In 2014, the world became aware of a new militant group, known as the Islamic State (ISIS), which by June of that year had declared the establishment of a caliphate – a state based on “Islamic principles” – in Iraq and Syria. The group took control of large areas of land, and by September 2014, was in control of a large share of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin.

By June 2015, ISIS had taken control of approximately 110,000 km2 of land across Syria and Iraq. The majority of that land, 86 percent, consisted of uncultivated land, while eight percent was cropland. By the harvest season of 2015, the group was in control of fifteen percent of Iraq’s cropland, and thirty-four percent of Syria’s.

Armed conflict often has negative consequences for agriculture and food security as land becomes inaccessible or people leave their homes in search of security. With millions fleeing the horror of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it is reasonable to assume that large areas of agricultural land have been abandoned and left fallow.

This conclusion is seemingly bolstered by reports that farmers in Syria and Iraq have been unable to sow or harvest due to instability, causing a deterioration in the food security situation. Analysts have debated how long it will take for the agricultural sector to recover, an important issue for post-conflict reconstruction.

But, an in-depth study conducted by Lund University reveals that the reasons for food instability in Iraq and Syria are not one would predict.

Through a study of satellite images, my colleagues and I investigated how land use has changed inside ISIS seized areas. We identified areas with winter croplands (such as wheat and barley), more intensely cropped areas (with two harvest periods), areas with little or no vegetation (e.g. fallow areas), and areas with natural vegetation for each year between 2000 and 2015. This has allowed us to develop an overall picture of the areas’ agricultural activity and, more specifically, to identify where major changes to land use have occurred.

The results were not quite what we expected. While we did find some land abandonment – fallow areas inside ISIS zones that had previously been cultivated – a majority of the pre-2015 cropland had been maintained. The most common land use change in 2015 was actually fallow land turned into cropland, a change seen in nearly five percent of the area. This meant that, in general, cropland increased after ISIS took control of these areas, a result that contradicts many reports about the effects of conflict on agriculture.

So why was agricultural activity maintained or even increased in some areas? As a previous study has shown, agriculture is important revenue for ISIS, so the group has a vested interest in maintaining productivity in the agricultural sector. In December 2014, ISIS issued a fatwa declaring that the agricultural lands of apostates who had fled could be seized as war booty and cultivated under ISIS control. As another way to control food production, ISIS has reportedly forced land owners to cultivate their land.

For high-intensity cropland in ISIS zones, the situation is slightly different. Our results showed that twenty-five percent of high-intensity cropland inside ISIS zones had changed to low-intensity cropland. This reduction in intensity was seen in other parts of Syria and Iraq, where as much as 52 percent of high-intensity cropland changed to low-intensity agriculture.

Maintaining high-intensity cropland requires knowledge, man-power, and access to fertilizers and technology. While conditions for maintaining this type of agriculture may be compromised, results suggest they are still better inside ISIS zones than in the rest of Iraq and Syria. This raises further questions about how the group secures access to agricultural inputs and whether it will be able to maintain this type of agriculture in the long run.

Since we do not know who is cultivating the land and who has access to the harvests, it is impossible to say whether increases in agricultural land use will mean improved food security for the people living in the area. What we can say, however, is that there are food security issues and that these are a result of access and affordability, rather than reduced production.

Contrary to what most people would expect, conflict does not necessarily lead to less agricultural activity. As the ISIS example clearly shows, it is critical to understand the underlying dynamics of armed conflict and land use.

Read our full report “How conflict affects land use: agricultural activity in areas seized by the Islamic State”.

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