Nuanced picture emerges of IS land seizure effect on agriculture in Iraq and Syria

28 Apr 2017



Land seizures by Islamic State (IS) in areas of Iraq and Syria have had mixed effects on agriculture, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers from Lund University, Sweden, found the emergence of IS and the related violence had reshaped the agricultural landscape in Iraq and Syria, but that low intensity agriculture had generally been maintained, and in some places, even expanded.

However, they also identified areas where cropland had turned fallow, and high intensity agriculture had declined.

The researchers employed satellite data and a map of the spatial extent of IS from the Institute for the Study of War to identify the areas controlled by IS, and provide a 13 year reference period from 2000 against which to compare the situation in June 2015.

The results, published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, showed that in June 2015, IS controlled an area of nearly 110,000 km2, covering 15 per cent of Iraq’s cropland, and 34 per cent of Syria’s agricultural land, where crops range from cereals including wheat and barley, to vegetables and cash crops such as cotton and tobacco.

Lead author Dr Lina Eklund, from Lund University, said: “Changes to land systems over time can be through slow means such as economic growth or urbanisation; sudden shocks like environmental disasters, or through displacement and land abandonment caused by armed conflict.

“So with the conflict in Syria leading to around 12 million refugees, and Iraq seeing 3.2 million internally displaced people by 2015, you might expect to see the agricultural activity in the parts of Iraq and Syria occupied by IS decimated by land abandonment and the direct impact of the conflict.

“But the picture we’ve uncovered here is far more nuanced. Overall, in IS controlled areas we found cropland expansion in 2015 in areas that had been fallow for a long period. However, on a more detailed level we found cropland turned fallow in many areas, and a shift from high to low intensity farming.”

The results highlight the fact that armed conflict does not have one single effect on land use – instead the effect depends on local contexts.

Although the implications of land seizure by IS on agriculture production remain unclear, Dr Eklund pointed out: “The information on land use change is crucial, as it can be used by policymakers to help ensure aid and food security programs are based on quantitative information, rather than narratives.”