As fierce battle rages between pens and loaders; Will Goyzha hills be saved?

08-06-2024 07:00

 Peregraf- Ghamgin Mohammed

As loaders and excavators of a company digging further into the hills of Goyzha for the purpose of constructing a residential complex, the voices of the protest front are rising against the project trying to challenge the company. The company relies on the "approval of 14 official authorities" for expanding its residential plan.

The heated fighting between the company and the dissidents’ front has intensified since the end of May this year over the mountains and other hills of the Goyzha mountain range in northern Sulaimanyah, The first side, namely Qaiwan Group, desires to keep on digging and cutting natural mountains and hills for a residential project, while the second side, names, activists and authors, urges to stop the project. 

The major dispute, which has been reflected mostly on social media networks, in other words, the issue across the mainstream media and in the official meetings is relatively absent.   No common understanding has been grown between the two sides or by the government. Furthermore, is it ambiguous how the outstanding dispute will be settled. As the dissenting voices for protecting the Goyzha Mountain continue to boom out, the company has not yet stopped working.

The housing project is being implemented by Qaiwan Company. After popular voices protests emerged against the project, Qaiwan has officially commenced publishing widespread advertisement for the upcoming residential complex.

"What Qaiwan and its counterparts are carrying out is prohibited. Building residential projects on the mountains and hills of Goyzha is illegal according to the law of environmental protection and improvement of the Kurdistan Region," said Ma'roof Majid, the Head of Aynda Organization for Environmental Protection told Peregraf.

Law No. 8 of 2008 on the Protection and Improvement of the Environment of the Kurdistan Region prohibits conversion of agricultural land, pastures and forests, or habitats of biodiversity into development projects and their destruction.

The protests have become widespread to an extent that they are not limited to Qaiwan's current residential project as dissenters call for the complete eradication of all companies and projects which have trespassed on the nature of the mountains and hills of Goyzha and Azmr even if it's a bit. Furthermore, the encroachments across the projects built in northeastern Sulaymaniyah to the northwest of the city must be revoked.

Qaiwan project is located behind another residential project of the company called Sulaimani Heights, on two hills in the extended hill chain of Goyzha, one on the right side of the Hawari Shar road towards the Peshraw tunnel and the other is located on the left side of Dabashan road towards the tunnel. The area of ​​the two lands dedicated for project is 470 dunams.

Shabaz Sadiq, project manager of Qaiwan Group, informed Peregraf that the residential project is complementary to the Sulaimani Heights Project, in addition, he confirmed that the project has received the unanimous approval of all relevant parties which consist entirely of 14 formal authorities.

In opposition to voices of protest against the project, a number of individuals lend considerable support to the project through publishing articles and other forms of expression, on top of that, they argue that the company's act of cutting the mountains and hills of Goyzha is justifiable as it is a form of beautifying the city and expanding its green spaces.

Mohammed Jalil, Director General of Roads, Reconstruction and Housing of Sulaymaniyah province, told Peregraf that the project has obtained approval from the KRG’s Council of Ministers and the High Investment Board; consequently, the Sulaymaniyah Municipal Council lacks the authority to halt the project. Jalil added that they have merely been able to "determine the working scope for the company with the aim of protecting of the forest part of the area."

The protest against the Goyzha Hills' cutting and excavation initiated with forming a committee of advocacy, namely Protection Board of Sulaymaniyah Environment and Land,  that held a press conference in the first place, furthermore, the committee held a two-hour meeting with the Sulaymaniyah Municipality in order to halt the project, but no desired results were achieved. The sounds of protest were getting louder, consequently, the committee evolved into the "Protect Goyzha Team," consisting of 30 civil society organizations and over 250 individuals from various fields such as environmental experts, activists, politicians, lawyers, and journalists and others.

Journalist Shwan Mohammed, a member of the Protection Board of Sulaymaniyah Environment and Land, revealed that they have met with the Municipal Council for two demands, one of which is to suspend all the residential projects being built on Mount Goyzha.

"The second request was the establishment a committee of inquiry to investigate closely the environmental violations of whole housing projects being built on Goyzha Mountain, and across the Hawari Shar Road to Welayer village and to the east of Sulaymaniyah," Mohammed told Peregraf.

According to the United Nations, the mountains are a natural jewel and should be appreciated. Mountains, as a part of the ecosystem, are the home to a variety of biodiversity reserves and pave the way for supplying fresh water, clean energy and continuation of agriculture. However, they are facing destruction due to climate change, pollution and which in return poses a far greater danger to both people and the planet.

Yarivan Shaswar, an expert in the field of air pollution, in a post on her Facebook page revealed that Cities resembling Sulaymaniyah must prioritize total air movement to prevent air pollutant concentrations from increasing in the city, which is caused by high and low air pressure in the mountains and slopes. Conversely, unhealthy construction is attributed to 23 percent of air pollution and 40 percent of water pollution.

In exchange for the construction of the residential project by Qaiwan Company, the government has requested the company to undertake several service projects in Sulaymaniyah as compensation for the acquisition of the two Goyzha hills.

"This new residential project will be implemented in exchange for the redesign of the two-sided Peshraw Tunnel road and its implementation with a length of two kilometers, as well as, the completion of part of the 100-meter street in Sulaymaniyah known as Baban Street in the back of the Sulaimani Heights Residential Project and Chaviland to reach the first phase of the 100-meter main road in Damrkan area, "suggested the Project Manager of Qaiwan Group of Companies.

