east of us that marked the edge of Iraq and the beginning of western Iran.  

Trees play a major part in climatic stability.  They slow the water fall, releasing it over time, so as not to be a flash flood, but a manageable flow that can slowly release water to sustain plant life.  During my time in the city I had passed a terraced area on a mountain side that looked impressive in the construction, but was void of trees or water flowing down the waterfall path.  When I asked about it I was told that when the trees still covered the mountain above it, the terraces were areas where locals would picnic.  With the trees gone, so disappeared the waterfall, and no picnickers frequented the area that was unbearably hot in the sunshine without trees.  A common misconception of how the water cycle works and the causality of drought is that the lack of rain makes a desert, but actually removing vegetation, like trees, from the ground creates drought.  These plants feed into the water cycle via transpiration and without them rains diminish greatly.  

Coming to the refugee camp I was working at, we turned off a main road, where we were greeted by the UN guards to the camp (touching your head greeting?), and I got my first look at the farm.  The land was sparse, with only small leguminous ground cover, and a small garden that the farmers had worked hard to make from the depleted soils to accompany the dead dirt and rocks of the site.  From the farm, looking out to the de-forested mountains,  through the chainlink perimeter of the camp, the land did not seem to reveal a lot of possibilities for abundance.  All good design starts with observation.  An empty and nondeterministic  perspective that allows the place to speak to you about what is currently happening on that land, and how you can use the available energies and capacities of that place for regenerative agriculture is crucial.  Allowing you to envision what is present, and mold it into a cohesive system.  As I use the word “regenerative” often, let's unpack this term a bit.  In the sense I am using, it means to rebuild the environment as a matter of carrying out agriculture in a way that builds the capacity of the natural world to sustain more life.  This is measured in metrics like soil organic matter, diversity of plant and animal species, population increase of those plants and animals, to name a few ways of measurement.    

When we come to a land with preconceived ideas that we will impose on the land it does  not consider the innate qualities of that place nor often end up in a positive outcome.  This type of thinking leads to catastrophic damage, like was seen in the Dust Bowl when the perennial plains were tilled up for annual agriculture playing heavily into the Great Depression, that just nearly collapsed our culture.  The current refugee site was windy, with little in the way of slowing down the wind, or chemicals blowing in, and the ground was mostly bare.  It needed plants, but plants needed water.  So first we would need to plant water to allow the site to be established, fully considering its needs.

The first steps of the project required different earthworks to hold the water in the ground, and help grow the hardy pioneer species that will pave the way for food producing plants (agave for animal silage, and nitrogen fixing plants for fodder and soil improvement)
The first steps of the project required different earthworks to hold the water in the ground, and help grow the hardy pioneer species that will pave the way for food producing plants (agave for animal silage, and nitrogen fixing plants for fodder and soil improvement)


Taking fossil fuels that are often seen as the problem to our environment, to leverage them for their highest purpose, as I see it, is in the service of regeneration. This puts them to a use that is worthy and provides for regeneration counter to most of the more common uses of this resource.   Earthworks built by earth-moving machines using that oil play a crucial role in planting water via features like terraces, zai holes, and swales; which are all variations of ways to physically spread, slow, and sink water into the soil when the water does come.  This role to capture water is usually the function of plants in a healthy system, but in a degraded  state without plants, additional plants  would not survive without this assistance of earthworks.  One of the greater joys of my work is that I get to be a part of repairing damaged land faster than nature could on its own without this intervention.  Repairing these ecological services that nature was carrying out pre damage is crucial to creating a closed loop agricultural system that can support itself.  The curious reader might look into the Indian teacher, “The Man Who Planted the Water?” for more insight on regenerating land bereft of plants.  

