Only one in four farm households returned home in Iraq since 2014
Research by FAO and IOM casts light on obstacles faced in the aftermath of conflict in Iraq
Rome: Iraq has been suffering from a protracted crisis driven by conflicts that started with the American occupation in 2003. In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) occupation of a large portion of the country caused huge destruction and human displacement.
The ISIL occupation of large portions of Iraq in 2014 worsened economic, environmental and security conditions. The double shock of ISIL and decreasing oil prices severely reduced growth, diverted resources away from productive investments and increased poverty and unemployment.
In 2017, the Government of Iraq declared that ISIL was defeated.
According to a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) report of 2019, 11 million of the country’s population of 36 million lived in conflict-affected areas, with 6.7 million requiring humanitarian assistance in 2015.
The conflict worsened the already existing adverse economic, environmental and security conditions through the massive destruction of infrastructure and economic activities including the agricultural sector. As a result, Iraq became more dependent on costly food imports from international markets putting huge pressure on the country’s national budget.
The Iraqi population had steadily grown at a rate of almost 2.8 per cent, reaching 39.3 million in 2018. Although predominantly urban with the rural population accounting for almost 30 per cent, agriculture remains very important for the Iraqi economy despite its contribution to GDP being just between 2-4 per cent. It is a major source of livelihood and employment for the rural population who account for 30 per cent of the country’s population. According to a 2017 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly 87 per cent of rural households were engaged in agricultural production and related activities prior to the crisis.
However, the damage and losses incurred within the sector are threatening the prospects of agriculture as a source of income and livelihood for the rural population in the conflict-affected areas. According to a World Bank study of 2018, the gross damage incurred in the seven directly affected governorates (Anbar, Babel, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninevah and Salaheddin) totals USD 45.7 billion, of which USD 2.1 billion was incurred in the agriculture sector. These seven are very important for the food basket of Iraq as they produced 72 per cent of national wheat production in 2013. They are also very important producers of barley, date palm and vegetables. They included almost two-thirds of the total cropped area of the country (68 per cent in 2013). They also produced 54 per cent of date palm production and they were home to 77 per cent of the total of vegetable greenhouses, 72 per cent of the greenhouse growers, 80 per cent of low tunnels of vegetable production, and 79 per cent of low tunnel growers in 2013.
Findings from an IOM study on the ISIL crisis in 2019 suggested that displaced populations who were previously farming faced challenges in resuming their agricultural livelihoods. They tend to rely more on off-farm sources of income as income from agriculture was either absent or not reliable enough to sustain their needs.
As of October 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration Displacement Tracking Matrix (IOM DTM) of October 2020, nearly 1.3 million people remained displaced within Iraq. This number did account for Iraqi citizens who left the country due to the conflict, over half of whom have been displaced for more than three years, with the prospect of protracted displacement, particularly for those living in camps.
Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released another study investigating obstacles to displaced farmers in Iraq returning to their work after conflict forced them to leave their homes. It found that despite increased numbers of returnees since 2018, the return process has slowed down, especially among the households who were involved in farming before 2014.
The report titled “Are Iraqi Displaced Farmers Returning to Agriculture?” relies on data collected in 2020 from 774 households that were farming before 2014 but were subsequently displaced due to the conflict. It found that only around one in four agricultural households had returned to their areas of origin by 2020, six years after the country declared the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which wrought billions of damage in Iraq’s breadbasket regions.
Even fewer had been able to resume their farming activities, due to safety concerns and lost assets but also to a number of obstacles linked to local agrifood markets and access to credit. However, based on recent government estimates, the scale and pace of return have improved notably in the past few years.
“The study aims to adequately inform decision-makers on critical areas of policy and investment support, also identifying durable solutions for the displaced farming families,” Ahmad Sadiddin of FAO’s Agrifood Economics Division lead author of the study, said.
The results, which may be salient in other post-conflict situations around the world, suggest that restoring security and reconstructing agricultural assets and infrastructure are pressing requirements for farmers to resume their agricultural activities. If local conditions are not improved in the areas from which people have fled, returns may not be sustainable.
The joint FAO-IOM study focused on seven governorates – Anbar, Babel, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninevah and Salaheddin – which cover almost two-thirds of the country’s total cropped areas and a higher share of its wheat production.
It used longitudinal data from surveys of more than 3800 households conducted since 2016 and a focused survey of 774 households who were farming before 2014 but were subsequently displaced.
Massive destruction of farm assets and lack of access to markets productive services and finance are major factors hindering household returns and the resumption of agricultural livelihoods, along with security concerns. Farming households lost on average 83 per cent of their farm assets. Yet the report found that, with affordable and available credit and capacity development, they would resume farming, and far more would do so if they had the resources to cover basic needs.
Other factors affecting the prospects for resuming farming activities include age and the market impact of the surge of imported foods that Iraq has relied on in the wake of the conflict, the study shows. For example, younger farmers who did return to their lands are less likely to intensify their cropping efforts than older ones, due to less experience or lower interest in the activity. Bolstered extension services could help raise interest by younger farmers, as could restoration of rural services and non-farm employment opportunities.
A striking finding is that more returnee farmers cited the low prices offered for agricultural products as a greater challenge than lack of access to seeds, feed or equipment, and even to irrigation. Prices of subsidized imported food may be low but they are putting huge pressures on the national budget, and while they provide cheap – but poorly targeted – food baskets to ensure food security they contribute to depress grain prices for local producers and hindered investment.
Currently, non-farm informal jobs, business and public employment cover more than 80 per cent of the income of rural returnee households, and the share that depends on agriculture has plummeted. Meanwhile, unemployment in Iraq’s urban areas has risen above that in rural areas, highlighting the broader benefits of restoring rural livelihoods.
“Investing in agriculture can create more stable sources of income and offer rural opportunities to remain in their rural areas rather than migrating to the cities,” the report said.
– global bihari bureau