Protect Goyzha Team has launched the #ProtectGoyzha hashtag on social media networks and regularly shares numerous posts regarding the issue. In their latest message, with around 300 signatures of organizations and individuals, demanding the cessation of the housing projects that are "anti-environmental". They emphasized that the mountainous land granted to Qaiwan for a residential project, on the grounds that the land is rocky and barren, previously had several springs and streams, additionally, there were more than eight donums of fig, apricot, peach, berry and other trees between the two hills.

"All construction projects on the slopes of Mount Goyzha must be halted immediately, irrespective of which investors and companies are implementing them... the whole legal and executive institutions of the Kurdistan Regional Government is required to prevent all environmental violations through enforcing Law No. 8 of 2008 and declining environmentally destructive projects," the team said in a statement.

The pro-project front and Qaiwan Company, on social networks, argue that it is superior to turn the rocky, sloped, barren lands into modern projects, instead of using arable flat and plain lands with agricultural fertilizers in southern Sulaimaniyah.

However, Abdulstar Majid, KRG's former agriculture minister, claimed in a written statement that, modifying the natural status and gender of mountains, forests, and rocky lands is restricted under Law No. 10 of 2012, "unless it serves a significant strategic project that is of public interest."

Qaiwan's project offers villas, houses and residential apartments at commercial and market rates. The project has obtained the final approvals from KRG’s agriculture, environment, investment and planning departments, ensuring compliance with all legal procedures prior to receiving the green light from the Sulaimaniyah Municipality.

"The Sulaimaniyah Municipality prohibits the construction of legally problematic projects," Zardasht Rafiq, spokesman for the Sulaimaniyah Municipality, informed Peregraf, indicating that the Qaiwan project has no legal issues.

The protest front resorted to the public prosecutor general to stand alongside one another with the aim of opposing the project, while making constant efforts to prevent additional cutting and excavation of Goyzha Mountain through the official government channels.

"The presence of the public prosecutor's representative during our meeting with the municipality was a positive step towards comprehending the situation, however, the representative did not adopt any position on halting the project and agreed that the project has a legal license to continue operating," Mohammed said.

Despite government’s green lighting and signatures of approval of the project, protesters argue that Goyzha Mountain is the hallmark of Sulaimaniyah holding significant historical value for the city and should be preserved since what attracts visitors to Sulaimaniyah is the natural beauty of Goyzha, not tall buildings or residential projects.

Farooq Sheikh Baqi, a university professor and planning expert, revealed to Peregraf that this is not the only project, numerous projects have been built in the foothills of Goyzha distorting the city's aesthetic on daily basis. He added that despite the face that Goyzha Mountain being designated as a protected zone per the city's master plan and no modification is permissible. "The company altered the land’s natural status through KRG’s ministries and received a legal license to operate".

"There is no country in the world where the country's hallmarks are devalued and destroyed except in the Kurdistan Region," Sheikh Baqi said.

A report prepared by Stop Organization in 2020, with the assistance of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) found that the encroachment on agricultural and natural lands in the Kurdistan Region reached 100,000 dunams, of which 75,000 were for meadows and rocky lands. The report correspondingly highlighted that from 2012 to 2020 alone, encroachment on such lands increased by 328 percent.

In a Facebook post, Khalid Suleiman, an environmental and climate change journalist, criticized the justification that the project site is barren and rocky. In the article, Suleiman highlighted several examples regarding the significance of mountains, saying "mountains are teeming with life having their own society. There are communities of plants and microorganisms in the soil that humans walk on and cannot see. Moreover, the rain flows down the mountains washing away the soil and carries essential nutrients from one place to another. This is vital part of the Earth's cycle and we get energy and food from it."

In the Kurdistan Region, land is awarded to projects based on the type of projects and the level of the map. Construction projects requires merely the approval of the municipality and provincial investment board or relevant KRG’s ministries.

Chaws Abdulhadi, Director General of planning at the KRG's Ministry of Municipalities, told Peregraf "There are two types of projects in the Kurdistan Region: If the project is at the sectoral map level, obtaining the approval of the provincial mapping is required, but if the project is a change at the master plan level, the project must be approved at the ministry level."

Abdulhadi pointed out that he lacks information concerning the Qaiwan project, how its location is explained on the map and how it is decided and determined in the Sulaimaniyah master plan.

As per law any land in the Kurdistan Region that is not owned by a party returns to the KRG’s Ministry of Finance, but it is crucial to note that the plains and mountains are not purely the property of human beings, but also the habitat of animals and birds and must be preserved.

The Head of Aynda Organization for Environmental Protection declares that the housing projects being built by Qaiwan and other companies on Goyzha Mountain are degrading the environment and nature, "We must blame the relevant authorities in the government for granting legal permission for these projects. Such projects are not launched only in the main cities, but also in the districts and the sub-districts."

The KRG’s Environmental Protection Board's 2021 report discloses a reduction in forest and greenery spaces in the Kurdistan Region due to climate change and urban sprawl, particularly in mountainous areas.

"Previous experiences has shown us that halting this project, its similar ones, and preventing environmental violations require a political or party decision," Majid said.