I worked with several different machine operators to install the earthworks.  A pair of college student brothers, looking to get some experience working with their fathers old excavator, and then a professional operator when the older machine reached its limits.  The new operator had a new machine, spoke some English that he had used with his work with international projects , and was master of his craft.  As we built some connections as I directed his works he even called his kindergarten-aged son, to practice his English he was learning at school.  A very familiar experience for any American in Taiwan.  If you were wondering, the conversation went as you would expect when a random bearded foreigner jumps on the video phone call when your father calls for an impromptu display of your English capacity.  To celebrate our short working friendship I walked over to one of the camp's many  informal convenience stores (ducans as they call them) to buy us both a good old Taiwan Mr.Brown’s coffee.  

Enjoying the post earthworks view.  Rain basins in the midground and terraced lanes in the background.
Enjoying the post earthworks view. Rain basins in the midground and terraced lanes in the background.

Polyculture of Plants

Once the earthworks were installed it was time to put in the plants.  These plants were not the ones you might immediately expect.  As most people are accustomed to consider a “farm” has acres and acres of one plant, a monoculture.  This is a human created idea and has no place in a system that is sustainable.  In a truly regenerative agriculture system you need a complete polyculture of plants that all carry out different functions.  Without this diversity you have to supply all needs of the plants via artificial petroleum based fertilizers, and because you want only the plant you want for your human food you need to use herbicides to kill off anything that is  not your human food.  Flipping that paradigm on its head when you start to recreate all that has been deconstructed brings about true sustainability.  That meant that our first plants would be pioneer plants.  Plants that act as hardy survivors, that make it more possible for other plants to survive that have food value.  

These pioneer plants are largely nitrogen fixing trees in the fabaceae family (mesquites, acacias, and bean pod producing trees).  These trees' ability to survive in harsh environments, with deep roots, and the ability to take  nitrogen from the air,  that plants need so much because of a bacterial symbiosis in their root nodules in exchange for sugars, allows them to exist in places other plants could not.  When they establish in the site they will act as mother plants to others, offering a bit of shade from the harsh sun, a bit more organic material with nitrogen rich leaves, as well as  some diminished level of the desiccating power of wind unchecked.  Then the next step is to look to plants native to the region.  

Native plants work well because they are adapted to what that place has to offer in the way of weather, soil, precipitation; and  can thrive in that setting. In researching, the region oaks, carobs, chestnuts, and acacias came up as plants that historically have been present in the area.   Non-native plants have to live on human life support of inputs to survive usually.  Pollinators are also most well adapted to native plants, as these pollinators often do not have the omnivore capacity that humans can sustain themselves with the ability to eat a wide variety of foods, and require native plants to survive.  We need these pollinators to help our food systems flourish, and if we want them to do that we need to provide them with foods they can use.  With natives supplying the backbone of the system, we can branch out to other plants when they have particularly good food value.  

The front of the farm, with its newly installed rock wall, was getting some rain basins to catch the road runoff water, and make a space to grow pollinators.  The existing eucalyptus tree is very common to the area, and a legacy of the British empire.
The front of the farm, with its newly installed rock wall, was getting some rain basins to catch the road runoff water, and make a space to grow pollinators. The existing eucalyptus tree is very common to the area, and a legacy of the British empire.

These nonnative food plants need to also be considered in the context of the site, even if they do not exist there naturally.  To do this we look at plants located in a site's climate analogues, that have similar environments, that can likely do well without artificial inputs from the farmers.  The design assembled a list of fruit bearing trees, like: apricots, olives, pomegranate, fig, citrus, and many others that make up a diverse farm.  To give the soil a jump start we took advantage of certain waste streams.  Waste really only by name because our current consumption systems are so linear, and end in waste, but not waste in the sense that it has no value.  The food waste we are able to get, along with cardboard, and other agricultural waste products mixed in the soil were the catalyst for the relatively inert dirt to transition to a life giving soil.

