ISIS scorched-earth tactics devastated Iraqi farmland

Destruction of livelihood still burdens farmers one year after victory over ISIS

An Iraqi man stands on a dry field in an area affected by drought in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq, some twenty-five kilometres from Najaf, on July 2, 2018. Facing an unusually harsh drought, the agriculture ministry last month suspended the cultivation of rice, corn and other cereals, which need large quantities of water. The decision has slashed the income of amber rice farmers, who usually earn between 300,000 and 500,000 dinars ($240 to $400) a year per dunum (quarter-acre, 0.1 hectares) of land. / AFP / Haidar HAMDANI
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The legacy of ISIS' three-year reign over large parts of Iraq is extensive, affecting not only the country's vulnerable social fabric and fatigued political system but also decimating its farmland.

As part of their violent campaign, ISIS sabotaged irrigation systems and wells, destroyed farming infrastructure and vehicles, and set fire to crops and plants.

A methodical campaign of fear and violence was compounded by the destruction of livelihoods. In a report released on Wednesday, Amnesty International defined these actions as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The war against ISIS, says the report, severely impacted Iraq’s agricultural production. According to Amnesty estimates, production in 2018 is an estimated 40 per cent lower than it was four years ago and up to 90 per cent of livestock was lost in some areas.

"Our investigation reveals how IS carried out deliberate, wanton destruction of Iraq’s rural environment around Sinjar Mountain, wreaking havoc on the long-term livelihoods of Yazidis and other agrarian communities," said Richard Pearshouse, Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International. "Today, hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers and their families can’t return home because IS went out of its way to render farming impossible," he added, using a different acronym for ISIS.


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Between 2014 and 2017, most towns between Ramadi and the northern city of Mosul were damaged or destroyed in fighting and many of their residents displaced. Much of Mosul is still destroyed more than a year after the militants were expelled. The government estimates the total cost of the country's reconstruction at $88 billion.

But while the damage to Iraq's countryside has been as widespread as the acts of urban destruction, the effects have been less publicised. And as farmlands diminish, Iraq’s wheat import bill will rise – extra spending the country can ill afford.

According to the report, ISIS fighters wreaked havoc by tossing rubble, oil and other foreign objects into wells. They also stole or destroyed pumps, cables, generators and transformers and burned or chopped down orchards.

Destroyed buildings are seen in the city of Sinjar, Iraq November 24, 2017. Picture taken November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Raya Jalabi

Northeast of Fallujah, in the small town of Karma, one land-owner returned to his farm after being displaced by ISIS for two years to find that 600 of his 1,000 palm trees had been burned during clashes between ISIS and Iraqi forces. The irrigation canals that provided water to the farms had been destroyed too, exacerbating the pre-existing effects of drought.

North of Karma in the Yazidi village of Snuni, ISIS fighters had poured oil down one irrigation well and thrown debris in another. According to the report, the destruction was deliberate and on a broad scale. In and around Snuni alone, up to 450 irrigation wells were put out of use, officials told Amnesty.

“[It was] pure destruction. I had a well – 220 metres deep – as well as a generator and an irrigation pipe system. [ISIS] threw rubble in my well and filled it to the top," former farmer Hadi told Amnesty. "My trees were chopped down – I could see the [chainsaw] marks. The irrigation system – from the pump to the pipes – was stolen. They did this to send a message: that you have nothing to return to, so if you survive, don’t even think of coming back."

A female Iraqi farmer digs with a shovel in a field in Diwaniyah, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on April 2, 2018.
Iraqi farmers have traditionally lived off their land with no need for wells, but a creeping drought is now threatening agriculture and the livelihoods of nearly a quarter of the country's population in the southern agricultural provinces of Diwaniyah, Muthanna and Missan. / AFP PHOTO / Haidar HAMDANI

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the total area which has historically been used for agricultural production in Iraq is about eight million hectares – almost 67 per cent of the potential cultivable area. However, due to the countless hurdles the country has faced, it is estimated that the average area currently farmed each year ranges from three to four million hectares.

"There is nothing left. Now the house is destroyed, and all the trees burned down," Majdal, a farmer in his mid-50s, told Amnesty researchers. "We had 100 olive trees, but when I went I didn’t see a single tree in any direction. They were chopped down and burnt… they wanted us to lose everything. They didn’t want us to be able to come back to our land.”