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Restoring Eden: Brian Helmuth Talks about Collaborating in Iraq

Feb 11 2018

In 2011, Leopold fellow Brian Helmuth met with a visiting Iraqi scientist, and she told him a story that changed his career.

One of the greatest ecological disasters in history happened quietly in southern Iraq, at the site widely considered the biblical Garden of Eden. Saddam Hussein sought to punish a group called the Marsh Arabs for rising up against him in the early 1990s, and he did so with devastating effectiveness. By diverting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, he destroyed a rare marsh ecosystem in the desert that was once the size of Israel, and with it untold numbers species of animals and a way of life.

After the overthrow of Hussein’s dictatorship, a group of Iraqi scientists began assessing the devastation and discussing how the marshlands might be restored, among them Nadia Fawzi from the University of Basrah. She invited Helmuth to join them: “Come, we’ll talk and show you around.”

“I promised myself that I would not become one of the ‘one-hit wonders’ who swept in ostensibly from on high full of Western wisdom and gadgets, only to swoop out just as rapidly,” he says.

Helmuth, who is now a professor of marine and environmental science at Northeastern University, has been able to connect his Iraqi colleagues to USAID funding to assist with a biodiversity monitoring plan. Already 2,000 square kilometers of the marshland had been restored thanks to the efforts of the nongovernmental organization Nature Iraq. In 2016, UNESCO added the region to the World Heritage List.

“The conversation that began in 2011 is a humbling reminder of the power of persistence and personal connections,” he says. Helmuth recently visited the site to engage in multilateral talks with stakeholders and policymakers. During those meetings, he learned a valuable lesson about leadership in a different cultural context. In his own words: "I met with everyone from academics to oil company executives to NGOs to government ministers, and for the first few days could not figure out why a people so incredibly impacted by their natural environment were seemingly struggling to see the “big picture” of how science can play a role in problem solving. It is painfully obvious in hindsight, but at some point I realized it is because the idea of distributed leadership was almost totally foreign to most of the people in the room- they expected one person to make the final call, and were each arguing to make sure that their point was being made the loudest."

The slideshow above contains some pictures from Helmuth's trip to the area in February 2018. We recommend viewing it in full screen.

In partnership with Arizona State University and the Museum of Science in Boston, Helmuth is now working on building a framework to facilitate consideration of stakeholder needs and values. The objective, he says, is "not so much to solve the issues they were facing, but to practice listening to each other in a nonthreatening way." Helmuth also took advantage of this recent trip by visiting the brand new UNESCO site.