Observing the area around the farm I noticed that pastoralists were taking their sheep and cattle past the farm daily, a few times a day, to look for grasses in the highway sides, and in between places that they got by on.  Animals and plants are two integral parts of a whole system and complete symbiotic system.  One contribution that animals provide for plants is the digestion of older plant materials, processing it through their gut biota, and cycling this plant material back to the soil in the most digestible form for soil life, manure.  Knowing the site was heavily degraded, and not likely to support many animals for some time to come without expensive inputs from bought food, likely hay.  That put into my mind a space on the farm, on the top of the site, near the gate where passing shepherds could leave their animals overnight, lessening their trip distances.  This would allow them to have to transit their animals on a shorter daily commute equaling conservation of calories, giving more calories for their animals body condition,  a shaded area and some water and a mineral block for reasonable cost to the farm, and the farm would get all animals a gift of manure for the plants.  Another benefit to the concept would be additional interaction of the organization with local farmers, giving them more time to instill in them the regenerative practices that they were trying to promote.  

 Taking advantage of the local talent to sculpt the landscape with a bobcat.  This operator was an artist with his machine.  The mountains to Iran can be seen in the background
Taking advantage of the local talent to sculpt the landscape with a bobcat. This operator was an artist with his machine. The mountains to Iran can be seen in the background

Agroforestry Practices

The two main concepts we were displaying on the farm were silvopasture for animal systems and an alley cropping system for fruits and vegetables.  Both of these fall under the agroforestry practices.  In the silvopasture system we laid out a way to show farmers how to use fodder trees (trees used for leaf consumption by livestock) and mast crops (trees used for crops they drop like nuts  and bean pods).  Livestock get a bad wrap in modern industrial agriculture,  mostly rightly so, as the concentration of animals in CAFOs turns their gift of  manure into a pollution, due to its volume and the inability for the earth to consume these volumes.  In a healthy ratio plants and animals in a system are symbiotic, and it is the management practices of humans that are to blame for their damage, not the animals themselves.   For people to have an interest in the long term stability of the environment they need stability themselves, as those on the edge of survival have no luxury to consider long term environmental  concerns.  Bringing animals and appropriate trees back to the landscape was a way to regreen the landscape in perennial ways.  On the other half of the farm we were displaying alley cropping that laid out rows of trees, with multiple layers of food plants and support plants, interspersed with rows of annual plants.  The annual plants play an important role in producing food in a short time scale, as the farmers wait for the perennial fruit and nut trees to start to produce.  As these trees grow they also provide a dappled shade for the annuals, a much needed relief that can increase productivity for the annuals, as well as provide a much more comfortable working environment for the farmers in the open fields. 

The Refugee Camp 

Experiencing the warmth of the refugees, at the camp, a place of basic material goods, I was constantly confronted with their interest to give from what they had.  From a young boy selling coffee in paper cups for a few cents not wanting to charge the visitor, to the farmers I was working with inviting me into their homes to enjoy Syrian spreads on large platters of cheeses, oils, vegetables, and breads for the dipping, it all gave color to the peoples I was working with as exceptionally generous hosts.  Though I had read of the atrocities that these people had experienced to arrive in these camps I saw little sign of this in their large smiles, and hands on their hearts in traditional greetings.  I did not have the language capacity to get through to the deeper levels of their stories, but did have the opportunity arise in other ways on the trip to get further insight to their plight.  

During my several week stay during the install I was able to spend my evenings after work exploring the city I was staying in.  I would venture out to find food daily and see what things I could discover.  A few of my favorite places were the tea shops.  As all asian countries I have visited, the Kurdish had their own preferences for consumption of tea.  The go-to format for tea here is in small little curvy clear glasses, served on decorative ceramic saucers, with a good half inch or so of sugar settled in the bottom, accompanied by a necessary little spoon, to stir your lava temperature tea before imbibing.  I did not particularly enjoy the temperature of the drink, and seemed to mystify the nice ladies at the farm as I would leave my tea in the farm office to cool down to non-sun surface temperatures, and would find my tea set in the sink when I returned as if I had forgotten to drink it, to be disposed of (where I salvaged it for consumption).  For the middle eastern culture serving cold tea is one of the most impolite gestures for you to show a guest.   What I did enjoy was the decorative brass tea pots, and attractive ceramic tea sets all piled up in a streetside stall, fitted out with plastic chairs to lounge in and watch pedestrians walk by, rounded out by some Kurdish music.  

