Making Iraq's Marshes a World Heritage Site

By Bridget Guarasci
Submitted to Session P4776 (Iraq's Many Pasts, Iraq's Many Presents: Memory, Archive, and Representation, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
When UNESCO declared Iraq’s marshes a World Heritage Site based on its global biodiversity value in 2016, the Iraqi government widely celebrated the designation as a resounding state triumph on a global scale. However, the World Heritage conferral raises serious questions about Iraqi sovereignty. Iraq’s marshes lie in proximity to a third of the country’s petroleum resources and its two major rivers. Based on more than two years of ethnographic research, this paper argues that during Iraq’s reconstruction development capitalists selectively invested in Iraq in ways that fragmented the state into areas felled to ruins from sustained combat operations, like Ramadi, Falluja, Tikrit, and Mosul, and pinpointed territories vibrant with capital such as the marshes.

Under World Heritage, the Iraqi state accedes to govern in perpetuity its wetlands ecologies—subterranean, terrestrial, and atmospheric spaces—as global domain according to criteria set by UNESCO. In biodiversity conservation economies, states do not possess or control commodities as they would agrarian products, but manage species of flora and fauna as ecological, and therefore supra-state, worldly assets. Such 21st century economic rationalizations of the marshes share a long imperial history. However, while British and Ottoman empires sought to build an agriculture industry by harvesting wheat or rice commodities from the marshes, UNESCO’s heritage plan anticipates tourist economies of visual and experiential splendor where migratory birds, towering reeds, and wetlands lagoons stand as testament to Iraq’s embrace of late liberal capitalist values.

Global biodiversity conservation initiatives like World Heritage seek to arrest the catastrophic planetary impact of “the anthropocene,” an epoch of time that geologists and atmosphere scientists describe as anthropogenic wherein human activity has had an environmental impact so profound that it shapes the geology of earth. By examining how Iraq’s marshes became World Heritage, this paper demonstrates that acts of biodiversity conservation are every bit as anthropogenic as the actions they seek to prevent. Environmentalism too terraforms the planet.