“I want to organise tours that have 14 days of hiking, 14 guides and 14 home stays,“ Lawin Mohammad tells me about the new Zagros Mountain Trail, a project he co-founded in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
It is as if he is making up for lost time. Welcoming and sheltering travellers from around the world is an important part of Kurdish and Iraqi culture. But these days, persistent instability means the tourists aren’t coming.
The trail, now almost finished, is quite literally trying to work around this tough past. At points, it guides visitors through one of the most land-mined areas on the planet, a legacy of many terrible conflicts in the late 20th century.
The trail's organisers think it can be part of a solution to such problems. Mr Mohammad tells me that he wants to use the momentum behind the project to create an NGO called the Zagros Mountain Association. “If we go to donors, embassies and government officials as an organisation, not individuals, we can make more of an impression.”
The trail is also a 240 kilometre-long reminder of the huge environmental problems confronting Iraq. It passes flora and fauna threatened by mismanagement and desertified, emptying villages.
As it nears completion, excitement is mounting. Mr Mohammad and his fellow co-founder Leon McCarron, an adventurer and author, are preparing a final round of GPS mapping, signposting and consultations with communities on the route. Its promise is getting attention beyond the world of hiking. There are hopes the model might catch on elsewhere and help build an eco-tourism movement in Iraq.
The Kurdistan region's relative stability could make it an important testing ground for similar projects. Many are already under way. On a recent tour of the Qaradagh protected area on the north-eastern border with Iran, Korsh Ararat, a conservationist and scholar of local bird species based at the University of Sulaimani, told me about his many plans and the long way to go before tourists and authorities understand what a sustainable holiday really is.
“Eco-tourism is about more than having a barbecue in nature,” he says. “The government might think all you need is a good paved road into a national park but it’s about far more.” Rather than merely build, authorities need to consult experts, invest in the long term and, crucially, do the harder task of drawing up and enforcing laws to protect nature.
Qaradagh needs them. Surveying the park from one of its many peaks, Mr Ararat points out a new, brightly shining illegal summer house that had popped up on top of a hill, and a scattering of leftover barbecues.
He is frank about Qaradagh's precarious situation. He and his colleagues are doing their best to fight back. They have built an eco-lodge in the hope it will eventually attract paying visitors and offer an example across Iraq of how to build sustainably. They have also worked with locals in a bid to stamp out illegal hunting. A preliminary international investigation in which Mr Ararat was involved found that Kurdistan is the second most-affected area in the Middle East by the practice.
The expansion of legal hunting in the areas bordering the park, however, is being considered and Mr Ararat makes a strong environmental case for it. Hunters from around the world could target overpopulated animals that are damaging the area, in particular wild boar. While controversial, similar models have proven to be lucrative in countries such as South Africa and Canada. Careful monitoring would be needed, however. Many local hunters use military-grade weapons and night-vision goggles previously supplied by the international coalition. Wildlife does not stand a chance. Illegal hunting has played a role in the near-extinction of one of the region’s most precious species, the Persian leopard, alongside deforestation and the animal’s value on the black market.
Many of these factors have been made worse by economic troubles. Eco-tourism could help. Mr Mohammad of the Zagros Mountain Trail told me how one of the project’s guides used to be a poacher. “He is now paid by us and has turned into a committed environmentalist, fighting for the species he used to kill, trying to convince other hunters to stop.”
Back in Qaradagh, Mr Ararat shows me sustainable, small-scale dams that NGO Nature Iraq and volunteers are building using mud. They are quick to construct, cost as little as $3,000 and can be covered by trees. The idea is to keep water for animals in the increasingly dry environment. This supports local bird species, many of which are endemic to the area, and, in turn, creates a remarkable zone for international bird watchers.
In the history of Iraq’s water, the sustainable dam is a novelty. Few things symbolise the short-sighted ambition of the country’s 20th century industrial frenzy as a spree in dam-building. It also happened in neighbouring Turkey and Iran. The latter is thought to have built more than 600 in the past three decades.
Downstream, water-scarce Iraq is feeling this legacy hard. Nabil Musa, the founder of Waterkeepers Iraq and Kurdistan, believes eco-tourism can help. His approach is straightforward: by getting more people on and in Iraq’s waterways, environmentalists can help to protect and raise awareness. He offers tours on paddle boards and swimming excursions, which are often combined with picking up litter and lectures on the threats to water in Iraq.
He also speaks about its therapeutic power: “During the Saddam era I was barely able to travel anywhere. When I was finally able to explore my country, the water became a form of therapy.” On his tours he aims to share the same experience, in the hope it might reconnect Iraqis, many of whom are isolated in cities, to the environment. He believes doing so could profoundly change society. “Nature is linked to politics. Without good politics, it is hard to love nature. Nature can be a form of therapy for Iraq.”
An informal popular movement is emerging elsewhere. There are many social media groups that organise excursions into nature. But they still need guidance. Mr Ararat stressed that more people need to be educated in how to make trips safe for the environment, even for those with good intentions. Like Mr Musa, his view of eco-tourism in Iraq is not merely about conserving nature, but also the people whose right it is to experience its beauty.
This is where the importance of the domestic market comes in. Eco-tourism would not be solely concerned with attracting lucrative holidaymakers from abroad. It is also about creating the next generation of desperately needed Iraqi conservationists. For Mr Ararat, who teaches them, this is the ultimate goal: “It’s not so much money that we need to protect nature, but people."