The Delightful Food

As every traveler knows the food was a big part of experiencing the local culture.  A standard meal consisted of a veggie platter brought out with a selection of vegetable based dishes in small little servings on a segmented platter, hummus of unbelievable creaminess in the middle and some accompanying pita chips.  Next up would be a soup and a bowl of beans, always beans.  Kurdish people can not go long without beans.  Then the main course was usually a grain of some form,  rice or other grains with some form of lamb, most commonly in kebab format.  Though I did  not go out of my way to get western food, I was looking for some variety after several weeks of the same food and ventured to a few non local cuisines, like a Nepali place.  They served up some good Chinese, Indian, and Nepali choices as well as being one of the places you could order a beer.  Being a Muslim country this was not available at local places, but the Kurdish are a very moderate people and you could find beers at the nonlocal restaurants.  The Nepali place also doubled as a hang out for dancing and eating, the large immigrant population of Nepalis and Africans that work in the region, and made me feel some Phili Disco vibes from my Taichung days. 

Falafel made in the camp was a go-to for keeping me moving during the hard work days of implementation.
Falafel made in the camp was a go-to for keeping me moving during the hard work days of implementation.

Straddling the Iranian Border 

The days of work did not leave me much time to venture beyond dinner and evening walks of town, but I did have a few weekends to invest in going further afield.   You never really consider places that all you hear of in negative terms in the news as being beautiful, but the area did  not lack some dramatic locations that even UNESCO had acknowledged.  I know I expected to see skyline to skyline factories when I first moved to Taiwan, only to be corrected right out of the gate as the bus from Taoyuan to Taipei crossed lush green forested landscapes before arriving in Linkou of western Taipei City.  One  of my weekends I took to the road with a taxi driver who was a relative of someone trusted from the farm to take me to Hawraman.  The valley sits on the border with Iran, where I was told not to go out of safety concerns passed to me by the organization that brought me to Iraq.  

Arriving at my homestay site at dark I was unaware what I would see when I awoke.  The videos and pictures should give a clearer account than my dexterity with adjectives could do.  The place I stayed at was reasonably priced and spacious, if not fancy by anyone's standards.  My taxi driver negotiated my lodging fees, after we had walked down the steep highways switching back up the mountain side, to a house I would see in the morning that sat on the sides of a steep mountain valley.  He thought it best to tell them I was an American soldier for added safety, which was probably not needed amongst these kindest of hosts, but it did get me a raised eyebrow of inspection from the proprietor.  I also asked via my translator whether the small child hiding behind the man’s legs had ever seen an American; he had not, but gave me a shy smile. 

The host left me to my room, and they resumed their family party on the level below me, as the house was a country cabin for them that they spent their weekends (Friday and Saturday in this part of the world).  I would also later go to a local friend of mine's country house as a sendoff before my departure filled with some good snacks, and traditional Kurdish dancing in a circle.  I spent that night bundled up in the stack of blankets, as the power gave out during the chilly night.  Without the power working overnight my phone had a few more drags of power to give me a spanning video of valley's visual offerings when I awoke to see what the views were like.  Steep hillsides of terraced agriculture, with the houses perched midway up the slopes, and the bare rocky mountains above greeted my inspection.  Looking down from my perched patio I made eye contact with a fox before he continued on down slope through the grape vines and fig trees. A feature of the locals endemic agriculture, dating back to 3,000 B.C. was a seasonal retreat to the valleys as pastoralist in the cooler season, and resuming their terrace agriculture in the high valleys in the warmer parts of the year.   

