Life hasn't been easy for the Ma'dan, or "Marsh Arabs," of Iraq's ancient wetlands. First the marsh area where they have made their homes -- and their living -- was drained in a vindictive move by Saddam Hussein, then drought threatened to wipe away the gains of the past few years. But a grassroots environmental group is working against the odds to try and bring about a sort of "second creation story" in the area thought by many to be the home of the biblical Garden of Eden.
A "60 Minutes" crew recently traveled to Iraq to tour the marshlands with Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American engineer who grew up amid the reeds and has returned after 30 years to try and help restore the nearly moribund ecosystem -- and the ancient culture that depends on it. According to the "60 Minutes" report, thousands of Marsh Arabs have returned to the area since water started flowing into it again in 2003 and are trying to rebuild the small islands of dirt and reed that their people have lived on for generations.
Life Amid The Reeds
"These people are restoring the marshes, not because they're tree huggers, like I am. They're restoring the marshes because they are trying to live," Alwash told the CBS news team. "It's not because they love the birds flying or the reeds look nice. It's about livelihood."
The non-governmental organization Alwash founded, Nature Iraq is lobbying the Ministry of Water Resources to re-establish water flow in the country's marsh areas and will monitor the outcome of such efforts; conducting biodiversity area assessments to identify key habitats to protect; using satellite imagery to pinpoint problem areas in the marshlands; and conducting water-quality monitoring. It is also helping train ministry employees, university students, and other NGOs in plant and bird identification, scientific report writing, and other skills needed to help build the capacity of the country's neglected human infrastructure.
The Nov. 15 "60 Minutes" segment "Resurrecting Eden."
Restoring Marshlands Into A 'New Eden'
Despite the very basic work that needs to be done to get Iraq's would-be environmental protectors equipped to meet the challenges facing them, Alwash also has big dreams for the marshlands, which he envisions becoming Iraq's first national park. The project, dubbed "New Eden," would "conserve the ancient traditions and rich cultural heritage of the region" while instituting a "sustainable marshland restoration program that acts in concert with socio-economic development of the entire region" through activities such as low-impact, small-scale fish farming and tourism.
Another element of the project would build "green villages" to house returning refugees and "provide such services as potable water, sanitation, health and veterinary care, access to quick transportation, electricity, and communication services inclusive of Internet access. Rather than view this as a conflict between the Marsh Arab traditional self-sustaining lifestyle and modern technology, Nature Iraq sees this as a unique opportunity to intersect 'green' technologies with traditional and tried-and-true sustainable environmental knowledge."
This all may have sounded a bit pie-in-the-sky to the "60 Minutes" reporter, who questioned how realistic such ambitions were in the face of the conflict still consuming the country. "The war is not gonna last forever," Alwash replied. "If you're gonna dream, dream big. It's free."
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