Knowing I was supposed to go downhill from my homestay, I took off that way to find the waterfall I was wanting to see without the assistance of a charged phone map.  I took the steep switchback roads, and was given one of the oblong acorns from the native oaks from the walk as a roadside souvenir.  Arriving at the tourist site of the waterfall in the morning there were no shops open for me to have breakfast.  I had seen on my first trip that Kurdish are not morning people.  I saw children playing late into the night, towards midnight on school nights, evidently avoiding the hotter parts of the day for their play.  Any morning walks I took on the weekends, when commuters weren’t heading to work, I found myself mostly alone until midmorning.  Without a place to eat I walked up the steep stone stairs to the waterfall.  Taking advantage of the volume of visitors, the walk is filled on both sides with shops selling local foods, tea shops overhanging the stream leading down the valley from the waterfall, and the usual Chinese plastic toys for sale.  I stopped at one shop for some fruit candies, chatted via a translator app, and the kind owner let me charge my phone and drop off my bag that I could retrieve on my walk back down.  The waterfall was dramatic as they always are in high mountain locales, and I sat with my tea on a Turkish type rug looking at the waterfall for some time, enjoying the singing and traditional drum the young guys in the crowds at the bottom of the falls were playing,  all dressed up and hair done perfectly, as per mandatory cultural requirement of the Kurdish men. 

Saddam’s Lingering Legacy 

You would be pressed to find any Kurdish man on my trip who did not look like he just came from a haircut and wearing some snug fitting jeans, nice shoes and a pressed shirt.  Not wanting to miss out on the chance to have an interesting cultural experience I wandered into a couple barber shops during my stay.  The first place was manned by a kind older man, with a big smile, and a mustache.  I know it’s wrong, but a middle aged Iraqi man with a full mustache brings up a certain image for an American who has little knowledge of the area beyond the sensationalized news he has seen.  During my first trip to the country I had the opportunity to go to a museum that featured Saddam's atrocities, housed in a school house turned prison turned museum, that shared strong resemblances to Cambodia’s S-21 school house/prison/museum that told the story of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of their own people.  I found it interesting that the  museum had very few pictures of Saddam, and I focused on his harsh actions taken against the Kurdish peoples.  

Kurdish people are no strangers to cruel atrocities.  During Sadam’s attacks on the people group during 1987-88, he employed his chemical weapons on his own people in 40 Kurdish villages.   Weapons that likely came from the US, as during this time Saddam was our ally, and the US would pay him $1 billion 6 months after the most egregious gassing in Halabja, for him to use against his war with Iran.  It was not that America had anything against the Kurds, they were just willing to look the other way as they were attacked, as they cared more for the work Sadam was doing to fight the Iranians than what he was doing to his own people.  The reason he wanted to do this was because the Kurds were trying to take advantage of the war with Iran to likely position themselves for their own nationhood, a right denied to them by the British and French’s careless boundaries enacted at the beginning of the century.  America would later recruit the Kurdish as allies to topple Sadam and fight ISIS, only to abandon them again during the Trump presidency when our larger ally in the region, Turkey, started bombing them in 2019.  Bombing them mostly because these peoples still persisted in wanting their own country, of which the larger part of the east side of Turkey contained 14 million Kurds, making up 18% of their population- the largest segment of the 4 country split Kurdish population.  The rest was in eastern Syria (2.5 million), northern Iraq , and western Iran (7 million).   There was the possibility of America to stand up for their larger ally, for the benefit of their smaller allies, the Kurds, yet that did not play out.  The Kurds, lacking any long dependable allies, have a saying that they had no friends but the mountains.  Mountains that have proved to be a place to wait out the instabilities of war on many occasions.  Those same mountains that are all but totally deforested.  People in hiding from war that were forced out of any other options for survival to survive off the trees for heating, food, and shelter greatly contributed to this deforestation.

Even considering the history with the southern, Arabic part of Iraq, there is a complex relationship with their copatriates.  I found that it was not common for people of the south, like Baghdad, to retreat to vacation or even live in the Kurdish region knowing full well that it was a safer place to live than the south.  I had met some of these people at my waterfall excursion.  I was helped out by a man when I was trying to pay for my shuttle trip back to where I was staying who told me of his family trip to the region.  He then later showed me his police ID from Baghdad, and earnestly asked what I thought of his country.   On the drive back, where I was given the guest spot in the passenger seat, I nonverbally played with a small child in the seat behind me as he “shot” me with his toy machine gun, and I played the obligatory part of playing dead, as his mom shyly smiled at his interactions with the foreigner.

 Everlasting Impression

During my time in the country I met an older man of utmost character and unfailing positive energy.  He was employed by the NGO hosting me, and was a local resident of the area.  His story was a story in depth and power that greatly expanded my understanding of the Kurdish story.  During Saddam's rise to power this man lost all of his business assets, which was quite a lot, even by American standards.  Something I do not find surprising watching how he works even at an old age.  When his assets were mostly lost, he sold all of his remaining assets off to pay his sizable workforce to not leave them in complete destitution.  With his meager leftover funds he was left to take his wife and children to live out of a taxi.   From the taxi he was able to sell small goods, like cigarettes, to survive.  Then through some methods I could not totally understand he was finally able to get  himself to the UK.  During this time he was able to eventually bring  some financial assistance to his family.  A family who was not able to make it safely to the UK as the implied route he took to get there held allusions to great risk to safety for the possibility of arriving, as he hinted at in his story.  Every step of the journey seemed to me as an act of faith, consisting of many steps, any one of which would cripple all but the strongest person and only taken in the first place with the strong impetus to provide for a family which depended on his success.  

Arriving in the UK he was equipped with little English language to communicate with, and even fewer financial resources.  He told me of his rounds of all the businesses in the village he was settled in.  Through the rounds, unbeknownst to himself, he had turned over every rock he could find for a job, and finally found an opportunity after the third trip around all the options.  “Brother”, he was greeted by a Pakistani, as the Kurds have a Pakistani population in their country and the two cultures are familiar with each other- “I have a job for you, if you are willing to work hard”.  The deal arranged was that since he wasn’t skilled at making the pizza and other foods that he would only be compensated in food until he was more capable.  Using this experience to improve his English, gain some skills, he was able to transition up to a chance to run another business by showing his tenacity to turn around a failing store into a top seller, and be extended the chance to run a few more shops with his proven capabilities.  

All during this time he was able to send as much money as possible to his wife and children back home.  This money gave benefit to his extended family as well.  During the lean years before this assistance was available his wife found it to be very tough times, as everyone else in the family was struggling financially, and not very able to help out.  The challenging circumstances of these funds were that they came at the expense of being with his family.  They would not see each other for over a decade.  It was not until the country started to show some signs of stability, and the decade plus wait without his family getting a visa was unbearable that he returned to Iraq.  It would only be a few months after his return before his family would get visas, but due to him leaving he would not be able to join them without a visa for himself.  So they stayed on in Iraq.  He left with a pre-school age child, and returned with a teenage son. Before I left the country we made it a point to spend some time outside of work and he took me to a town lookout on a mountain nearby where people would go to see the skyline, eat from the vendors, and even had paragliders taking off from the site.  He pulled up to pick me up with his grandson and some ice cream.   I could not help but notice the way he treated his grandson, from his son that he had to leave,  showed what he never got to do with his own son.  The child was about the age his son was when he left the country.  

The mountaintop was a perfect lookout for a deeper narrative into his story.  Seeing the  city at night, with the cold desert wind accelerating up the slopes, this wise man told me of the days after Saddam's fall, when his troops were scattering by foot as they had no resources to sustain themselves, and how many of them found their way to the Kurdish region of Iraq.  A place that not that long before they had tested the deathly efficiency of weaponized gasses.  Recognizing the humanity in those people was not beyond belief for him though regardless of their recent actions.  As they scrambled through the rough dry country with little in the way of shoes, or nourishment, he did what he could to dig up what he could spare of both.   It is hard to doubt such first hand accounts of these issues- and yet I came across several young people that doubted their elders' accounts of Saddam's actions.  I do not know the reasoning behind a statement like this, but there seemed to be a dissonance about whatever narrative they told themselves about who they were and whether they could allow themselves to believe the older generations accounts of those times.   This is definitely no Kurdish phenomenon, as you see similar statements with Holocaust denying, and there is no shortage of Americans whose own infallable takes on American exceptionalism will accept no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, regardless of what facts have to say about various injustices. 

Government Corruption 

The young Kurdish are also fighting within their own governments.  As a nation that is 5th in the world oil reserves, their median income, which is a rough estimate of how much of that wealth benefits a larger portion of the populace, is a fraction of what other countries' citizens on that list are.  Government management of funds, which is largely derived from oil, came to the forefront during my time there.  The university students were legally obligated to receive a basic stipend from the government for living expenses while they studied.  Before any Americans start yelling entitlement, remember this is a similar arrangement that Alaskans benefit from.  The government did not seem to value this law, as corruption did not leave much money in the coffers left to give to students.  Without this money, and very few outlets to make money , students took to the streets around the region in protest, at all of the universities in the region.  There were several of these universities in the city I stayed in, and we had to reroute our work commute a few times for these protests.  During my time there I did briefly run into some of these government elites in their Range Rovers. One came to the coffee shop I was at, pulled out his roll of cash and got himself a drink and threw some cash for a drink for me.  I already had a Kurdish Coffee, qazwan, a caffeine free drink,  but the barista said he just wanted to show off his wealth.  

I got a chance to talk with some of the students at a dinner a friend I met organized on one of my last nights in the country.  They shared their stories, keeping most of the conversation in English for my benefit.  Despite all of their studying in advanced degrees they had little confidence in their ability to find jobs domestically, and told me of how so many college graduates will try to leave the country to find opportunities.  During this time I learned that it was only students who have money that get to select their area of study, and if you did not have the funds you studied what a government standardized test chose for you.  

A Clear and Terrifying Trajectory

On a greater scale of things I do not want to travel to see places that are not my home to feel good that my home is better, but to be true to the realities of both places, and let this truth guide a more just action towards change anywhere it is needed.  I know that when I mentioned the dire agricultural situation that Fertile Crescent is in to Americans they often mentioned how happy they are not in such poor conditions.  Though the current level of degradation is much different in the respective countries, this is a difference really only in the time that degrading agriculture practices have been in use (10,000 years for the Fertile Crescent), and not really a difference in the trajectory of our paths.  In all honesty we should be looking to these places as warnings of where we are headed,  not as proof of our moral superiority.  Any agricultural system that does not build soil, and increase environmental capacity is by definition non-sustainable.   If you fall off a cliff attempting to fly, you can not call falling flying, and should not judge those who jumped off before you too harshly.  The United States is blessed with some of the most fertile farmlands the world has ever seen, namely the Midwest, and California’s central valley, so our cliffs were a high starting point to jump from, but the degradation of our resource bases is just as certain under current trajectories.  In the story of human agriculture so much of it starts in the Fertile Crescent and if we can find a regenerative way forward there that is fertile ground for all us to consider the change we need to live wherever we are.  


Help support GuanXi Media

modern agriculture 現代農業 新月沃土 fertile crescent 土方工程 earthworks 混養 polyculture 農林業 agroforestry regenerative farming regenerative agriculture sustainable farming sustainable agriculture 再生農業 可持續農業 可持續生態
Ryan Copeland

Ryan Copeland

Regenerative Ecological Designer

With roots in Texas and Taiwan, Ryan travels the world to educate and inspire people on sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.